Thinking about a PhD in Design?

Dan Harden

I am going on 37 years as a design consultant. During this time, I have hired hundreds of designers at Whipsaw, frog design and Dreyfuss. Less than five percent of those hires had Masters degrees. Up until recently you simply didn’t need a Masters degree, let alone a Doctorate to have an impact. What you needed to succeed as a designer were talent, tools, talk, and tons of passion. For these right-brain attributes that made the design profession what it is today, an undergrad degree sufficed.

 

An evolving landscape

The field of Industrial Design is changing. On one end of the spectrum, design is returning to its roots. A place where craft, materials, and product quality are the primary focus. Think about companies like BluDot or Heath Ceramics that start with a basic idea and develop a few very good and very simple products. At these craft-centric companies and even at most consultancies, an undergrad degree still suffices.

On the other end of the spectrum, design is becoming much more complex. It is especially apparent within large corporations that have had a design epiphany and expanded the role of design from styling a product, to styling an experience, to solving some of their most important business challenges. To truly innovate in certain fields like medical, AI, robotics, and mobility, designers need to understand, facilitate and synthesize a huge amount of information. Processes have become more complex. Research methodology has become more nuanced. Technology has become more elaborate. Collaboration techniques have changed the creative workplace.

 

Making a case

Because designers are good at seeing the big picture and tasked with finding patterns in the chaos, they are often summoned by the C-suite. Therefore, designers need to understand and work with many disciplines, especially engineering and marketing. They need to speak their language. There’s just so much stuff to learn and be proficient at as a designer. If a doctor needs a PhD to understand the complex workings of the human body, perhaps a designer needs a PhD to understand the complex workings of a corporate body on a mission to innovate.

 

If a doctor needs a PhD to understand the complex workings of the human body, perhaps a designer needs a PhD to understand the complex workings of a corporate body on a mission to innovate.

 

I would argue that a Doctoral degree in Industrial Design should be called something entirely different. Something that captures a deeper understanding of the various disciplines involved in the design process. Perhaps a PhD in Innovation Science, or PhD in RDD (Research, Design, Development) is appropriate. Such a name would acknowledge the wide spectrum of the profession. It also ensures that non-PhD designer are celebrated for what they do well and prevents marginalization for having a lesser degree.

 

A bright opportunity

The real promise of a doctoral degree is what will be discovered. To see what happens when individuals are given the opportunity to dive deeper into the subject of Design. Especially the ability to operate without the external influence of “requirements”. It would give wings to our highest cause as designers. It would allow one to experiment with free abandon, push the boundaries, and thereby advance the profession as a whole into the future.

 

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