Recently, on the AIGA Design
Educator community forum, an exchange about terminal degrees in
design prompted much discussion about the importance of—and
misconceptions about—the MFA.
Professor Meredith Davis, who chairs one of the country's few
PhD programs in design at North Carolina State University, has much
to say on the master's role and the efficacy of advanced degrees.
We caught up with Davis, a 2005 AIGA
Medalist, to discuss the present and future of doctorates in
design, the importance of research and the nexus of practice and
Heller: You wrote: “As director of a PhD program, I
think we're a long way from the PhD being the terminal degree in
design, and I worry about discussions that suggest that the
development of the PhD may 'disqualify' current holders of terminal
master's degrees for college teaching.” But if the PhD is not
“terminal,” then what does it offer the recipient?
Davis: As I explained in a recent posting on
the AIGA listserv, the MFA is a “terminal professional
degree.” That is a quasi-legal definition, adhered to by
universities and accrediting agencies, and its intent is to qualify
holders of the degree with the essential competencies to teach in
professionally oriented university or college design programs and
to work eventually at the highest levels of practice.
Heller: It seems to me that the advanced degree offers
two virtues. First, for the academic, it is another level of
credibility. And secondly, for the achiever, it is a measure of
much more intense study or research and time invested. Since
MFAdesign thesis projects run a fairly broad
gamut from, say, designing a typeface family to determining means
of on-demand book printing in third world countries, isn't the MFA
experience enough? Why go attain a PhD?
Davis: The “typeface to printing on-demand”
gamut is from A to M, not A to Z, in my experience. In explaining
this, I would refer to a model by Jess McMullin that describes a
continuum of design
maturity. At the most rudimentary end of the continuum is
styling, which McMullin describes as “the gateway to hip
and cool.” Moving along the continuum is form and
function, which seeks to “make things work better”; this is
the work of most baccalaureate programs in design. The third stage
is problem solving, which “defines new opportunities
within existing problems.” I would say most master's programs
operate at this stage of the continuum, especially those populated
by students who graduated from nonprofessional bachelor's programs
(BA, BS and BFA) and change-of-career candidates.
At the most advanced stage of McMullin's continuum is
framing, in which the “challenges and boundaries for
design are redefined” and in which work moves from “executing to
shaping strategy.” It is this stage of practice that the top tier
of master's programs address in preparing their graduates; such
academic programs are matched by professional offices that have the
same goal to move design into new areas of influence and to
transform the nature of practice. An example would be Shelley
Evenson's work at Carnegie Mellon to develop the practice of
“service design,” mirrored by the professional work of Hugh
Dubberly. Or the design planning and methods work at the Institute
of Design at Illinois Institute of Technology, which meets the
needs of Chicago strategy firms like the Doblin Group.
Heller: So you're saying there are more challenges at
Davis: For the most part, design challenges at
this level of practice are complex; they require information from
many disciplines that must be reconciled in terms of design action.
And they often demand knowledge that does not yet exist.
A recent master's project by Amber Howard at NC State University
illustrates this approach. Howard determined that there is great
potential in digital technology that allows us to “anticipate”
changes in our physical well-being. “Anticipation” is different
from “predicting”—as in the weather—or “expecting”—as in waiting
for a birthday you know will come. The relationship between the
visual representation of data and the human sensing of change is
not an area with which design has much experience.
Heller: In your estimation, what is the deficiency of a
Davis: I'm not sure I would call it a
“deficiency.” Master's study of this kind addresses a particular
perspective or role to be played in some larger design effort. The
master's student is capable of framing a design investigation such
as Howard's, and is able to identify the issues and speculate about
the types of objects or strategies that may be useful. But the
content of a two-year master's curriculum is not constructed to
develop her ability to conduct empirically valid and reliable
research—not designed to support fully the actual product
development by industry or to inform with any degree of certainty
the future action of other designers who have similar concerns.
There is no true accountability in speculative master's work, other
than to consider design solutions that are informed by current
knowledge and reasonable in their assumptions about people and
On the other hand, there are people for whom “really knowing” is
important and clients and audiences or users for whom it is
essential. Doctoral students enjoy the search and are committed to
the generalizability of the information, to its value in many
situations beyond their own projects.
One of the characteristics that distinguish a profession from a
trade is a segment of practice devoted exclusively to research.
Design is now developing such practices, and there are students for
whom this kind of work is very appealing.
Heller: Agreed, but a PhD is a very long, involved
process. Is it necessary to make this the highest level of
professional/academic achievement? And if so, why?
