Earlier this month, PhD Candidates from Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Design and from other institutions across the country gathered to present and critique their in-progress work with their peers. This unique symposium invited proposals from individuals or groups that are conducting doctoral research in all areas of design practice, history and theory.
The Doctoral Program at the School of Design requires all candidates make annual public presentations of their research each year of their study. This was the first year that the program extended an invitation to Design Doctoral candidates at institutions other than Carnegie Mellon University.
“Design is a relatively young discipline,” said Cameron Tonkinwise, Director of Design and Doctoral Studies at the School of Design. “Design PhD Programs are not even 2 decades old. In addition, design research is complicated by being future-oriented. Critique is essential to designing.
“All this means that design research is something that needs constant validation and bench-marking,” Tonkinwise added. “There is always a danger of group-think, so it is crucial that Design PhD candidates expose their research to as wide a range of people as possible.”
The aim was to prototype building the program’s annual progress reviews into a larger gathering of North American design researchers. With less than a month’s notice, more than 25 doctoral candidates resourced themselves to come to the School of Design’s reviews.
“It was a wonderful space to share new ideas in design research,” said Dimeji Onafuwa, a PhD candidate from the School of Design whose research in social design seeks to understand the impact of collaborative platforms on the costs of contributing to a commons by exploring what he calls design-enabled “recommoning” in order to determine how design interventions may change our ideas on commoning.
“The symposium allowed us to be able to compare notes to see similarities and differences in our respective programs,” continued Onafuwa. “There's something about that which allowed you to build confidence about sharing your work.
“Being in the same boat with other participants felt like one huge therapy session.”
Michael Arnold Mages, another School of Design PhD candidate, compared the Symposium to a good design critique.
“Seeing the way others approach similar projects, and hearing from people who are working along similar lines as you are is just, straight-up, an enriching experience,” said Mages, whose work focuses on designing to facilitate high-stakes conversations, like a CEO taking with an attorney about an initial public offering, or a patient talking with a doctor about a critical course of treatment, or citizens talking with government about how to renovate a section of their neighborhood. Mage’s focus is on the root question, “what role can design play in facilitating that experience?”
“People at other institutions designed their research a little differently than most of us CMU PhDs,” Mages added. “Those differences provide insights and ideas for future steps.
“Plus, it is dead fun to get together with a group of people who are smart, and all working on similar things.”
Tom Jenkins, a 5th year PhD student from Georgia Tech researching technology in cohousing contexts and how speculative design within cohousing might produce novel “Internet of Things” technologies, said the Symposium was an opportunity to reflect on his own problems and think about how he might address them differently.
“I have been confusing my theoretical foundation--or why I am interested in the context of the issue—with a design motivation,” said Jenkins. “Now that I am thinking about the motivation to do different kinds of design work, instead of just getting at the meat of my theory, I feel invigorated to get back into the design process that had been stumping me.
“Interacting with this community helped me to situate my own research among practitioners who think more like me.”
For Amanda Geppert, a PhD student from the IIT Institute of Design in Chicago, the Symposium was the first time that she and her colleagues have had the opportunity to share work-in-progress and hear about the in-progress work of other U.S.-based Design PhD students.
“In this way, the event was a landmark,” said Geppert.
Geppert’s work focuses on social innovation initiatives that work toward social sustainability, that aim to achieve fairness in distribution and opportunity relative to adequate provision of social services, including health and education, gender equity and political accountability and participation. Her research explores the use of participatory design as a mechanism to build the capabilities of everyday citizens, and the civic capacity of neighborhoods, such that they are directly involved in creating sustainable responses that are relevant, while also creating locally held knowledge that can be used as a practical resource for action and social change, more generally.
“Hands-down, from the perspective of me and my fellow ID Design PhD students, it was an invaluable opportunity to learn about the research our peers are conducting, their approaches, their challenges, and the institutional structures that help to facilitate their work,” she added.
“It was equally important to have the chance to receive feedback on our own research from peers and faculty,” said Geppert. “It was so refreshing to be in a community where we felt supported and understood, and to be able to build a network among us.
“The dissertation process is alienating in its own right, but being a Design PhD student adds another layer of alienation because the concept of ‘design’ has changed so much in recent years, so usually most people have no idea what we’re talking about.”
Geppert is also thinking about her work in a different way.
“I received some very specific feedback that will help me reframe how I’m characterizing some particular aspects of my research, and that illustrated that I need to better communicate other aspects of my research that were not clear as they should have been.”
For Tonkinwise, he felt that two aspects of the School of Design’s program really intrigued doctoral candidates from other universities. The first was that early stage doctoral candidates were already well into their research.
“The CMU School of Design doctoral programs are more European in structure, accelerating candidates quickly through a full-time course-work first-year so that they can then immerse themselves in full-time research,” said Tonkinwise.
The second was that the candidates at the School of Design were asking broad and challenging research questions informed by robust theoretical frameworks.
“The candidate’s topics seemed bold to some of the attendees from other institutions, and unconstrained by fixed methodologies,” he added. “This has something to do with the wider graduate culture at the School of Design, which has always involved rigorous seminars alongside challenging studios.
“It also has to do with the doctoral focus on Transition Design which aims to investigate ways in which designers can be more effective at systems level social changes toward more sustainable futures.”
Check out all of the images from the School of Design's PHD Symposium: