General information

MFA Program in Design

MFA Program in Design

The Priority Deadline for MFA Applications is January 5;  The Rolling Deadline is until May 1

The UC Davis MFA in Design unites theory and practice. This two-year program encourages an interdisciplinary approach with emphases on socially responsible, human-centered, and sustainable design practice. Students collaborate with outstanding faculty within the department, and the greater University, whose work covers a broad array of disciplines and interests. Design faculty expertise includes design theory, exhibition, fashion, history, information, interaction, interior architecture, immersion, lighting, product, textiles, time-base, visual communication and wearables, among others. Students blend individual focused research and creative practice with an understanding of key design issues in history, theory and research methodology. The MFA degree culminates in a project based thesis and exhibition.


A focus on innovation and excellence distinguishes the prestigious public rankings of UC Davis. In its 2017 rankings of the nation’s best colleges, U.S. News and World Report placed UC Davis 10th among public national universities and 44th among all national universities. In its inaugural ranking (2016) of the nation’s best colleges, the Wall Street Journal placed UC Davis 6th among public universities, and 43rd among all universities. The UC Davis Department of Design is the only comprehensive academic design department in the University of California system. 

How to Apply

To apply to the MFA in Design at UC Davis, click here. It is important that you read the information about MFA Applications on this page, where you will see the Admission Requirements, and find a link for Portfolio Submission.  For questions, please contact Melany Miners, the Graduate Programs Administrator, by email or call 530-752-8710.

The Department of Design at UC Davis offers graduate students a unique opportunity to work with a dedicated and renowned design faculty within one of the nation’s top public research universities. We support diversity in the makeup of our faculty and student body as well as in our research and focus on social justice, sustainability and public interest. Our graduate students have the option to focus on intensive studio activity, work on collaborative projects with other design students and faculty, and take advantage of collaborative opportunities with over 100 departments and programs at UCD. These range from the arts and humanities, to social science and politics, to biological science and agriculture, and projects with UCD’s Professional Schools of Medicine, Law, or Veterinary Medicine.

Key Areas

The goal of the MFA in Design is to provide advanced studies in design research and practice. Faculty have expertise in design theory, exhibition, fashion, history, information, interaction, interior architecture, immersion, lighting, product, textiles, time-base, visual communication and wearables, among others. Some faculty specialize in the history and theory of design, predominantly from the nineteenth century to the present, with emphasis on interpreting design within its social, political and ideological contexts. Graduate studies allows students to take seminars and work with faculty across these areas of design while exploring individual studio-based research, which might address one or more of the above areas. Graduates are prepared for careers in both academia and professional practice.

The following descriptions of nine key areas are useful for better understanding some of the disciplinary strengths within our department. As you will work primarily with one or two faculty members, also check out “People” and “Faculty” from the above menu to learn more about the research of each faculty member in order to see how their strengths might fit with your research interests. Also, for up-to-date information regarding changes to design courses and curriculum, please check the course catalogue as well as the General Catalog Course Supplement and Policies & Requirements Addendum.

Exhibition Design

 Exhibition Design is a synthesis of multiple design disciplines that come together to communicate objects, information and ideas across a range of spatial environments. Architecture, industrial, graphic, lighting, and interactive design combine with an understanding of learning and human factors to shape peoples experiences in cultural, commercial and entertainment venues. Exhibit designers develop designs for museums, trade shows, theme parks, theater sets, and retail environments. Currently on our faculty, Tim McNeil and Brett Snyder are experienced exhibition designers, and the California Lighting Technology Center (run by faculty Michael Siminovitch and Kostas Papamichael) offers outstanding resources for studies in lighting and visual merchandising.

Fashion Design

Fashion Design includes the study, design and creation of clothing for fashion, and functional gear. Current topics in Fashion include sustainability, wearable technology, aesthetics, performance factors, and designing for unique populations and user groups. Recent MFA thesis projects in Fashion focused on innovative designs for low mobility businesswomen and sustainable clothing that incorporates textiles from economically challenged women’s groups in India. The Design Museum Collection, managed by Adele Zhang, includes a superb collection of global textiles and fashion available for hands-on research. Faculty advisers in this area include Susan T. Avila and Zhang.

History and Theory of Design

Study focusing on design history and theory at the graduate level is open to MA students in the Art History program, Ph.D. students in Cultural Studies, and other graduate students including Design MFA students interested in taking seminars in the history of architecture and design. Our faculty specialize in topics from the nineteenth century to the present, and explore architecture and design in its social, political and ideological contexts. Undergraduate design history courses cover a broad swathe of global history of design, including different design disciplines. We are also part of a UC-wide consortium of architecture and design historians exploring the history of California design. 

