One of only seven lighting design programs in North America identified by the International Association of Lighting Designers (IALD), the Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Lighting Design at New York City's Parsons The New School for Design stems from a long tradition of “firsts.” Having established the first graduate program for lighting design during the early 1970s, Parsons restructured its three-semester master of arts (MA) degree in 2004 to offer a two-year, four-semester MFA with a one-of-a-kind thesis studio that focuses on design, theory, and real-world experience.

After a foundational first year during which “the focus is on the fundamentals of lighting,” says Derek Porter, director of the MFA in Lighting Design program, students enter their final year, when the thesis work commences. Beginning with a seminar called the research studio, students develop proposals for their final projects, conducting in-depth research into design issues pertaining to the social realm. “They are looking at a more careful synthesis of energy conservation, urban conditions, and relationships to light, as well as continuing to learn technical applications and collecting data,” Porter says. The research studio also delves deeper into human factors, something that is critical to Parsons' curriculum—one in which human physiological and psychological needs are central to all lighting design projects.

In the spring, with their proposals approved—and validated by the faculty—students enter their final studio class, the thesis studio. Here, theories developed in the research studio are further studied in conjunction with an actual New York City site. Students create renderings, drawings, diagrams, and models to communicate their findings. Rather than just focusing on problem solving, the studio puts forth theoretical propositions that promote critical thinking.

But to imply that these two courses—the research and thesis studios—alone shape the students' thinking and expand their intellectual understanding about lighting design would be to ignore three fundamental aspects of Parsons' strategy. The first is an interdisciplinary environment where lighting students work in tandem with their counterparts in interior design, product design, and architecture. This fosters a collaborative framework that Porter hopes will inform the students' professional mindset for the future. Second, a studio-based method of teaching is used where students sit and work together in an open-plan environment on multiple aspects of their designs. “It's very different than sitting in a classroom with rows of students and a teacher up in front,” Porter explains. And third, in addition to advisers guiding students in their research methodologies, assisting them with their writing skills, and monitoring their progress during the two thesis courses, outside practitioners, theorists, scientists, and politicians are brought in to review student work.

Overall, Porter describes the curriculum as “having a solid technical base that includes a great deal of human experiential considerations: psychological, physiological, and perceptual relationships to light.” Add to that a constant thread of sustainability and classes steeped in theory based on how one thinks about the practice of lighting design, and you begin to understand why the thesis courses are an integral component of the program and, according to Porter, “the culminating feature of the students' education.”

As a result, the students' thesis projects are a thoughtful and inventive representation of the program's methodology. This year, two students were awarded prizes—an honor given at graduation to acknowledge outstanding achievement. Phan Dung explored the notion of community identity, looking at the relationships between light and darkness, which she paired with studies of visual neurobiology. “Parsons prods students to not accept the status quo of lighting design and the accepted ways of thinking about it,” Dung says. Evgenia Kremezi, who also focused on urban lighting, examined the rediscovery of architecture through light and the potential that lighting could have on historic architectural sites. Speaking about her project in relation to Parsons' teaching methods, Kremezi says, “The teachers are trying to educate design professionals, not lighting technicians, and to help us develop a critical approach to lighting.”

By the end of the two-year MFA program, students not only will have gained the 64 credits needed to graduate, but also the understanding of their critical role as lighting designers. “We are using this program as a pioneering effort to really examine how light is taught and how it will affect and impact the future of the profession,” Porter explains. “I hope that 20 years from now the students offer something different to the world than what we know right now.”

Details Course Thesis Studio
School Parsons The New School for Design, New York
Degree Master of Fine Arts in Lighting Design
Images Courtesy of the Master of Fine Arts in Lighting Design program