Becoming a design theory researcher

Research in design theory tends to be pretty hard to explain, especially for someone who honestly had no idea what it was until about a year ago (me). Yet, having spent some time exploring and contributing to it by now, I’ll briefly attempt to summarize what I know about this field.


How I ended up here

My introduction to the general term “design” was during my second year in undergrad, when I joined my university’s studio of Design for America (DFA - the national organization has a mission to teach people to design for social impact). As a mechanical engineering major, I was already somewhat exposed to engineering design and analysis, but learning and practicing human-centered design expanded my perspective on what design could actually be. Going through undergrad and industry experiences, I became more involved in projects and applications that involved either modification or redesign of products so they could better suit the people who were using them. From this, I started to understand how important the design process was and how decisions in the early stage could really impact the user’s experience with the final item. Therefore, despite initially aspiring to be directly involved in designing physical products, I ended up in this field - researching how to improve the process itself!

Current directions

The design process can be studied and influenced in various ways as it involves several components - individual problem solving, team collaboration, and the use of computational or physical tools, among others. There are particular cognitive functions that humans already use when designing things. For instance, we commonly use analogical reasoning to take inspiration from one space and apply them to different contexts, often leading to innovative ideas (this cognitive process has been more intentionally applied in the area of bio-inspired design). In addition, communication and composition of teams can affect the decisions that are made during design, becoming a particularly important area of research for industrial organizations who design any sort of product. Finally, especially with modern improvements in technology and hardware, the potential arises to better utilize current/prior human knowledge and data/computation-derived insight to augment engineering design tools (e.g. being able to modify forms to fit stylistic choices like “more sleek” or “more sturdy”). And this only scratches the surface of the interesting work going on!

Career outcomes

Aside from the interesting work going on in the field, on the more practical side, design theory researchers can go on to do a variety of different work after graduate school. To support this, I’ll include data I manually collected of ~80 PhD graduates between 2010 and 2019 from the general engineering design field and where they ended up (all information was publicly available - many of the graduates were more recent so their “first” and “current” jobs as of Jan 2020 are the same). Of course, there are several caveats to these graphs - the data is likely biased towards academia due to the ease of finding academics’ websites, the data is influenced by my personal knowledge of groups that conduct design theory research, and of course, the breadth of the field means that skills developed by people in graduate school varied significantly depending on their research. Regardless, this information can provide some idea of what you can do as a design theory researcher.

Pie graph of design theory researcher first jobs Pie graph of design theory researcher current jobs Pie graph of industry sector for those who went into industry

Looking forward

Overall, there are many unanswered questions in design theory and methodology and so much potential to help augment human designers’ abilities - hopefully leading to innovative products that will benefit the broader population. This impact can be continued in both academia and industry after graduate school!