Cornell University

Special Populations

There are many population segments that deviate from the healthy norm in society due to stage in human development, injury, disease, congenital condition, or genetic abnormalities. People in these special populations can be relegated to low levels of functionality or function at a high level depending in part on the supportiveness of the settings in which they live. That support is achieved through good design—design that has the capacity to accommodate functional needs and the potential to lift the human spirit above the mundane.

The Design for Special Populations area of study invites critical examination of interior design processes and products for accommodating specialized needs. Populations being addressed include frail elderly, people with Alzheimer’s or related dementias, and preschool children. Research approaches being taken include preparation and evaluation of design guidelines for a specific population, critical assessment of a design process for responding to specialized needs, and conception, imaging, and testing of a design for a special population.

Suggested Coursework

Referring to the Summary of Curriculum at the end of this information sheet, courses taken to fulfill the 3-4 course requirement for the research specialization Design for Special Populations vary depending on the special population being addressed. These courses are selected through consultation with the student’s graduate thesis committee. Examples of two special populations, Elderly and Children, and associated courses from which to choose are shown here.

DEA 4720 Environments for Elders: Housing and Design for an Aging Population
DEA 6600 The Environment and Social Behavior
DEA 6610 Environments and Health
HD 2510 Social Gerontology: Aging and the Life Course (also SOC 251)
HD 4180 Aging: Contemporary Issues
PAM 4570 Innovation and Entrepreneurship in the Health Care Industry
PAM 4350 The U.S. Health Care System
PSYCH 4310 Effects of Aging on Sensory and Perceptual Systems

DEA 6600 The Environment and Social Behavior
HD 2420 Participation with Groups of Young Children
HD 3460 The Role and Meaning of Play
HD 3680 Children's Development in Different Cultures
HD 6460 Seminar in Early-Childhood Development and Education

For other or more specific special populations you work with your graduate thesis committee to determine an appropriate set of courses in this requirement category.


Graduate study in Design for Special Populations connects to a number of valuable employment opportunities and career paths. With this research specialization, graduates are prepared for professional practice in an area of design specialty. Examples include healthcare design, design of residential settings for the elderly including assisted living facilities and nursing homes, or design for child daycare. For graduates planning a career in higher education, this specialization can set the direction for scholarship pursued in an academic appointment.

M.A. Requirements

Required DEA field course audits:


Making a Difference: By Design

3 credits


Intro to Human Environment Relations

3 credits

Research & design methods courses:

(choose 2 -- 1 research method and 1 design method)


Dancing Mind (design method)

3 credits


Programming (design method)

4 credits


Research Methods in Human Environment Relations

4 credits


Qualitative Methods (research method)

4 credits


Historiography (research method)

4 credits

Behavior & social responsibility courses:

(choose 1 course)


Ecological Literacy

3 credits


Human Factors: Ergonomics-Anthropometrics

4 credits


Human Factors: Ambient Environment

4 credits


Planning and Managing the Workplace

4 credits


Environment and Social Behavior

4 credits

Studio-based courses:
(choose 1 course)


Furniture as a Social Art

3 credits


Special Problems for Grads (project-based)

variable credit


Virtual Design, Analysis & Representation

3 credits


Facilities Planning and Management Studio

4 credits

History theory & criticism course:


Design Theory & Criticism Seminar

4 credits

Required course:


Master Thesis

1-15 credits

Summary of Curriculum

Number of Courses

Total Credits

Required DEA field course audits


[6] audit

Research Methods & Thesis



Required M.A. courses



Courses in minor



Courses in research specialization



Additional courses (if not TA)





Total: 48-62

NOTE: Effective as of Fall 2007, a minimum grade of B- is required for courses taken within this major.