Davis: The work of these doctoral students is
important to the health of the research culture and to future
conceptions of design as a discipline of study and a field of
practice. A 2005
Metropolis survey of 1,051 designers, design faculty,
and students in all design disciplines found that as much as 90
percent of design research findings are inaccessible to students
and faculty, even in their own institutions. There are no
design-sensitive research databases or search engines (enter
“branding” in the typical library search and you get books on
cattle) and most of the research generated by private practice is
proprietary. Therefore, the development of research practice is
slower and accomplishes less than it could to increase the value of
design in the world. Universities, on the other hand, exist
expressly to generate and disseminate knowledge. The work of
doctoral students is accessible through library catalogs and
usually results in publications for the field.
As design continues to lose territory to other fields that now
claim our traditional expertise—computer science programs, for
example, now offer study in information design—it is critical that
we bring more to interdisciplinary teams than styling or meeting
facilitation. Research by these other fields is notoriously naïve
with respect to visual and meaning-making issues. We have very real
work to do and what we decide is worth doing will define the future
of our discipline.
Heller: What does the PhD concept mean for those who
have presumed a master's is their highest degree?
Davis: The PhD is not another step in acquiring
increasingly “professional” qualifications. It is a very different
path to the development of specific kinds of knowledge that don't
currently exist. Just as the MBA is the terminal degree for
professional study in business, the MFA or its equivalent is
currently for people who want to practice or teach design. There
are a few professional doctorates (Doctor of Architecture, for
example), but they don't have much of a foothold in the field and
their intent is not research. Many of the European doctoral
programs also follow the practice-based model.
In the United States, however, the Doctor of Philosophy is for
those students who see themselves as researchers, as knowledge
generators, not as advanced practitioners or better prepared
teachers of problem solving in professional programs. This is why I
argued on the listserv that fear mongering about the demise of the
MFA is not productive; it arbitrarily pits research against
professional development at a time when the field needs both.
And I believe it will be this new generation of doctoral
students who will ramp up the level of expectations in master's
programs, who will create the clear distinctions between
undergraduate and graduate studies that don't currently exist in
most schools. They will bring new dimensions to the framing and
criticism of student projects and will be as comfortable in
seminars and lecture classes as they will be in studios. This will
be especially important in research universities, where they will
also have active research careers that shape what students learn
and how design relates to other academic disciplines.
Heller: You have talked about emerging research. And
indeed research has become a buzzword among designers. What is this
research? Is it theoretical, practical or what?
Davis: To use an analogy, there is chemistry
and there is the work of being a chemist. When we study how
molecules are organized or hypothesize about the nature of an
unknown element, we employ different kinds of information and
skills than those necessary to conduct an experiment or to
synthesize a known compound. There is information about the
discipline of chemistry and it is distinct from
information about the practice of being a chemist. We can conduct
research in either area, but the types of knowledge and the methods
for discovering them are very different. And they have different
kinds of value to the field and to others.
The 2005 Metropolis survey found that 81 percent of
design practitioners say their offices engage in research, and 65
percent of university department chairs say it is necessary and
required of their faculty. But when asked what they mean by
research, answers ranged from choosing color swatches to acquiring
deep understanding of users. When queried about the most important
topics for research attention by the field, sustainability ranked
at the top of the list, but systems theory was among lowest valued
areas of investigation. It is nonsensical to think that we can make
any progress on issues of sustainability without understanding the
nature of complex systems and how they behave. So clearly, there is
confusion within the field about what constitutes research and what
is worthy of our efforts.
Heller: In other academic areas, research (combined with
publishing) is key to promotion. Should this be the case in design
studies? Shouldn't practice amount for the lion's share of
Davis: This picture of research is complicated
by the necessity of art and design faculty to achieve tenure and
promotion within their institutions. We have sold university and
college administrations, justifiably, on a set of performances that
range from freelance practice to art exhibitions, to self-published
writing, to the funded development of new knowledge. But in doing
so, unfortunately, we've diluted the meaning of “research” by
applying it to an array of laudable, but very diverse activities,
most of which have few benchmarks comparable in rigor to those of
the sciences and humanities.
In the interest of job security, this sloppy definition of
research equates the design of a moderately creative solution to a
company's capability brochure with empirical research strategies
for gauging the role of emotion in user interactions with
technology—a blog entry on the internet with an article in a
refereed journal. I believe our cavalier use of the term
“research,” and the lack of meaningful criteria for its evaluation,
suppress the development of new knowledge in design and the
advancement of faculty skills in scholarly work. If it is OK to
hang something in an unjuried university exhibition and call it
research, then why go through the laborious processes of securing
funding, conducting tedious investigations, and writing for
refereed journals and book publications? Given the high teaching
loads of design faculty, the former is the easier route, but it
doesn't contribute to the field in ways that are likely to
Heller: In your PhD program, what are the rigors and
requisites—and what is the expected outcome?