We are particularly interested in working with Design MFA students who want to explore and conduct historical research within the format of a studio-based project, as required by our MFA degree. The digital age has transformed academic publishing, so scholars who can express their research in multimedia formats have access to far greater publication options than do those creating solely text-based articles and books. Our faculty are especially interested to guide the research of creators who have a strong understanding of critical and/or theoretical approaches to design’s histories and envision new ways of communicating their ideas, whether through digital media (from new books to apps) or physical manifestations (exhibitions to publications). Such projects would necessarily involve a team of mentors from studio and HTC faculty.

Faculty specializing in design history and theory are Simon Sadler (20th-century European modernism and counterculture of the 1960s and ‘70s), James Housefield (modern European design, branding, Marcel Duchamp),  Christina Cogdell (20th- and 21st-century architecture and design overlaps with scientific theories of evolution and genetics), and Mark Kessler (quantitative research and documentation for urban historical preservation and sustainability, particularly with early 20th-century auto garages).

Interactive Design

While UI (User Interface) and UX (User experience) are key to this area, interactive design further integrates people with products, media, landscapes, technological and urban systems. Recent graduate projects in Interactive Design include interactive, wearable headpieces with brainwave sensors connected to an app to help party-goers meet like-minded others; a fully functional, robust app that promotes bicycle riding for short trips and an immersive, narrative environment that promotes integration with nature. Professors Glenda Drew, Katia Vega and Jiayi Young specialize in interactive design.

Interior Architecture

MFA students focusing on Interior Architecture engage in research and design on a single thesis project. The research may culminate in a publication-quality paper, and/or a written architectural program that informs the development of a comprehensive architectural design. Students are encouraged to produce work that is innovative and creative in the use of design to address seemingly intractable problems, especially those that beset the city. Faculty interest lies in exploring the relationship of interior architecture to socially progressive adaptive reuse, historic preservation and sustainability (interpreted as a quality of life issue). Mastery of architectural drawing and basic ordering strategies is presumed.  Unlike the professional architectural degree program—with its emphasis on formal/functional responses to predetermined design assignments—this MFA offers the student an opportunity to delve deeply into a project of personal interest and social relevance. Mark Kessler and Brett Snyder specialize in this area of design.

Lighting Design

Graduate students interested in Interior Architecture and Exhibition Design can combine their research with study related to electric lighting and daylighting, focusing on research and development in strategies and technologies.  Lighting topics include light sources and luminaires for different residential and commercial applications as well as controls for maximum comfort and energy efficiency.  Daylighting topics include window and skylight strategies and technologies, window treatments, such as shades, curtains, blinds, etc., along with controls for dynamic operation, focusing on comfort and energy efficiency for different space types, locations and aperture orientation. Michael Siminovitch and Kostas Papamichael specialize in this area of design research and direct the California Lighting Technology Center; visit the CLTC website to learn more at

Product Design

Product design is increasingly viewed not just as the design and production of consumer goods but also as design of the interfaces, services and systems that accompany them. Our program pursues this broad definition, with courses in furniture and industrial design, prototyping, human interface design. Two faculty are building this area, which with our newly renovated facility (c. 2019) will include a state-of-the-art maker space, along with our current wood shop facility with CNC cutter. Beth Ferguson specializes in solar technologies in product and urban systems; Tom Maiorana works in human-centered product and system design.


Textiles include the study, design and creation of textiles for fashion, interiors and other consumer products. Current topics in Textiles include the use, reuse, and waste management of textile materials, new material technology, digital technologies, aesthetics, surface design, fiber art, and social, historical and psychological aspects of textiles. The Design Museum Collection, managed by Adele Zhang, includes a superb collection of global textiles for hands-on research. Faculty specializing in Textiles include Susan T. Avila and Katia Vega.

Visual Communication Design

Visual communication design focuses on the relationship between form, content, and context. Critical making and critical thinking skills are emphasized in the research and creation of artifacts, environments, interactions, and experiences in print, screen, time-based, and three-dimensional media. Interdisciplinary studies in psychology, anthropology, cognition, history of media, rhetoric, computer science, intercultural communication, and other areas can be undertaken to inform the design research and development process. Faculty specializing in Visual Communication Design include Glenda Drew, Tim McNeil, Brett Snyder, Susan Verba, and Jiayi Young.


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