Online PhD in Design

PhD programs in design provide students with the skills needed to understand artistic creative processes and the theory behind them, and implement their designs using the most appropriate methods. Design PhD candidates study art and design concepts and systems, and various languages of media and communication. Most students also research theory and context of design, as well as types of software, interactive systems, and technologies that apply specifically to their practice. Students pursuing doctoral degrees in design have completed basic art and design course work. Most doctorates in this field encourage a specialized area of interest, as the world of design provides a vast array of creative opportunities.

Students interested in becoming graphic designers, web designers, interior designers or decorators, or industrial designers, among many other options, are well-suited to the comprehensive PhD program in design. Additionally, other closely related professionals who could benefit from the doctoral design program are advertising, promotional, and marketing managers, art directors, and multimedia artists or animators, just to name a few. Doctorates typically require at least a master's degree, comprising substantial prerequisites in art and design, as well as the presentation of a portfolio of previous design work, and documented work experience in design or a related field. Entrance evaluations and interviews are usually conducted as a way of assessing whether the student will focus on technical aspects of design or conventional design theory and practice.

About Online PhD Programs in Design

PhD programs in design are intended to deliver a well-rounded education in this industry through a variety of methods. While it may seem easy enough to complete design course work from a distance, the dedication required to pursue this Ph.D. program is substantial and requires on-campus instruction. Due to the requirements for intensive creative projects and peer and instructor interaction, no fully online doctoral programs currently exist in design, although select master's degrees and individual graduate courses are available. IIT Institute of Design, a graduate school of the Illinois Institute of Technology, was the first school in the country to offer a Ph.D. in design in 1991. Sample courses from ITTID's doctoral design curriculum are below:

Year One:

  • Research Paradigms. This course explores design standards and existing solutions that create trends and archetypes in various areas of design, and also investigates what different demographics expect from design.
  • Research Methods. Through this class, students are encouraged to research and question what design means by learning various methods of data collection and qualitative analysis. They also gain valuable early experience preparing their dissertation through hypothesis testing and comparative case study research.
  • Advised Elective. Students are allowed the opportunity for in-depth study in a concentrated area of design, or to supplement their curriculum with an approved course in a related genre.

Year Two:

  • Philosophy or Statistics. In this course, students are asked to consider design theories and philosophies, especially in terms of historically effective and ineffective methods.
  • Supervised Research. Students continue in-depth independent supervised research into a focused design discipline of their choice.
  • Dissertation Research. Advisors, instructors, and faculty provide individualized assistance to students in the process of forming their doctoral dissertation.

The doctoral dissertation typically signifies the student has achieved a thorough mastery of graduate-level design curriculum. The dissertation process for a design Ph.D. involves a presentation of the candidate's research in a focused area of design, such as design for sustainability, design and technology, or design in urban context. As part of pre-dissertation planning, many schools require intensive dissertation research and strategizing, and may ask the student to submit a dissertation proposal or to assemble a dissertation committee, consisting of student advisors, instructors, and/or faculty of the student's choosing. Some doctorates also require an oral exam or exit interview with student advisors and graduate faculty, to further defend the concepts introduced in their dissertation.

Value and Criticisms of a PhD in Design

Some potential Ph.D. design students may question the necessity of pursuing a doctorate in this field. It may seem as if many careers in design require only an undergraduate education and are not worth the time and energy required to obtain a graduate or post secondary degree in this field. General criticism of doctoral design programs tends to support the theory that there are more and more unconventional businesses and companies needing design services, and, rather than spend the time and money to earn a terminal degree in design, potential designers will simply forge their own path instead.

In fact, getting a Ph.D. in design can be great for your career. As an occupation in high demand, designers are needed for a diverse range of projects across all facets of the industry, and even in others that require qualified designers for certain jobs. While a doctorate may not be required for a high-level job as a graphic designer or art director, for example, this terminal degree promises very little competition for candidates who want a better shot at the top jobs in their field, and also allows for increased crossover potential, for those who want to switch careers into a related industry. Graphic designers received a mean annual salary of $43,500 in May 2010, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The flexibility and convenience of the design Ph.D. may also improve, as additional courses and degree options become widely available online.

Application & Admission Requirements

PhDs in design require prerequisites that are common by general doctorate standards, with some unique additional requirements. Programs vary; however, most require a master's degree in design or a related field, documented extensive professional experience, letters of recommendation, and a statement of intent or research plan, as part of their application. Design Ph.D. candidates in particular typically will be expected to submit a portfolio of design work to supplement these admission materials. They may also undergo a comprehensive oral entrance interview process.

Career Options & Job Market

Designers armed with a doctorate to show they have completed the highest possible level of education will find many job possibilities after graduation. Ph.D.-level designers are qualified for careers in graphic design, marketing and advertising, publishing, architecture, and even public service, among many other fields. Many also take up college-level teaching careers. These occupations can be quite lucrative, offering flexible schedules, high compensation, and upward mobility. Industrial designers, for instance, made a mean annual salary of $58,230 in May 2010, and job prospects are expected to increase by 10% during this decade, according to the BLS.

Where to Find Information

  • Carnegie Mellon University As one of three schools in the U.S. in addition to ITTID to offer a doctorate in design, Carnegie Mellon University utilizes its prestigious reputation to support a wide variety of graduate-level design options.
  • North Carolina State University College of Design Another among the small group of schools to offer a design Ph.D., NCSU offers many specialty design disciplines, including design for learning and design for health and well-being.
  • Stanford University Although Stanford University may not be widely known for its design department, this school is one of only four to offer a Ph.D. in design, in addition to comprehensive art and art history curriculum and innovative design-inspired programs.

How to Get Funding

Students seeking financial aid should always start by submitting the FAFSA form to find out if they qualify for federal and/or state funding for their education. In addition to financial aid through the government and state education-funding institutions, colleges and universities typically offer their own scholarships, fellowships, grants, and work-study programs, as well as sometimes sponsoring loans. As a feature unique to some art and design college programs, some schools offer merit-based scholarships based on portfolio reviews or evaluation and assessment of original work.

  • Federal Direct Stafford Loan. This low-interest loan is available to Ph.D. students, offered at a maximum amount of $20,500 and a fixed interest rate of 6.8% per year.
  • Federal Perkins Loan. With priority given to need-based students, this loan averages a payout of $3,500 per academic year and has a low interest rate of 5%. Students must be enrolled full time and officially demonstrate a strong need for financial assistance.
  • Campus-Based Aid. Each university micro-manages their own financial aid policies; however, most subscribe to the majority of the government programs that are available.

Essential Advice

  • Make sure this is the right decision. It's okay to take some time to think this through, as you must show a high level of dedication to complete this Ph.D. You'll know you are cut out for this program if you readily see the long-term benefits in light of what seems like minor suffering in the short-term. Seek out advice from your fellow Ph.D. students before you commit.
  • Start filling out the application. The application process in and of itself will take some endurance once you decide to apply. If you get started early, at least that is one less thing to drag out longer than it needs to be.
  • Try to pursue more professional experience. Sometimes taking the time to gain professional experience instead of completing two degrees back-to-back is a smart move. Allow yourself to take a breather and enjoy a change of pace before you take on more studying.
  • Get help paying for school. No matter how rigorous your schedule, getting financial aid will help lessen the burdens of completing a Ph.D. Most students require some form of financial support, so pursuing aid options and squaring them away early helps students stay organized.