Davis: Most people don't go through this for
status or privilege; there are much easier ways to gain those
things than to immerse yourself in doctoral study for three-plus
The admissions process varies among the four schools that offer
PhDs in industrial and graphic design, but most are modeled on
practices in other fields with longer histories of doctoral study.
Our applicants take the Graduate Record Exam, submit transcripts of
previous college work, and provide background information and
recommendations that confirm predispositions for academic study. We
usually require a previous design degree, but we also consider
students whose work in other fields has been design-oriented. There
is significant design-related work done in other fields that makes
it difficult to exclude non-design degrees; interaction design
work, for example, may be found in a number of disciplines.
What differs from the application processes in other fields is
the portfolio requirement. And unlike the portfolio review for
admissions to master's study in design, we look for evidence that
the applicant has a clear idea of research interests and recognizes
the distinction between professional studio-based study and
doctoral research in design. This may be evident through writing
samples, critical analyses of recent readings, or the depth or
breadth of previous research experiences beyond required study.
In addition, one of our 14 doctoral faculty must step forward
and agree to mentor the student. Doctoral study is less about the
courses taken than about the research relationship with a faculty
adviser. If there is no interest expressed by a faculty member in
the student and/or the research topic, there is no basis on which
to build that relationship. Many of our students also work under
research assistantships that pair them with faculty in the
faculty's work. They're paid for this work, but there still needs
to be some affinity between the student and the investigation. So
some very qualified students may not be admitted because their
topic is inconsistent with the expertise or availability of
Heller: What does it mean to be committed to the Ph.D.
Davis: Once admitted to the NC State PhD
program in design, the student undertakes two years of coursework
and at least one year of dissertation work. The required coursework
common to all students includes courses in research paradigms and
research methods, as well as a second course requirement in methods
more specifically related to the student's investigation. Students
undertaking quantitative studies also take a course in statistics,
while students in history and criticism study philosophy.
Students have milestone reviews that assess their ability to
frame research problems and to conduct independent work as they
progress through the program. There are some students who are
successful in faculty-driven coursework, but who just are not
suited to the rigor and uncertainty of independent research; these
milestones confirm that the student can sustain research activity
upon graduation and without faculty guidance.
We also believe the ability to make presentations at research
conferences and to write for professional journals is essential. We
have a budget that supports student presentations and we track
their publishing records very closely through an annual reporting
process. In many cases, the student co-publishes with the faculty
as a start of this dissemination effort.
Heller: Who are today's PhD candidates? Are they
practitioners, scholars or something else?
Davis: Ours is an interdisciplinary program, so
we compete for students with about 20 architecture programs and
three industrial/graphic design programs nationally. We've
graduated 15 students since the program's inception in 1999 (most
of the early admissions were students with backgrounds in
architecture and landscape architecture), and we have another 15 in
the pipeline. About half of them are international students, whose
countries often require the PhD for university teaching positions.
Many return to teaching in their home countries, but several have
gone on to establish their own research practices.
The American students are more varied. They range from a
fifty-something full professor to students who come directly from
their master's studies. Of the five students beginning the program
next fall, three are graphic designers with established
professional careers in high-profile design offices or their own
practices. One is well published in the design press, but all are
good writers. A fourth student has worked in universal design and
will do her research assistantship in our Center on that topic. The
fifth student is interested in sustainable architecture and has a
history of television journalism on the subject, in addition to her
master's study in interior architecture.
Heller: What is the future of the PhD in design in this
Davis: This is an enterprise that requires very
particular faculty resources and a supportive institution that
understands the challenges of launching a new degree program that
has few precedents nationally. I think programs will be most likely
to find homes in research universities where there are the
commitments and infrastructure in place to foster this kind of
Heller: Do you foresee this as a growth degree or simply
a marginal pursuit for the truly committed?
Davis: I hope this work won't be marginal, and
inquiries make me optimistic that the audience for design research
is growing. I truly believe it is the future of the field. What
students in the current programs do over the next decade will be
the test. If the outcomes of their studies are of value to the
field, programs will prove that the effort is worth doing.
Allen offers a personal post-grad reflection on making her way back into professional life with new attitudes about design and the designer’s role.
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