Art is a difficult thing, as is computer science. The former is subjective, open to interpretation so much so that there’s never a right way to do something. The latter is rigid: set a goal. Code it. (Or at least that’s what I understand of computer science). But cross the two (or art with anything preprofessional really) and the mission is almost impossible. That’s what the Digital Media Design major is all about.
The major is an interdisciplinary one (go Penn!) in Penngineering, a combination of computer graphics and fine arts courses. Created in 1998, it’s geared towards students with an interest in computer programming and graphics, animation, virtual reality environments, games, and interactive technologies. Because of this, the 40–credit major requires courses in the social sciences, computer science and engineering, and natural sciences. Cleary, anyone who graduates with this degree can do it all.
But while it may sound difficult with the courseload and whatnot, those who do it are appreciative of its breadth. DMD major Adel Wu (C ’21) says that her “favorite part of the curriculum requirements is the flexibility. We can take classes like music, art, and architecture, and they count towards our major.” Andrea Lin (C ’19) agrees, noting that although DMD is CIS–heavy, she has still been able to take classes outside of her major that interest her, such as music and poetry.
This is of course not to discount the work that goes into DMD. Thy Anh Trần (C ’21) takes six classes, leaving her little time for extracurriculars. But those who are involved on campus display an immense amount of ability beyond the academics. Adel is an active member of both Penn Hype and the Pan–Asian Dance Troupe, both of which are high–commitment dance groups on campus, while Andrea is on board for Penn’s chapter of SIGGRAPH (an organization to promote interest in computer graphics), regularly attends Grace Covenant Church, and takes harp lessons in addition to all her classes.
Because DMD is interdisciplinary, requiring both computer science and fine arts skills, it is inevitable that some students have difficulty reconciling the two fields. While some students have found that they do not particularly have a preference for either subject, other students have found that one of the two fields resonates with them in particular. Adel was actually strongly considering art school before coming to Penn and identifies as more of an artist than an engineer. “I’m not really a computer science person,” she admits. “Art is still my main passion.” Still, others have found that the major requirements themselves have instilled in them a love for a subject that they did not expect to love. Thy in particular discovered a love for coding after coming to Penn as a freshman. “Initially, I thought of myself as more of an artist,” she said. “In fact, I disliked coding in high school. But taking classes with Professor Rajiv Gandhi made me fall in love with coding—he makes all problems into intriguing mysteries which I want to unfold.”
Because the community of DMD majors is relatively small—each class is about 15 people—people within the community get to know each other quickly and on a much deeper level. As Andrea notes, “the DMD community has really shaped [her] experience as a student,” not just for the tight–knit feel of the community, but also because “the percentage of women in DMD is relatively large,” especially compared to the usual gender disparity in engineering.
Given the amount of work they put in, it’s no secret that the payoff is proportional. The largest employers of Penn’s DMD students include big names such as Disney Animation, Pixar, DreamWorks Animation, Electronic Arts, Microsoft, and Google. For most students, there are two paths people usually take upon graduation: animation or software engineering. In Adel’s view, “animators often work extremely hard, but don’t get paid as much. Meanwhile, engineering is generally pretty stable.” After attending FemmeHacks, Philly’s first all–women collegiate hackathon, and then meeting a former DMD major who now works as a Software Engineer at Bloomberg, Adel has since gravitated towards the engineer path, though she still considers herself more of an artist than an engineer.
Regardless, with two sets of skills, there will never really come a time when DMD majors must choose. In some respects, fine arts and computer science may seem like polar opposites, but they undoubtedly and irrevocably entangle in some of the most fundamental ways.
A previous version of the article stated that Katie Wu was a former DMD major who now works as a User Experience Designer for Bloomberg. Katie is actually a Software Engineer at Bloomberg. 34th Street regrets the error.