Celebrating the Work of Our 2024 PhDs in Transition Design

The 2024 PhDs in Transition Design

In May of 2024, Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Design is proud to announce our seven new PhD’s in Transition Design. This cohort, the largest number of PhD graduates in a single year for the School of Design, represents a fascinating array of thought, work, and research in the field of Transition Design.

“The PhD in Transition Design is for people committed to making a positive change in the world,” said Professor Jonathan Chapman, Director of Doctoral Studies at the School of Design.

“Our unique program develops future design leaders with the capacity to envision and realize purposeful change across a range of complex systems—from food, water, materials and products, to policy, culture, economy, cities, and social movements.

“This has been a record-breaking year for the School of Design’s doctoral program. Seven is the most PhD graduates the school has ever produced in a single year, and the quality of our research continues to grow from strength-to-strength.

“We believe that fundamental change at every level of society is needed to address the issues confronting us in the 21st century. From climate change, loss of biodiversity, and depletion of natural resources, to systems of oppression, inequality, and inequity, Transition Design tackles these kinds of complex, wicked problems.

“The seven PhD defenses were an awe-inspiring series of debates on some of the most pressing social and ecological challenges of our time.”

Dr. Hillary Carey’s dissertation, “Social Design Dreaming: Designing Future Visions of Racial Justice,” explores how designers can support racial justice advocates by crafting compelling visions of racially equitable futures. By emphasizing long-term visions as a leverage point for social change, the dissertation argues for the importance of vivid depictions of everyday future life to motivate and engage people in justice projects. Through collaboration between designers and change makers, this approach fosters hopeful visions and specific outcomes, offering new tools for creating a more just, free, and joyful world. This work is significant for its potential to amplify engagement in racial justice efforts and inspire positive change.

Advisors: Jonathan Chapman, Alexandra To

Dr. Esther Kang’s dissertation, “Sediments of Design: Reimagining the Temporal Dimension of Place-Based Design in the United States,” reimagines locally based design by examining its relationship with histories, particularly in the context of local economies led by working immigrant communities. Through fieldwork in Los Angeles, Seoul, and GwangJu, Kang explores how designers navigate complex landscapes to develop justice-oriented, place-based practices. She argues that design in locally based work must consider power dynamics and representations in diasporic ways of being, emphasizing an ongoing repositioning practice informed by local, national, and transnational histories. This work introduces the concept of “sediments of design,” highlighting the need for a nuanced understanding of place and advocating for change through thoughtful, contextually aware design practices.

Advisors: Jonathan Chapman, Sarah Fox, Noah Theriault

Dr. Adam Cowart’s dissertation, “Between Dreams: Futures Storytelling in Transition Design,” explores how storytelling about the future can inspire action in the present. The research focuses on the narrative structure of these stories, known as “emplotment,” which is often overlooked. By studying emplotment, the dissertation suggests that we can break free from old narratives and imagine more aspirational futures. This work is significant for its potential to influence how we think about the future, inspiring new and imaginative pathways forward.

Advisors: Peter Scupelli, Gideon Kossoff, David Boje

Dr. Erica Dorn’s dissertation, "Relational Design for Transitions within U.S. Suburbs," emphasizes the importance of U.S. suburbs as sites for systemic change towards more equitable and sustainable futures. Through practical research projects, Dorn explores how suburbs, with their increasing diversity and complex challenges, can be leveraged for positive transitions. She advocates for community-led, transdisciplinary approaches that recognize the significance of mobility and relationships to place. This work proposes an ecology of systems interventions to design for transitions, aiming to guide suburbanization towards more just and sustainable outcomes.

Advisors: Terry Irwin, Jonathan Chapman

Dr. Jabe Bloom’s dissertation, “Temporally Informed Design,” challenges the traditional view of design as a simplistic problem-solving tool within a market-driven economy. Instead, it proposes a perspective of design as an ongoing, complex interaction between intervention and context, shaping our existence in profound ways. By emphasizing the study of complexity and temporality, the dissertation argues for a broader education in design, empowering students to critically engage with and shape the world around them. This work is significant for its redefinition of design as a discipline that goes beyond market demands, advocating for a more holistic understanding of its role in society.

Advisors: Jonathan Chapman, Gideon Kossoff, Cameron Tonkinwise, Ahmed Ansari

Dr. Margaret Urban’s dissertation, “A Field Guide to the Anthro-Silvan Interface,” examines how Westernized cultures’ shortsightedness leads to ecological crises like climate change. By studying human-tree interactions, the dissertation suggests that understanding forests can shift human behavior and foster systemic change. It uses case studies to show how viewing trees beyond mere resources can expand our temporal frame, promoting long-term thinking. The research also explores sensory augmentation to perceive trees’ hidden workings, aiming to develop empathy and environmentally conscious attitudes. This work is significant for its potential to change mindsets and behavior towards the environment.

Advisors: Jonathan Chapman, Gideon Kossoff, Noah Theriault

Dr. Maddy Sides’ dissertation, “Relate, Repair, Restore: Ecological Transitions by Design,” addresses environmental degradation as a complex, interconnected issue that requires holistic solutions. The dissertation argues that current restoration approaches often overlook the human dimensions of ecosystems, focusing solely on biophysical aspects. Through case studies and practitioner interviews in Northern California, Sides examines how restoration initiatives can address both the symptoms and root causes of degradation. The dissertation proposes a new approach to ecosystem restoration, emphasizing the need for restorationists to work as problem-solvers and visionaries at a landscape scale. This work advocates for a design mindset in restoring nature, highlighting the importance of considering human dimensions in environmental solutions.

Advisors: Jonathan Chapman, Gideon Kossoff

“I am proud to work in a Design School that is audacious enough to have a PhD program that takes an uncompromising political position on critical issues of social and ecological justice,” added Chapman.

“On behalf of the whole School of Design, we are extremely proud of our new Drs, the important work they have produced, and will continue to produce out in the world.”

Learn more about the PhD in Transition Design at the School of Design.