Category Archives: PhD research

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.



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Critical voices and research into design for social good

I’ve been spending a fair amount of time revising the Introduction to my PhD thesis. To set the context of my thesis I’ve been re-reading papers on design for social good. Otherwise know as social design, design for social innovation, design for social impact, design for sustainability, transformation design, design for public service etc. etc. the use of these phrases are dependent on which country, which design thinker, which academic researcher, which design company you are looking into. I stated in my thesis that I’ll use the phrase ‘design for social good’ as an umbrella term to bring together all these different phrases and concepts where designers direct their design work first and foremost toward social causes.

In the last few years I have noticed many papers and writing that has surfaced on design for social good. And actually less advocating it and more critical voices that outline the weaknesses of design in this context (See Mulgan, 2009), its limitations (See Drenttel in Harrison, 2010; Emilson et al, 2011), the essential need for designers to work with other disciplines to better address social issues (See Schulman, 2010) and its politics, or lack thereof (Fast Company, 2010; Tonkinwise, 2010).

A photo I took of a poster from New Designers, London in 2009 asking exhibition guests ‘Is design political?’ I think the response is pretty interesting. My blog post of the New Designers 2009 exhibition here.

While I have no problem with critical thinking (in fact in a meeting I was in today creatives and designers from industry mentioned there was very little design criticism in Australia) what I have come to realise throughout my research is that we don’t fully understand, and are not clear yet, on what designers actually do contribute in the space of design for social good. One of the most authoritative voices in the area is design and innovation firm IDEO. They identify user research, synthesis and prototyping in design thinking for social innovation (See Brown and Wyatt, 2009). But I have actually found that the most insightful understanding of design for social good actually comes from people outside the design discipline (in literature such as previously referenced Mulgan, 2009 and Schulman, 2010 and also at roundtables and meetings I have attended). Geoff Mulgan who is not a designer, but Chief Executive of NESTA (National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts) provides his perspective on the strengths of design for social good. From his observations of working with designers he outlines the strengths as visualisation, novel insight, providing a user perspective and prototyping (Mulgan, 2009). The weaknesses, he says, are lack of economical and organisational skills, inability to drive implementation, the cost of design consultants, a lack of knowledge of evidence and field experiences.

I think Mulgan’s insight are great, but is this the best position for the design discipline to be in- to have others inform us of what we do well (and not so well)? Shouldn’t designers put their own voice to this? Shouldn’t we be confident in communicating the value we bring? Maybe it’s the case that objective voices are more credible because they balance the positive with the critical. But I think it’s because we, as designers, don’t really understand the value we bring when we design for social good.

Furthermore, many academics have sought to frame research agendas for design for social good, such as Margolin and Margolin (2002) and Manzini (2008). This shows that this area of design is still very young and very emergent.

I am often asked to provide a more critical voice to my research. But before I provide a critical voice, I think it’s really important to better understand the concept of design for social good and understand ourselves as designers. This means understanding what we’re doing in these contexts and identifying what value we bring. These, I believe, are just as important as recognising the weaknesses and limitations of design.

As designers, we need to better articulate what we do and our value instead of waiting for others speak for us. We also need to look at other disciplines, recognise what they are doing and identify what we actually contribute when we work and collaborate with them. Social issues are complex. Designers are not subject matter, policy, economic or cultural experts. We need to work with others to understand social issues, different contexts, and other discipline approaches so that we can use design to enhance, not replace or take over, how we help address and respond to complex social issues. We will be better at outlining our roles as part of these teams, if we know and articulate better what we do and the value we bring to the table.

Update (14 July 2011)

I should mention that in a few months time Object (Australian centre for craft and design) will be publishing their digital magazine and in this edition I profile ‘Design thinking for social innovation.’ I’ll update you here when it is published so I can actually begin to answer some of the questions I ask above! In the mean time check out Object’s current iPad magazine here. Or their past print editions (via Issuu) here. All the latest news from Object on Twitter is here.


Filed under PhD research, Social and community

Coldplay gives us insight into the creative process

Somewhere between London and Sydney last December I spent an hour on the plane learning a whole lot more about British band, Coldplay. In the documentary that played in front of me I learnt how lead vocalist Chris Martin creates songs and I think he provides really great insight into the creative process. Designers often struggle to articulate their creative process and Chris Martin shows just how tricky it is to make it explicit.

Below is a short YouTube clip of Chris Martin speaking about and showing us how he created ‘Clocks’ one of Coldplay’s most well known songs. In the clip we see how a lot of creativity happens on feeling, intuition, collaboration and also just trying things out again and again (iteration) to get to where we want to be. Sometimes we know where we want to go but there is a process to get there. Sometimes we only know where we wanted to go when it is done. Unless we give things a chance and try them out, we’ll never know what could be created.

I think there are some really interesting insights and lessons into creativity and design here. Especially for design thinking, which is gaining a lot of popularity in Australia among business organisations and government.

Finally, here’s what the process became- ‘Clocks’ one of Coldplay’s most successful songs.


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