Why do a PhD (in design)

Apologies for the 4 month hiatus from this blog. Just after my April post I spent a bit of time putting the finishing touches to my PhD and reviewing my research for my Viva exam (oral defence of my PhD with my examiners). My Viva happened in the UK on the 15 June 2012 at Northumbria University, Newcastle upon Tyne. I am pleased to report that everything went very well and the examiners passed me without any corrections to do. This meant I could graduate on a sunny day in Newcastle on 17 July 2012 with my good friend Priti Rao, who had flown in from India. We had a fantastic day and were very happy to be able to share the day with our families and friends.

Priti and I throwing our hats on graduation day,
Northumbria University, 17 July 2012

Since then I’ve had a bit of time to reflect on my PhD journey. I get asked a lot about why I chose to do a PhD and whether or not one should do a PhD. I thought I’d dedicate this post to a bit of reflection on my PhD journey to share and give you a bit of insight into my personal journey, motivations and how I’m feeling now I’ve finished.

Why do a PhD?
I get this question a lot when I do presentations and a lot from people who are thinking of doing a PhD. The easy answer is to say that everyone has a different reason for doing a PhD. But I think it’s helpful to understand the many reasons people enter into such a process.

For me, doing a PhD was to answer a very personal question about my own identity as a designer, and a number of professional questions I had encountered in practice.

Design school taught me how to be a graphic designer, but I knew early on I didn’t want to be a graphic designer. However, I was interested in the process of design and creativity, how that could be applied in new and different contexts. For example in solving complex business problems. This was in 2002 and at the time, I could hardly find anyone around me who shared the same enthusiasm and interest for this idea, nor did I know what kind of designer I would end up being.

After design school I didn’t want to work for a design company, I wanted to work for a business organisation. I applied for some graduate roles but of course, never made it through the recruitment gates. Maybe it was the design degree on my CV I thought, so I enrolled myself into business school part-time while I worked in graphic design, landscape design and as a retail sales assistant for a fashion brand. In business school I made it my mission to try and integrate design and business. It was challenging, but also a great time for me to explore with more focus, and learn the vocabulary of business. After business school I joined a business and management consulting firm and thought that finally, all my questions about design would be answered. It did in fact do the opposite. My time working  at the consultancy threw even more questions my way, and there was a tipping point where I knew I just had to stop and give myself some time to really think, read, research, reflect and write about design – What was happening in design, where was it going and what the potential for it could be. That’s how I ended up doing a PhD because I saw such a platform would give me that space and time to find answers to questions I was not able to answer in my other degrees and in practice.

So in short, I usually say to anyone who asks me if they should do a PhD or not – do they have questions they want to answer? Have they found gaps of knowledge in practice that are worthy of exploring? I have met people who were doing PhDs for the award and recognition, which speaks to the fact that everyone has a different reason for doing a PhD.

What I got out of doing a PhD and what have I learnt
This is another question I get asked a lot. For me, the first thing that comes to mind is that my PhD let me meet the most inspiring and visionary designers. Designers who I had to interview for my research and those who I met a long the way. Their thinking, ideas, practices and projects are incredible and this really helped inspire me along the journey. I think it’s important that one is able to find inspiration in the ebbs of PhD life. The other great thing about my PhD was being able to work closely with the Design Council. The Design Council co-sponsored my research and I had the opportunity to get to know them, work with them, and also look into their work, such as their Dott 07 (Designs of the Time 2007) program, which was my key case study.

In terms of what I have learnt doing my PhD, I tend to think of this as being content and skills based. On the content side of things, I did find answers to all the questions I had about design. That has been very satisfying for me. I also learnt a whole lot of new things about design. My 100k-word PhD thesis contains a fraction of what I have come to know. On the skills side, a PhD is usually a 3+ year research program, and this is a huge research and project management task. Such a project requires good organisation, research, administration, planning, managing, budgeting, analysing/synthesising, networking, implementing, documenting and archiving in order to achieve one’s research goal. A lot of people don’t automatically think of a PhD in this way but the process must be well managed in order for it to be completed. I also think there is huge scope to be creative and innovative in a PhD. I created some new research methodologies that I saw as being appropriate to how design and designers could be better understood. I felt a PhD was the right time and space to explore and experiment with research, and the results can be pretty interesting.

