NiTRO Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

University design programs – what are we good for? Doctoral programs in design practice for the future

By Professor Laurene Vaughan — For some time now I have been focused on a series of questions about the future of the university and what value it brings to the world now and for the future.

These times of increasing social, cultural and political uncertainty, technological advancement and environmental fragility challenge us in the academy. They call us to critique what we do, and to understand the value that we bring.  What can we in the design, and associated creative sectors offer students at all levels? How we can support people to practice in the future?

Recently as I was talking about my concerns, I was asked by a colleague – “What do you propose that we can do?”  “What do we offer, what can we nurture in the field and in our students and graduates as a first step for thinking through these big issues?” These are challenging questions to which there are no easy answers but a common solution that seems to be emerging is interdisciplinary collaboration – where designers work with humanities and science as a step towards finding and realising solutions to these challenges. There is an increasing focus on the possibilities of imagination, creativity and design thinking as being essential to innovative solutions. This, of course, promises opportunities for design practitioners,  but how do we embark on such an endeavor and maintain our disciplinary integrity whilst working in new domains?  And what new opportunities might emerge as a result of these collaborations? From undergraduate to doctoral programs these challenges have relevance for all that we do in teaching and research, in different ways.

For doctoral education and design research, I think as a first step we must embrace and interrogate the possibilities of what we do as practice rather than as skills or expertise. Through a framework of practice, design can be interrogated for its capacity to evolve, contribute and transform the world of our making. The situated nature of practice-based enquiry ensures that research undertaken will produce knowledge that both deepens understanding and provides tangible applications for practice.

As Peter Downton states in his application of Frayling’s 1993 framework for creative practice research, to design research in particular, it is the shift from doing research for (actions undertaken that enable a practice to be) to applying this knowledge through a practice that enables new design knowledge to be seen and exist in the world. “Research through designing uses the knowing of doing to achieve productive outcomes which in turn indicate the knowing and the knowledge used in their production” (2003, p. 107). If designers are to be able to contribute through to these large scale interdisciplinary driven projects, possessing a deep understanding of their practice and its potential in relation to others is essential.

Too often discussions about doctoral programs focus on program structures, or research outcomes. Not enough consideration is taken of the transformation that this long and focused body of research manifests – the PhD graduate. Across the literature on the future of doctorates there is a growing awareness that the destination of doctoral graduates is changing, as are the industry and disciplinary sectors that are employing or applying doctoral expertise in their organisations.  In 2009 David Boud and Alison Lee referred to this transformation as an increasing demand for advanced knowledge workers and we must ask ourselves: what does this mean for design? Who is an advanced knowledge worker in design? Are designers knowledge workers at all?

Skilled professional designers contribute to both our material and intellectual world – the world of commerce, culture, and wellbeing. As the world of knowledge work transforms at an ever-increasing pace, fed by the affordances of digital technologies and an increasingly globalised, mobile world, designers must adapt to change and lead it, responsibly and creatively. That is the role of design – to manifest the world that we are becoming. This is the challenge for the contemporary designer and the possibility that our doctoral programs through design may offer to the complex and interdisciplinary challenges of our time.

The rise of practitioner-research in the fields of design is one means that designers can use to prepare themselves to become advanced in their domains; to develop the critical dexterity and rigorous processes to enable them to practice in informed ways.


Argyris, C. & Schön, D. A. (1974). Theory in practice: Increasing professional effectiveness. San Francisco. Jossey-Bass.

Boud, D. & Lee, A. (2009). Framing doctoral education as practice. In D. Boud & A. Lee (Eds.), Changing practices of doctoral education (pp. 10-25). New York. Routledge.

Downton, P. (2003). Design research. Melbourne, Australia: RMIT University Press.

Frayling, C. (1993). Research in art and design. Royal College of Art Research Papers, Volume 1, London.

Schön, D. A. (1983). The reflective practitioner. USA: Basic Books.

Professor Laurene Vaughan is Deputy Dean of Design, Games and Interaction, RMIT University. She has extensive international reputation and track record in doctoral education, and has recently edited Practice-Based Design Research (2017) Bloomsbury, UK.

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