4.110J | Spring 2013 | Undergraduate

Design Across Scales, Disciplines and Problem Contexts


Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 1 session / week, 2 hours / session

Labs: 1 session / week, 2 hours / session

Course Overview

Inspired by Charles and Ray Eames’ canonical “Powers of Ten,” this course explores the relationship between science and engineering through the lens of design. It examines how transformations in science and technology have influenced design thinking and vice versa. It offers interdisciplinary tools and methods to represent, model, design, and fabricate objects, machines, and systems. Structured as core lectures and lab sessions, the course is organized by “systems”: design of information, design of fabrication, design of intelligence, design of play, design of organization, and design of innovation. World-renowned designers, scientists, and engineers will contribute with guest lectures. We will design things—material and immaterial; we will learn new computational and fabrication tools along the way; we will develop methodologies for design research of interdisciplinary problems; we will practice what it means to think, live, and breathe design.

This course creates a new pedagogical paradigm for education, which cuts across various disciplines and scales, to demonstrate that “design is not a discipline” but a way of looking at the world that promotes the synthesis of interdisciplinary knowledge across scales in order to create objects and systems for the greater good. This is partly due to the fact that such challenges—such as the race to cure cancer, the mars landing mission and the challenge to design sustainable cities and buildings—require, perhaps more than ever, an interdisciplinary skill set and an ability to operate across multiple scales with creativity.

The history of design innovation provides endless examples of cross disciplinary individuals and innovations. Buckminster Fuller, for instance, was a designer, a futurist, an inventor, an author, and a systems theorist. His designs based on the geodesic dome have inspired not only generations of designers, architects, engineers, and urban planners but also chemists, material scientists, and physicists who were inspired by his representation of the physical world. Charles and Ray Eames were mid-century American designers working at a range of scales and in a variety of media, from furniture and military aircraft parts to films and exhibitions. Their experiments in design fabrication and cultural media are a useful reference for design education today. An example of the value of learning across disciplines today is found in Siddhartha Mukherjee’s book, Emperor of All Maladies: a Biography of Cancer, which tells the story of how the process of inventing cell dyes to trace the growth of cancerous tissues was actually inspired by textile design.

Design has expanded to include a broad range of scales and disciplines, shifting from the production of objects to the design of experiences, data, networks, territories, and social frameworks. Designers are no longer exclusively committed to design autonomous objects (buildings, cars, furniture and household products), but rather are conceiving and testing whole ecologies of design experiences (robotic construction systems, transportation systems, health care experiences, water distribution, and clean energy). This has prompted Tim Brown, CEO of the design consultancy firm IDEO to state, “Design is too important to be left to designers.” The scope of design ecologies is so broad and so integrated with other disciplines that traditionally trained designers are ill equipped to tackle the new breadth of design tasks at hand. Interdisciplinary teams must work together to design the systems, experiences, environments, and futures for our increasingly complex world.

This course responds to this challenge by becoming not a traditional design course for designers, but rather a design course about culture, science, and technology to serve as a foundation for all students regardless of major.

Topics Covered

Below are the different systems of design that are discussed during lectures:

  • Design of Futures: Past Futures, Utopian Visions, and Tomorrows of Today
  • Design of Representation: Notation, Information, and Communication
  • Design of Data: Computation, Visualization, and Big Data
  • Design of Fabrication: Tools, Techniques, and Technologies
  • Design of Mimicry: Models, Systems, and Processes
  • Design of Intelligence: From Mind to Machine
  • Design of Play: Games and Constructs
  • Design of Alternative Futures: Utopias and Dystopias in Science Fiction
  • Design of Innovation: Concept to Commerce
  • Design of Organizational Systems: From Cells to Cities

The labs complement these topics by introducing tools for design and fabrication. These include:

  • 2-Dimensional Presentational Design Tools and Animation Tools
  • Data Mining and Databases: CSV Database, Rapid Miner, XML, MySQL
  • Data Processing and Visualization
  • 2D and 3D CAD Tools: Autocad®, Rhino®, 3DSMax®, SolidWorks®
  • Fabrication Workshop: Laser-cutting, 3D Printing, File Setup and Exchange
  • AI Tools: Programming Concepts, Optimization Methods, Example Applications
  • Interactive Environments: Unity 3D, Augmented Reality


In addition to the one lecture per week by instructors and guest speakers, one lab session a week is given. Lab sessions are mandatory for those who are not familiar with the tools per session, and are optional for those who are familiar with the tools being taught. The readings are highly recommended, particularly for graduate students, but not required. Each student is expected to attend all lectures and spend 4–6 hours per week on assignment, tutorials, and projects.


Assignment 1 25% 20%
Assignment 2 25% 20%
Assignment 3 25% 20%
Assignment 4  — 20%
Class participation 25% 20%

Course Info

As Taught In
Spring 2013
Learning Resource Types
Projects with Examples
Design Assignments with Examples