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Reconfiguring the Design PhD

This post contains the contribution by Andrew Morrison to the conversationally framed symposium on Critiquing the North American Design PhD hosted by Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) this fall. Led by Cameron Tonkinwise and Laurene Vaughan, the symposium offered a unique platform for discussing the legacies and current initiatives in doctoral education in design as well as its potential futures.

Very many of the key aspects of designing and supporting the PhD in design are covered in the core texts and responses provided by Laurene and Cameron. My contribution to this dialogue – on what it is that matters for and specifies a PhD that is in design and through designing – crosses a number of these motivations. My views are based on experience in doing collaborative design research, running and contributing to an interdisciplinary and school-wide PhD programme, and especially the dynamics of close supervision and co-writing and publication with a wide range of students taking a doctorate in design.

One of the challenges in drawing up and implementing a PhD programme in design is to continuously support what it is that marks its pedagogy and inquiry as design related. All to easily we can slip into carrying through doctoral education in design as if it were one in a generic programme in the humanities or social sciences (or even informatics or engineering). Disciplinary or domain knowledges and practices naturally have an important place in offering and taking a PhD in design. Yet, again and again, when one comes down to the actual projects students pitch and then see through to elegant and rigorous completion, design based inquiry is marked by a need to engage with and communicate the conjectural. By this I mean that design inquiry is performative in a different sense to studies that are textual and contextual studies, or are cast in empirical and substantive verification. Design work engages with a mode of inquiry that enacts an oscillation and processes that are largely lodged in an abductive logic. It is typically chiasmic in character. It is emergent in and through processes of not only reflective but also reflexive inquiry. Further, it is characterised by its ecologically framed mode of both shaping and building knowledge. Design inquiry demands multi-literacies, and its is increasingly realised through multimodal, electronic communication and tools. The artifacts we form, tease out, problematise and now often present as hybrid things that others may reshape and repurpose in cultural use orient us all to epistemic knowledge creation and exchanges that we do not see in writings and practices of mainstream hermeneutics or the working of the social sciences.

Yet, in the literature on design research, we seldom see mention of the conjectural nature of design inquiry. This may be one of the legacies of hard-eyed modernism. Or it may also be a result of a discursive entrapment in the conventions and formats of academic publication that we see a need to conform to or provide design with legitimacy. Or at a micro level, it may be a rhetorical repetition of the values and boundaries we seeks to escape simply because conferences demand we adhere to their electronic templates, inherited from other disciplines or organisations. In the fray of seeking positive reviews in we may find ourselves reiterating the very logics we seek to avoid yet what is it that helps us to assert, broadly and boldly, that design does, that design inquiry reconsiders and needs to communicate not merely through thick description or contextually located processes of making and use. Design artifacts, interactions, systems and services are realised via a conjectural stance. We work not only with what is known and given. We reach towards what is not-yet-in-hand or fully known in processes of collaborative co-creation. We engage in abductive shifts between allusion and the tangential, always however with an eye on the recombinatorial and how diffusion and diffraction may enable us to arrive at a different understanding, an enriched competency and points at which this may coalesce into a dynamic or a product for others to take up – and even revise or replace through similar means.

The conjectural in design spans the development of design works and practices to the mechanisms we include in researching design and designing. When we turn on the known processes and routes to criticality and reflection, those things that mark out we are conducting research, albeit it often in-the-making and with a design specific granularity and generality of refection in- and on-action, it is the speculative as a mode of inquiry that needs our attention. This is what our students find difficult to legitimate in their written papers and theses. Do we secure examiners who are at once critical and demanding in their close readings of our students’ work and also willing to engage in then risky performatives that much design research in fact enacts? What then of design writing and design criticism itself? What instances of speculative inquiry can we present to new researchers in design that will provide them with some of the scaffolding to negotiate their own shifts in learning towards independent and sharp analysis and informed critique that is not overwhelmed by the necessarily diverse literature they soak up – many fresh in from professional practice –  slowly, doubtfully, and increasingly with a necessary scepticism. Design writing and criticism need to experiment with how to perform a rhetorics of the speculative that acknowledges the place of the conjectural in design inquiry. As design educators working at the doctoral level we also need to locate such claims within actual cases and examples of design research. But in addition, we need to also frame this pedagogically more carefully within a socio-cultural approach to learning that offers us a meta language for presenting discussing the dynamics of making with critical reflection.

Increasingly, we see how the conjectural, abductive and speculative are a challenge to other domain areas and interdisciplinary research. Design has much to offer outside the design PhD but its is a site for rich experimentation and collaboration,  participation and contribution from design practitioners and academic researchers. We often read about design thinking and designerly ways of knowing but we now need to get inside that knowledge making beyond cognitivist models of mind and learning, outside the boundaries of protocol analyses of creative processes and over the horizons of design attempting to satisfy criteria of scientism or textual analysis that is unable to account for what is not only staring us in the face but staring us down in our classrooms and supervision sessions. We have knowledges and practices that need clearer articulation. We have opportunities to use the cultures and practices of the studio but also the field, to offer a pro-spective design hermeneutics linked with the digital humanities and to literally design our socio-cultural analyses that are not simply reflections in- and on-action but critically constituted ones that evidence knowledge that is garnered through design work and respectful of modes of knowing that can no longer be relegated to the tacit or be placed to the side by well read critical theorists who cannot see where the ‘text’ even is.

To consider the conjectural in design education for the PhD is itself a conjectural discursive move. To assert it, for example, is to draw on the legacy of participatory design. It is to assert that inquiries into design and culture may encapsulate knowledge that is gleaned through contexts of messy, emergent use and knowledge. In doing this we are asking our students to take part in what design too rarely names as a learning culture. The PhD in design needs not only to be taught and examined, its also need to be researched as a fascinating domain of learning in its own right. This is a space for invention where construction and critique are constantly being reconfigured, yet must be accountable to others nearby and accessible to those further afield so that to conjecture is a deliberative act of informed but always wicked knowing.

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