Professional Doctorate

The Doctorate of Design (DDes) is the first professional doctorate degree in design offered in North America and is aimed at design professionals who wish to redirect their ways of working toward more innovative and responsible practices. This three-year, full-time, non-residential degree involves distance learning with intensive residential components on the CMU campus in Pittsburgh. The format of this degree makes it possible for professional designers to undertake doctoral studies in Transition Design while continuing their employment. This type of research enables candidates to reinvent their own practice as well as further the discipline through the generation of shareable knowledge about innovative design practices. At this time, the DDes degree is only offered to legal residents of the United States.

Program Structure

Year One: involves critically honing design practice to date, culminating in the curation of key projects in combination with written reflection

Year Two: involves exploration of potential areas of practice transformation, culminating in a survey of practice and research precedents

Year Three: involves experimentation with new forms of design practice, and a shareable account of the findings. All candidates are examined by a committee of relevant experts with no prior knowledge of the candidate's research, and defend their research in a public oral presentation.

There are three components to the program:

1. Residential Intensives

At the beginning of each academic year and during Spring break, DDes and PhD students come together for intensive design research workshops. The intensives at the beginning of each academic year (mid-August) focus on research skill development and critical interrogations of new areas of designing. The Spring Break intensive (early March) comprises progress review presentations by all candidates before external panels, peers, and the public. Both intensives are rich experiences that provide the intellectual and social capital to sustain work over the academic year.

2. Curriculum

The core of the program is comprised of two to three courses per semester that take place via distance learning. These courses include a review of different approaches to design research, introduction to Transition Design and the introduction of frameworks for undertaking projects.

3. Publications

At the end of each year, in addition to project work, students produce a publishable paper. The final Doctoral submission comprises a collation and a series of curated presentations and/or exhibitions of research design work undertaken throughout the Doctorate.

The diagrams below provide an overview of DDes coursework.

DDes: Year One

A critical reflection, supported by a series of courses, on the candidates' expert practice to date, culminating in a publication that captures comparatively (via a series of case studies), the insights, patterns, habits, biases and limits of that practice.

1 Fall First Year

Retrospective Prep I 12 units

Critical evaluation of candidate's current practice

Research OF Designing I 12 units

The nature of expert design practice

Transition Design I 12 units

Evaluating risks to the resilience of our designed societies

2 Spring First Year

Progress Reviews I 3 units

Peer & external crit of research progress

Research OF Designing II 12 units

Reflective practitioner techniques

Retrospective Prep II 18 units

Critical evaluation of candidate's current practice

Design Research Intensive II 3 units

DDes: Year Two

Contextual research, supported by a series of courses, into a project that will test Transition Design practices, culminating in a contextual research report and project process outline.

3 Fall Second Year

Research FOR Designing I 12 units

Observational research and visual data analysis

Project Contextualization I 24 units

Identifying an appropriate context for exploring new practice directions

4 Spring Second Year

Transition Design II 12 units

Design-enabled sociotechnical change

Research FOR Designing II 12 units

Interviewing & verbal data analysis

Project Contextualization II 6 units

Contextual inquiry in preparation for new practice experiments

Progress Reviews II 3 units

Peer & external crit of research progress

Design Research Intensive II 3 units

Review of the latest design research

DDes: Year Three

Conducting the research project and evaluating the significance of what was discovered, culminating in a publication about those findings that will be disseminated to the candidates' professional peers. DDes candidates are expected to attend the Progress Reviews in late Spring and late Summer Intensives. These are workshops in which all DDes and PhD candidates interact and evaluate each other's work and also serve as external evaluation milestone of thesis proposal and final defenses.

5 Fall Third Year

Research BY Designing III 12 units

Understandings from craft of material making

Project 24 units

Conducting new practice experiments

6 Spring Third Year

Research BY Designing II 12 units

Design propositions as arguments

Exegesis 21 units

Evaluating the new practice experiments for significant insights

Progress Review III 3 units

External examination of the candidate's articulation of their practice redirection research


Candidates for doctoral study must meet the following requirements for application to the DDes program (note that within the context of this application disciplines such as Engineering, Architecture, Design Management do not qualify and applicants who have been working exclusively in these areas may be encouraged to undertake masters study in design prior to applying to the doctoral program):

  • A Bachelors degree in a design field from an accredited institution, with a strong record of academic achievement
  • At least 10 years professional experience as a practicing designer
  • The DDes accepts extensive professional experience (at least 10 years) in lieu of a Masters in some cases. The application process requires candidates to produce certified copies of academic transcripts.
  • Fluency in spoken/written English
  • DDes applicants must be legal residents of the United States 

More on Language Requirements

GREs are not obligatory but are strongly recommended. We look for GRE scores of 160 and above for verbal, 148 and above for quantitative, and 4.5 or above for analytical writing.

