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No Art Background Necessary for Innovation-Focused Design M.B.A.'s

These M.B.A.’s, which focus on design, don’t require sketch pads but do teach creative thinking.

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Although CEOs claim to value creativity, they rarely consider candidates with backgrounds in visual arts for job opportunities. At least that's the view of Ray Allen, provost and vice president for academic affairs at Maryland Institute College of Art, who is willing to shoulder some of the blame.

"Somewhere, we are not doing all we could to help our people understand that [the art skill set] they often take for granted is a real tangible asset in a larger environment," he says.

MICA aims to change that by partnering with Johns Hopkins University's Carey Business School to launch a joint M.A.-M.B.A. in Design Leadership in fall 2012. The schools join others in a larger national movement of design-focused business programs, which California College of the Arts says it pioneered when it created its M.B.A. in Design Strategy in 2008.

"We were the first out in the [United States] with an M.B.A. in a design school, and after four years of instruction, we're still the only ones," says Nathan Shedroff, chairman of the program.

Although Allen says MICA and Johns Hopkins are "scrambling a bit" to finalize aspects of the program, such as tuition, a MICA spokeswoman cited the annual price tag of $48,300 for Hopkins's global M.B.A. program as a ballpark figure for the M.A.-M.B.A. cost. A report on CCA's website estimates its annual M.B.A. tuition and fees cost $38,900. M.A.-M.B.A. students pay a premium over a traditional M.F.A., which costs $36,170 per year at MICA.

[See U.S. News's rankings of top business schools.]

But Allen insists that the degree is not a fine arts program. "Very little of the emphasis in this program will be on visual production," he says. "It's not about making people visual artists. It's more about taking the design thinking process and applying it to a range of challenges and coming up with innovative solutions."

Beyond MICA and CCA, other U.S. schools are offering similar-sounding degrees. The Illinois Institute of Technology has a Master of Design M.B.A., and Ferris State University's Kendall College of Art and Design offers an M.B.A. Certificate in Design and Innovation Management.

Adam Dole, business planning manager at the Mayo Clinic, was able to leverage his CCA M.B.A. to get his current job. Programs like CCA's give students the "toolkit and confidence" to start their own companies or to lead innovations from within existing organizations, he says.

"Oftentimes in business, people sit around boardrooms having high-level conversations, and every single person around the table has a different vision of what is being talked about," Dole says. "Designers have a unique way of very quickly sketching out [what they're] talking about."

[Learn where to find M.B.A. jobs.]

Shedroff, who chairs CCA's degree program, says the M.B.A. doubled from 60 to 120 students two years ago, and most alumni get jobs in design-oriented consulting companies. "Despite the bad economy, companies of all types are looking for those who can truly lead innovation."

The d.school—or design school—which Stanford University created in 2005, doesn't offer degrees, but there's been "particular interest" in the multidisciplinary school from M.B.A. students, according to a school spokeswoman.

The d.school course Design for Extreme Affordability was a "main driver" in Pamela Pavkov's decision to pursue an M.B.A. at Stanford. Pavkov, vice president at Oak Hill Investment Management in California, says companies have always tried to be innovative, but the current trend represents a new way of seeing an old problem. She believes that others who pursue design-focused M.B.A.'s can leverage their degrees to land good jobs, like she did.

[Read about how business students are agog over Lady Gaga.]

When MICA Provost Allen talks about the M.A.-M.B.A. program, he cites author Daniel Pink, who told The New York Times in 2008 that the M.F.A. is the new M.B.A. Allen hopes the "alchemical mixture" of students who believe they are either pure business people or designers will attract a diverse cohort.