Peter Scupelli


new parent; teacher, designer, researcher, biker.

Peter Scupelli is Assistant Professor in the School of Design at Carnegie Mellon University. His teaching and research focus on shaping human behavior through design. Current research is on how human behavior, information technology, and the physical environment, support studio learning, coordination in high-reliability organizations, and sustainable behavior choices. Peter’s training and career path link architecture, interaction design, and human-computer interaction research. He holds a PhD in Human-Computer Interaction, M.Des. in Interaction Design, and an undergraduate Architecture degree. His work with A12 was exhibited in the Architecture Biennial of Venice, PS1 MOMA, New York, the São Paulo Contemporary Art Biennial, the ZKM museum of Karlsruhe, Germany and other places.

Teaching philosophy

My teaching philosophy is based on four values. I ask students to:

  • First, work on problems that have practical impact in the world. Engaging practical problems shapes the future.
  • Second, work hard on something they care about, but also have fun with it. Enjoying ones challenges is a recipe for a fulfilling career.
  • Third, to try new things, and learn to do them well. New challenges and pride in one’s work make one comfortable with the accelerating rate of change in the world and design practice.
  • Fourth, to learn to work productively with people from different disciplines and perspectives. New perspectives allow students to create innovative solutions and develop new knowledge.

My role in the classroom is to create a safe and exciting environment where students can take risks on their projects. I teach design methods, design skills, and design strategies necessary to complete projects successfully, sharing my experience and expertise in ways I know will help improve student projects. During critiques, I take deep interest in the students’ work. For each project, I explain what I see working, what needs to be resolved, and possible paths forward; I am more interested in engaging students in conversations about their work than directing them to my solution, but am insistent on seeing progress.


I am a global nomad, meaning that I spent my developmental years in cultures different than those of my parents. [1] Before graduating from high school, I lived in five countries on four continents, and spoke five languages fluently. Attending international schools in numerous places allowed me to make friends from around the world, and my experiences as both an outsider and minority helped shape my cosmopolitan outlook, instilled in me a deep respect of other peoples’ cultures, and pushed me to question some aspects of my parents’ respective cultures of origin. My own cultural identity integrates the best of what I’ve experienced globally. I believe that my upbringing prepared me for the subsequent multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, and transdisciplinary collaborations I have experienced in my career and research, which integrates architecture, interaction design, and human-computer interaction.

I studied architecture at the University of Genoa in Italy, which prepared me for a professional career in various architecture studios in Milan, Italy. I was, by day, one of three employees working for Umberto Riva, a famous Italian architect in Milan. I learned to design exhibits, interiors, building façades, furniture, and exacting details. After work and on weekends, I worked with Gruppo A12, an architecture collective I co-founded in architecture school. With A12, I worked with new media artists to author installations at the famous ZKM (Center for Media and Art in Karlsruhe, Germany), the prestigious 7th International Venice Architecture Biennial in Italy, at the MOMA PS1, New York, and the 25th International São Paulo Contemporary Art Biennial.

I realized that the boundaries of the design problems that interested me were broader than my training and professional architecture practice. I began to ask, as did architect designer Charles Eames, “What are the boundaries of Design?” His reply, “What are the boundaries of problems?” summarized my thoughts about the broader context containing design opportunities.
My interest in physical places and information technology emerged while collaborating with A12 and new media artists on installations in museums and art galleries. I quickly realized that focusing on the user experience allowed people from different disciplines to work together constructively, that visitor experiences were shaped by the kinesthetic engagement with the installation, the digital content explored, and the cultural meanings perceived. It became clear that in order to pursue design that involved place, technology, and culture, I should transition from traditional architecture practice.

To pursue my developing interests, I attended Carnegie Mellon University, first to study interaction design and then to study human-computer interaction research. My masters in interaction design thesis explored how multiple design teams might timeshare project rooms. Research indicates that teams are more productive when they work in a dedicated project room. Unfortunately, project rooms are scarce. I created a timeshared project room with modular physical and digital components so that team project information could seamlessly follow teams.

My interaction design masters thesis lead to a collaboration with then doctoral student in computer science, Desney Tan. [2] Both Desney’s doctoral work and my masters thesis included large displays. We decided to experimentally determine the benefits of large displays and discovered that larger displays improve performance on spatial tasks. My experience with Desney convinced me that, in complex domains where performance is critical and design mistakes are costly, behavioral science research can inform design decisions that lead to significant performance gains.

My doctoral studies in human-computer interaction informed my dissertation on supporting collaboration in physical places integrated with information technology. For this work I wanted to understand how the physical environment and information technology together shape behavior. Prior research focused on the effect of simple measures such as distance and visual lines on interpersonal communication. I studied large surgery schedule displays used to coordinate hospital services on the day of surgery. Namely, how the configuration of the physical environment––placement of walls, hallways, and furniture––and the placement and formatting of large schedule displays support multi-group coordination between anesthesiologists, nurses, and surgeons. I developed design guidelines for the configuration of the physical environment and placement of large schedule displays in surgical suites. To generalize beyond the four surgical suites studied, I conducted a national survey of 135 surgical suite directors across the USA. My findings suggest that the architecture of the physical space, information availability, and practices influence information sharing and coordination outcomes.

My research on surgical suites was featured on the Evidence-Based Design Accreditation and Certification (EDAC) newsletter in 2010. I wrote a case study on my surgical suite design guidelines for Bella Martin and Professor Bruce Hanington’s book “Universal Methods of Design: 100 ways to research Complex Problems, Develop Innovative Ideas, and Effective Solutions” published in 2012. As of June 2013, I am pursuing the opportunity to see my design guidelines implemented and tested in a new surgical suite in Shanghai.

After my doctoral studies, I spent two years working as a design researcher and program evaluator for two Fitwits obesity prevention programs created by Professor Kristin Hughes, and funded by the Heinz Endowments. Working on Fitwits, I realized that my research focuses on the broader context of design opportunities. According to the socio-ecological framework, five contexts are associated with people’s health choices: individual, interpersonal, organizational, community, and public policy. I coined the term “socio-ecological design” to frame design strategies for this type of complex, societal-level problem. Socio-ecological design changed my approach to complex design problems.

[1] Stultz, W. (2003). Global and Domestic Nomads or Third Culture Kids: Who are they and what the university needs to know. Journal of Student Affairs12, 6-11.
[2] Dr. Desney Tan is a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research.