All candidates whose native language is not English are required to submit recent TOEFL or IELTS scores. This requirement will not be waived.

A TOEFL score above 102 total, with minimum sub-scores of 25, or an IELTS score of 7.5, with no score lower than 7, is required for admission to the program.  

Note: Language requirements cannot be waived. 


The DDes program is a tuition-based program. Tuition for the academic year 2018/19 is $21,000 per year (we anticipate that DDES tuition will rise $500-$1000 per year). While this is primarily a distance program, DDes students are still responsible for some university fees, and some travel and housing expenses will be incurred for the twice a year doctoral intensive that take place on the CMU campus. There are no scholarships offered for the DDes program at this time.

The Application Process

In addition to personal background information, the DDes application has 3 main components:

1.  Biographical Essay

This 2-4 page document should give the Doctoral Selection Committee a sense of who you are and why you are interested in, and appropriate for, a doctoral research degree in Transition Design. We are particularly interested in accounts of your level of design expertise. We want to understand how you think about and practice design, and the place of research in your work. You should indicate to us key figures and approaches in design history, thinking and practice that you have learned about or had experience with. You should also indicate any relevant teaching experience. We use this essay to evaluate your fit for the School in general, given that our focus is primarily Communication Design, Environments Design, Product Design, Interaction Design, Service Design, Design for Social Innovation and Transition Design. Your biographical essay should refer back to projects in your Portfolio of Expertise and connect forward to your Research Topic Proposal.

2.  Portfolio of Work 

Because this doctoral program involves less coursework in order to accelerate candidates to the research phase, accepted candidates will need to have demonstrated a high level of mastery of design and design studies. Applicants should submit a portfolio of selected design and design-related work (no more than 10 projects). The nature of the projects you select should be determined by your biographical essay and research topic proposal (explained below); choose projects that demonstrate your expertise in research-based designing in the areas that you are interested in furthering through doctoral research. Any design-related teaching experience should also be evidenced in the portfolio. Applicants should host their own digital portfolios and provide a web link in the application.

Each portfolio piece should include:

  • a clear description of what your specific role on the project was
  • a clear description of what expertise of yours is evidenced in the project
  • a clear description of the research/research process you undertook for the project
  • a clear description of any external validation of the project by peers, reviewers or users

3.  Research Topic Proposal

In 2-4 pages, describe 1 or 2 design research topics in Transition Design. These proposals are not binding – all candidates will develop more extensive research proposals that can vary markedly from their application proposals in the course of the first year of the program. The Research Topic Proposal is used by the Doctoral Selection Committee to determine: 

  • a candidate’s practical understanding of design research
  • capacity of a candidate to undertake research in a topic area related to Transition Design and appropriate for their experience and expertise as demonstrated in the Biographical Essay and the Portfolio
  • the fit between a candidate’s research interests and those of the School, faculty at CMU and potential advisors within the School’s international network

Some guideline for writing a Research Topic Proposal:

While recognizing that all candidates will undertake a year of coursework in design research, the Doctoral Selection Committee is looking for evidence of an ability to:

  • formulate a comprehensive research question in Transition Design that is not too broad in scope, but can sustain 3 years worth of investigation
  • identify appropriate collections of precedents of design work that might inform the research
  • identify appropriate bodies of literature that would frame the research
  • speculate/outline appropriate research processes and even methods, including practice-based design research projects, for conducting that research
  • list possible advisors on the faculty of the School of Design as well as those advisors external to School (within other departments at CMU or other institutions)
  • discuss potential audiences for whom the research outcomes would be appropriate