Another thing I learnt, that took me years to come to, was to sum up my PhD research in one line. In brief my research is about the different roles of the designer in social design projects. I look at that now and think it’s so obvious, but it took me years to distill my research down to this line.

My PhD thesis titled: Understanding the different roles of the designer in design for social good. A study of design methodology in the Dott 07 (Designs of the Times 2007) projects

What I’ll do after the PhD
I got asked this a lot while I was doing my PhD and now that I have finished. I’ve been reading a lot about transitions. Not only does the book I am currently co-authoring have transitions in its title, but I find that I myself am in transition – transitioning out of my life with a PhD. I had a bit of  holiday after graduation and have been back in Sydney for a few weeks now. I have no doubt that when I come out of my transition, you will know about it through this blog. But in the mean time, if you have any questions or comments about doing a PhD, feel free to leave a message below.



Filed under PhD research

16 responses to “Why do a PhD (in design)

  1. Gayle

    Hey Lauren,

    Congratulations on finishing your PhD and with no corrections is brilliant. Have you published the thesis yet? I’d really like to read it, got a feeling it would be a great reference for my methodology.

    Keep well

  2. Interesting view on PhD. I have heard a lot of people having strong views on why PhD is not important for designers, but I feel time has come for design to evolve again. You articulated the reasons very well, although they are personal yet seem almost universal for designers who are engaged in systems thinking and want to solve broader set of problems.

  3. Interesting reflections and nice to read. Well done! Please let us know if, when and where we can find a link to your thesis. Will definitely read it.

  4. Hi Gayle, hinashahid and Geke. Thanks for your comments. I’m happy to hear that the post resonates with you 🙂 Gayle and Geke I have emailed you regarding the thesis.

  5. Hi Lauren -very interesting post. I am also currently busy with my PhD in Visual Studies (with a focus on human-centred graphicdesign) -would love to read your thesis. Could you please let me know when its published?

  6. Hi Kate. Thanks for your message. I will email you a copy of my thesis as the website is not quite up yet! Have you ever read ‘User-centre Graphic Design: Mass Communication and Social Change’ by Jorge Frascara (http://www.amazon.com/User-Centred-Graphic-Design-Communication-Social/dp/0748406727). It’s an awesome book and out of print but a uni library probably has it. Changed my whole idea of graphic design (which is what I studied too).

  7. Sudeb Roy

    I was asking myself similar questions after an evaluation at my transportation design course. I’m already in for the masters but I guess I have to go to the upper level to truly enjoy what I am doing. Your blog is interesting and i will come around often to go through the whole thing.
    Thanks a lot

  8. Lusekelo Mwakalindile

    Lusekelo E. Mwakalindile August 13, 2013

    I am thinking of pursuing a PhD in Communications, and I have been greatly inspired by your post.

  9. Hi! thank you for sharing this, i am looking for a Phd, i am from Ecuador and here we don’t have so much information for a Phd in Graphic Desing. But this helps me and inspire myself. Can you help where can i study a Phd, the branding is my goal.


  10. Hi Lauren,

    Congratulations on completing your PhD. I’ve been looking around for a Design Thinking PhD program in Sydney (or online) but haven’t found anything yet. Have you come across any programs in Australia? I’d love to read your thesis as well. Could you please email it to: Rajiv@PracticalVisionaries.com.au ? With thanks, Rajiv

    • Hi Rajiv, Sorry for the massive delay with replying to you. Did you manage to find a PhD program in Sydney? i would have said UTS was the best fit. Please let me know if you would still be interested in a copy of my PhD thesis. Kind regards, Lauren

  11. devan

    Congratulations on your PHD! Dr Lauren! 🙂
    Well, reading your blog just gave me some perspective on the kind of direction i would like to take as well – I am interested in social change through design and i find your thoughts very relative to my own.
    I sincerely wish i could ask you for more direction and advise.
    Thank you. Devan Das – felinedev@gmail.com.

  12. Although 3 years has passed since your post, I would still love to read and or hear from you in regards to your thesis. I am very interested in completing a PhD – like yourself I have many questions around design in practice.
    On a personal level, I have been working in graphics since 2007 and am feeling ‘stale’ and unmotivated. Please email:- bekgraphics@gmail.com

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