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GSD’s Design Discovery program invites design exploration, experimentation

A final review with Chair of the Department of Landscape Architecture, Anita Berrizbeitia. Photo: Tony Rinaldo.

A final review with Chair of the Department of Landscape Architecture, Anita Berrizbeitia. Photo: Tony Rinaldo.

Not long after Gund Hall’s Trays cleared out following Commencement, they quickly became repopulated with hundreds of people from 35 different countries and a range of professions, ages, and interests, all considering the next steps in their careers and curious whether design may become a part of them. As they unpacked the supply kits awaiting them—foamboard, T-squares, all sorts of pencils and glue and tape—Career Discovery at the Harvard Graduate School of Design was underway.

The GSD’s six-week Design Discovery program presents a hyperintensive engagement with design that mirrors a graduate-level studio experience. Each summer, the program draws around 200 participants, who include undergraduates with little to no design experience, recent graduates looking to add to their skill sets or investigate a new field, and midcareer professionals eager for fresh creative energy.

What binds participants is an urge to explore design, and the program is engineered to immerse them in a design culture that is both challenging and rewarding.

“From nine in the morning to six in the evening, we have your attention, and you become intently focused on the activity of design,” says Career Discovery faculty director Jeffrey Klug (MArch ‘90), who has overseen the program for 16 years.

“That level and intensity of passionate involvement with that much continuity produces tremendous growth.”

A “lively, energetic exploration”

The spirit of exploring design as a professional threshold—whether at the start or in the middle of one’s career—is woven into Career Discovery’s DNA. The program was started in 1972 by Harvard professor John A. Seiler, who taught at Harvard Business School for 17 years before realizing that he really wanted to work in architecture instead. (He would go on to earn a degree from the GSD in 1974 and then teach at the school until 1997.)

Similar to a graduate program, Career Discovery asks participants to concentrate in one of four areas: architecture, landscape architecture, urban planning, and urban design.

Within disciplines, participants are grouped into small studios instructed by GSD students and recent GSD graduates. A total of 30 instructors taught the program this summer, which concluded on July 24.

Each concentration also has a GSD faculty lead who provides pedagogic framework and direction. While the core of each student’s work lies within their chosen field, they gain exposure to the other three.

“It’s a lively, energetic exploration in which you bond with your instructor and studio mates,” says Megan Panzano (MArch ’10), a GSD design critic in architecture and this summer’s faculty lead in architecture. “It being summer, many of us are in a certain mindset that lends itself to that dynamic, but not at the sacrifice of the rigor and clarity that the design process mandates.”

This summer, Panzano was joined by faculty leads Rosetta Elkin, assistant professor of landscape architecture, directing landscape architecture; Kathryn Madden, design critic in urban planning and design, overseeing urban planning and design; and Anthony Piermarini (MArch '99), leading design representation.

“My days were filled with architecture”

Each week of Career Discovery comprises morning lectures and afternoon studios daily from Monday through Thursday. On each Friday, participants present projects and receive critiques from instructors and fellow students, an echo of the review process that students undergo in a graduate program.

Many evenings and weekends are also dedicated to studio preparation.

“My days were filled with architecture, even outside the studio,” says 2015 participant Lauren Choi, who previously worked in investment banking. “It is an intense program.”

Choi is spending the rest of her summer preparing to apply for graduate school in architecture.

Fellow 2015 participant Svafa Gronfeldt of Reykjavik, Iceland, observes that “the six weeks felt like six months in terms of volume of work and learning.”

“Career Discovery opened up a whole new world of analyzing and problem-solving processes unlike any I have ever known in my previous studies and work,” says Gronfeldt, who is executive vice president of the global life-science company Alvogen and a PhD graduate of the London School of Economics. “The total commitment of the instructors to teach and motivate us, project after project, was instrumental in the progress we made.”

In addition to leading lectures and studios, instructors conduct field visits throughout the Cambridge and Boston area, including visits to relevant urban sites and the offices of local firms. One architecture studio toured Cambridge houses that have particular structural and material elements; an urban design studio studied Somerville’s Union Square.

“I want to expose them to the city and all of its complexities, hoping perhaps that they will fall in love with urban places as I do,” says urban planning and design faculty lead Madden.

“We design the final project so that they have a chance to put forward their own creative ideas for shaping a district, supporting this with an understanding of the context and community affected by their plans.”

Career Discovery participants not only learn the rudiments of their field of study but also engage and sharpen broader toolkits. Many note how the program bolsters their communication and self-reflection skills, citing the cycles of instructor feedback and project defense and re-evaluation. Others feel that learning to communicate visually and graphically enables them to wrestle with verbal, written ideas in new ways.

They also gain an understanding of how design, architecture, and planning fit within each other, and within broader cultural issues and discourses.

“What appeared most clearly to me is that design and policy questions are inextricably linked,” says 2015 urban design participant Silvia Danielak, who came to Career Discovery after four years of work in international security and conflict resolution, mostly in Africa. “Questions of social justice, participation, and peace cannot be neglected when talking about city planning and design. The program and the discussions we had certainly emphasized this.”

The program offers instructors and faculty the chance to reflect on their own work and goals, too.

“We feed off the energy of our students, and we use it to fuel our own projects,” says Patrick Herron (MArch ’16), one of this year’s architecture instructors. Fellow instructor Kate Cahill (MDes ’16) adds, “It's simply exciting to see people so excited about what you're excited about, to see students so excited about the disciplines.”

“I get to take a step back and revisit the big picture,” says program director Klug. “I remind myself why these are compelling professions, what are our goals. It reminds me of the fantastic virtues of these professions.”