The School of Design’s Areas of Teaching and Research Focus

  • Communication Design
  • Environments Design
  • Product Design
  • Interaction Design
  • Service Design
  • Social Innovation Design
  • Design Studies
  • Transition Design

More on Transition Design

The School's Doctoral Programs are focused on Transition Design, a new area of design practice, study and research that refers to the role of design in enabling systems-level societal shifts to more sustainable futures. Transitions are multi-level, multi-stage changes. Transition Design recognizes the role of products, communications and environments in the creation of innovative social systems that can better service everyday needs. In this way, Transition Design is a higher order of designing that nevertheless always involves the more material practices of lower order designing. Transition Design is related to Strategic Design but also learns from and can make contributions to design for complex digital platforms and ecologies. Transition Design also draws on various fields from outside of design:

  • Living systems theory, especially principles of self-organization, non-linear interdependence, emergence, fractals, holarchy, phase transition and sensitivity to initial conditions.
  • Socio-technical systems, especially the Multi-Level Perspective, historical transitions, and the importance of niche experiments.
  • Social practice theory, especially the relationship within practices between the elements of ‘meaning’, ‘competencies’ and ‘materials’, on the interconnections of such practices and on their inertial tendencies.
  • Social psychology theory, especially in relation to behaviour change and framing of values.
  • Everyday life and lifestyles theories, especially those exploring the consequences for everyday life and lifestyles of centralized political and economic systems, and on the ability of communities to control the satisfaction of their needs
  • Futuring especially in relation to critical, speculative design and scenario development of future visions, and new forms of place-based everyday life that are sustainable and convivial.
  • Social, economic and technological trends, such as the reemergence of the commons and the development of the sharing, maker and circular economy, economic localization, and P2P networks.
  • Critical social theories, especially in relation to the potential for community self-organization and networking, thinking temporally, and the development of participatory political systems and equitable and sustainable economic systems.
  • Worldview theory, especially in relation to the emergence of a new holistic or ecological world view and the decline of the reductionist or mechanistic worldview.  

A monograph on Transition Design can be downloaded here >>

Applicants are encouraged to think about how their disciplinary expertise and research interests might be reframed within the larger project of design-enabled societal transition to more sustainable futures.

Submitting an Application

The School accepts applications to the DDes program each year beginning on December 1st for the beginning of the next academic year beginning in the fall. Applications may be uploaded from the Doctoral Program Admissions page on this website on/after December 1st. Applications close on February 28.

Part 1 and 3 of the DDes application (the biographical essay and research topic proposal) may be uploaded as pdf files, part 2 of the application (portfolio) should be included as a link to an online portfolio/website. 

Shortlisted candidates will be asked to provide certified hardcopies of official documents (transcripts, GRE (if undertaken), and TOEFL/IELTS test results where appropriate) by mail.


If after thoroughly reading all sections about the DDes programs and the FAQs, prospective candidates still have questions, email us for more information about the DDes Programs. Note: language requirements cannot be waived.

Important Note Regarding Distance Education

Residents of Certain States are Ineligible to Apply for Enrollment in Courses and Programs Delivered via Distance Education: For Carnegie Mellon courses and programs delivered via distance education only: Carnegie Mellon is not able to accept students who are residents of Alabama, Arkansas and Minnesota for enrollment in  courses and programs delivered via distance education because it has not applied for or received authorization from these states to deliver courses and programs via distance education to residents of these states. Carnegie Mellon has not currently applied for or received authorization from these states because Carnegie Mellon has determined that the administrative and other requirements to obtain and maintain authorization for its distance education courses and programs that would otherwise be delivered to residents of these states, including the fees charged by these states and the additional administrative costs associated with doing so, are disproportionately burdensome, excessive and/or prohibitive, at least at the present time.

ATTN Residents of AL, AR and MN: If you are a resident of Alabama, Arkansas or Minnesota, you are not eligible to apply for enrollment in Carnegie Mellon courses and programs delivered via distance education. Note, however that residents of Alabama, Arkansas and Minnesota are eligible to apply for enrollment in all other Carnegie Mellon courses and programs, including those offered at any of its various campus locations.

Inquiries regarding the above may be directed to: 

Director of Enrollment Services
Carnegie Mellon University
Warner Hall A19
5000 Forbes Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15213

Telephone:  412.268.5399