The Berkeley Institute of Design (BiD) is a proposed research/teaching unit that fosters a new and deeply interdisciplinary approach to design for the 21st century: The design and realization of rich, interactive environments which are shaped by the human activities they support.

Here "environments" include architectural spaces, products, web sites, and other artifacts that support complex human activity. The program combines technical and social/humanist perspectives on design. It acknowledges that design in the era of ubiquitous technologies means not only technical innovation, but deep understanding of behavior and the experience that technology should enhance. It mixes engineering design with psychology, social sciences and art practice. It combines Berkeley's rigor in engineering with its commitment to social values and critical reflection.

Objectives of BiD

  • Educate students on the breadth of topics that are important for 21st century design
  • Develop students' skills in team-work, communication, and creativity
  • Promote excellence in the practice of design within and across professions
  • Expose students to real-world design problems and bringing concepts to reality
  • Cultivate students' ability to express, evoke and shape experience through design
  • Foster critical reflection on technology and the contexts that shape its use
  • Create a generation of designers who lead product development in large companies


The 20th century marked the transition from the industrial age to the information age. Knowledge is now regarded as most corporations' key asset, and information technology impacts almost all work practice. Since 1999, computer games generated more revenue in the US than movie box office sales. The home is fast becoming an "information space" with networked lifestyle technologies. These changes give new meaning to the notion of the "built environment." As computing becomes ubiquitous we can no longer expect people to master the foibles of each device. The "environment," including information technologies, must be designed around the human activities that it supports. This compels a new approach to design that is partly technical, but also deeply social and humanist. Understanding activity means understanding values, needs, lifestyle, mythologies, aesthetics, social and cultural norms, and individual and social psychology. Design realization involves challenges in human-machine interfaces, device design, new materials and manufacturing techniques, physical architecture and modeling and simulation. And form and function are joined by time, narrative, character and user participation in the design of information-based media. Uniting these themes creates a Design discipline that is human-centered and integrative (an "architectural" approach), and in which technical progress is closely tied to need. Such an approach can be revolutionary, but requires an exceptional breadth of expertise. This is the opportunity and challenge faced by the Berkeley Institute of Design.


BiD grew out of the Human-Centered Computing (HCC) group on the Berkeley campus. HCC began in Spring 1998 as a weekly meeting of faculty with interests in information technology and its impacts. More information about the group is available on the web here. The goal was to explore how social and behavioral sciences could inform the design of better information systems. The HCC activity included a weekly seminar that has run continuously from Fall 1999 to the present time. It also included a regular graduate course that was offered twice, and five one- or two-day retreats both on- and off-campus. The HCC retreats in particular have been very successful, attracting a total of 120 graduate students, 40 faculty, and 120 outside researchers. The retreats drew experts on psychology, anthropology, and science and technology studies (STS). Several of the attendees were experts on collaborative work. Not surprisingly, the interdisciplinary collaboration in HCC itself was the topic of several discussions. Over time we evolved a format that has been successful at promoting such collaboration. Several interdisciplinary research projects followed between subsets of the participants. Through all the HCC retreats, there was an energetic sub-community in design. At the summer 2001 retreat, we proposed the creation of a design institute (BiD). The present faculty members in BiD were not all participants in HCC, but a substantial number were. They form an interdisciplinary core with a history of working together.


BiD's research supports its vision of 21st century design. It spans social sciences, computer science, mechanical engineering, architecture and film and art practice. We hope to add expertise from other departments as the effort grows. Some representative research topics are listed below:

  • Tools to support design practice.
  • Assistive technologies, and technologies for elder care.
  • Design theory and methods.
  • Critical and artistic response to technology.
  • Context-aware and ambient systems.
  • New materials and prototyping techniques, especially active polymers.
  • Educational technology.
  • Protection of privacy.
  • Location-based services (LBSes) and LB collaborative systems.
  • Technology for emerging economies.


The Ph.D. program will comprise courses offered by many departments. Because of the breadth of content in BiD’s scope, there will be minimal constraint on these courses in the Ph.D. degree program. The Master’s degree will comprise a core program of six courses and two or more optional courses. The core curriculum for the Master’s degree consists almost entirely of new courses. BiD faculty and the advisory board are presently designing the core courses. They are as follows:

  1. Introduction to Design: An overview of human-centered design. Students will build only informal prototypes, enabling them to design in different domains (products, architectural spaces, interfaces, web sites, etc…)
  2. Design Realization: Design techniques for domains including 3D CAD, user interfaces and web sites. Realization of behavior through high-level real-time and distributed programming. Mechatronics, sensors and 3D prototyping.
  3. Visual Design: A course in design emphasizing its visual and spatial dimensions. Visual perception, color, tone, principles of form and organization. Sketching for communication, ideation and expression.
  4. Narrative Design: A course in design emphasizing narrative and temporal aspects. Perception of time, structure of narratives, genres, voices, character. Narrative in texts, theater, sound, architecture and digital media. Expressive writing.
  5. Design Realization: Realistic design project through to manufacturing. Building and testing prototypes. Taguchi method. Failure modeling. Manufacturing methods and manufacturability. Quality control. Sustainable and green design.
  6. Product Development: Course covering the business context of design. Needs and market analysis. Ideation and product conception. Formative evaluation and product improvement. Business planning and organization. Intellectual property and market regulation. Partnerships and outsourcing.

The Imperative

Technology is the great multiplier. Each year we are surrounded by more gadgets, microcomputers and information bytes, and their exponential growth is palpable. More and more our everyday activities are mediated by those technologies, be they mobile phones, computer learning environments, or assistive technologies. Engineering advances the performance envelope, once we agree what progress means. Design grapples with the impossible complexity of everyday human action, and shines light on a path that can lead to better quality of life. Both are suffering from their own successes: cheaper, faster, smaller, brighter devices struggle to justify their value, while the pace of change frees designers to explore a new world of possibilities, but not to realize them. This is the right time to re-examine the meaning of design (for both traditions). We are convinced that there is a middle ground with tremendous potential.