Collective Creativity

STEaMing: 21st-century education

Creating a technology-shaping curriculum that positions a traditional art college as central to the tech industry

In 2010, Mark Breitenberg, then provost of California College of the Arts (CCA), alongside president Steve Beale, commissioned Kristian Simsarian to establish an innovative interaction design curriculum. The intention was to reinvigorate the century-old institution with deeper technological relevance and to position the college as a leader in this new field.

We knew we wanted to create something different—a potent combination of our small, socially engaged San Francisco art college and the technological design culture of Silicon Valley. CCA was already known for excellent craft and for curricular engagement with the local community, making it seem natural to offer students an experience combining the best of art-college training with the teaching potential of local professional designers. For students, the programs enable rewarding and potentially lucrative careers while also fulfilling the college’s mission of creating positive social change through the arts.

Not many programs get to start from scratch, but this greenfield approach gave us the latitude to work as a human-centered startup inside the college. In leading this effort, Kristian stepped away from a decade-long career as a digital innovation and business leader at IDEO to begin his new career as an “educational intrapreneur.”

By designing the curriculum around a holistic approach of the hands, head, and heart, we are able to connect our practical teaching approach with our aspirational theory of social change. To effect change from within the industry, we intend the programs to give students three things: 1) the handcraft skills to earn a seat at the table of the most impactful organizations in the world, 2) the leadership skills to develop a voice at that table, and 3) social impact skills, gained through work with the community, to bring compassion and heart to the table. If we do this right, we will increase the number of human-centered-technology-shaping designers and leaders who will increasingly help frame social challenges as design and business problems.

We now have two programs, a BFA and a Masters, hundreds of alum and hundreds of applicants every year. We have a community of over 75 faculty, all of whom are design leaders and working professionals. Together, they are creating change in the industry. Also, the programs generate over $2.5M in revenue for the school per year and point the way to how a 21st-century design program can thrive while also meeting the school’s social mission.

To read more, please see this 2019 March/April feature article in the ACM Interactions journal entitled “Design Education Can Change the World.” (PDF)


Design Education Can Change The World

Designing a 21st Century Technology-Shaping Curriculum at an Art College Dedicated to Social Justice



Let me commend you, Kristian, for the fantastic work you have done in developing a new program from the ground up including the provision of outstanding vision and leadership, excellence in faculty hiring and support, and superb administrative acumen and collaboration with admissions, communications, and advancement.
— Melanie Corn, CCA Provost
The MDes program was a game changer for me. It helped me develop a new perspective on the role of design in the world and enabled a smooth transition into a new career. As I navigate a dynamic industry, the lessons learned have continued to prove their value. I would recommend it to anyone wanting to make a positive impact on design.


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