A Post Normal Design PhD

Laurene Vaughan organized a session at the recent DRS/Cumulus Conference on “Design PhDs” to which I contributed this very schematic position paper.

A Design PhD is a Neoliberal PhD

Design is a relatively recent profession compared to others – architecture, medicine, law. It is therefore, also, one of the most recent disciplines. In the Anglo-Australian context, design entered the university when technical colleges and polytechnics doing atelier-derived design education were merged with universities in the late ’80s / early ’90s. At that same time, countries with government-funded university systems, such as the Anglo-Australian system, were adopting neoliberal policies that demanded quality assurance performance improvements for tax dollar spending. This translated to the requirement that all disciplines, including new entrants, have certified research training, such as PhDs. So creative industry disciplines like design begin to have PhD programs primarily as an outcome of neoliberal higher education policies.

The Homeopathic Practice-Based PhD

What is interesting, and possibly significant, is that rather than simply conform to a traditional model of a PhD, creative industry disciplines like design responded to the neoliberal imperative for formalized research capacities by insisting on the need for new epistemologies more compatible with the processes and dispositions of their creative practices. It is in this context that the discourse of practice-based research in fields like design arises.

On the one hand, this discourse has a pragmatic motivation. Design educators should be practicing designers according to the studio-based system; but if neoliberal higher education demands that those same educator-practitioners should also be researchers, then that research must be designerly in nature, lest those design educators lose their practitioner quality as they complete their PhDs.

On the other hand, when pressed, defenders of practice-based research offer justifications appropriate to how recently design has become a profession and a discipline. As a relatively immature profession, the primary purpose of disciplinary design research is to substantiate and advance design practice. This requires a practical understanding of designing to conduct such research, but even more importantly, a conversance with design practitioners to ensure that that knowledge is disseminatable to the professionals whose design practice stands to benefit from that research. As with homeopathy, the profession can be disciplined only with more of itself, as opposed to allopathic attempts by techno-rationality to correct design (as was attempted by the Design Methods movement).

Post-Modern Performance

I want to argue that practice-based design research is more significant than these rather centripetal perspectives can indicate. The neoliberal restructuring of higher education that made the design PhD possible was obviously not a neutral force. The disruption that allowed design and other creative disciplines to innovate practice-based design research, was actually followed by a redoubling of calculative reason, or what has been called ‘audit culture.’

In fact, to some extent, this may explain why practice-based research was at least initially acceptable to the neoliberal university. With its primary precedent being Donald Schön’s ‘Reflective Practictioner,’ practice-based research appears to be in line with what Jean-Francois Lyotard identified as the focus on ‘performativity’ in the postmodern university; in other words, practice-based PhDs look like certifiable forms of Foucauldian self-disciplining, enhancing the performance metrics of professionals like designers.

Post-Post-Modern Validity

However, along with this homeopathic self-monitoring was the assertion of a different epistemology, one that I believe remains quite resistant to the neoliberal university’s quantifications. The simplest version of this has been Roger Martin’s claim that whilst business focuses on reliability – meaning the predictable and replicable, i.e., that which can assure stably bankable returns on investment – design has always proceeded by a much more qualitative validity – an interconnected set of pattern recognitions and rapid experiments that can creatively abduct to promising solution fields (see The Design of Business [Harvard Business Review, 2009]). Martin is standing here on a long tradition of people trying to identify how designing is more phronesic judgement than computational technique, more bounded satisficing than rational method – and yet in each case, not nevertheless just an a- or ir-rational art.

In this context, the practice-based design research, especially when certified in the form of an examined PhD, has managed to retain the validity of a sociomaterial craft in the midst of a neoliberal demand for only commoditizable reliability. That non-quantitative validity can be easily recoded as a kind of performance indicator, or worse rendered a merely useful aesthetic distraction. But it can also be reasserted as a force that runs counter to all that seems to be succeeding in removing critique from the university.

Negotiating Risk

This more phronesic form of validity is not just a generally good thing to be preserved in an increasingly reductive university. And it is not just good for design education remaining designerly. It is in fact crucial to our survival no less.

Consider for instance, the emerging discourse of Post Normal Science. Given that ecological phenomenon are inherently wicked, in Rittel’s sense – they are complexes of interdependent relations, including changing social agents, with only ever probabilistic outcomes – ecological science, especially in relation to the politics of sustainability, is forced into being more participatory. Whist maintaining a commitment to the epistemology of scientific method, Post Normal Science acknowledges that these more publicly agonistic processes mean that ecological scientists must negotiate less reliable forms of validity, ones that are more heuristic and argumentative rather than universally factual.

Practice-based design, with its more qualitative forms of validity, is an exemplar of such Post Normal ways making decisions about the future. Design PhDs, especially when externally examined, show the university engaged in the kind of wicked-problem-based knowledge production that is not merely instrumentally performative or calculatively constative.

Reasserting Practice-based Co-creation of Knowledge

Practice-based design research should therefore move beyond self-serving assertions of its significance to the discipline and profession of design. Instead, design, as a mature discipline and profession, must now take its place in the university taking responsibility for wider societal problems. Practice-based research must be, and must be seen to be, playing a central role in larger scale problems like developing more sustainable futures.

To this end:
• no more reflexive PhDs, on the nature of design research
• more practice-based sustainability-oriented PhDs
• only external examination
• make publication and interaction with a non-academic audience (what Post Normal Science calls ‘lay or extended peer review’) part of a practice-based PhD.



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2 responses to “A Post Normal Design PhD

  1. laura4lano

    Interesting! I am increasingly thinking about design PhDs as a kind of purposely “public intellectual” as one model that is more engaged with practice and intent on influencing non-academic audiences.

  2. A welcome observation. It is worth noting two things: the recent fashion for PhDs with methodologies from psychology (which appear credible, and in some cases get funded more easily, but generally fail the sustainability requirement); and the model of PhDs on typeface design, which integrate solid historical methods and tick several social responsibility / relevance boxes.

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