If I start with the why will you listen? If I use well worn words like systemic / intractable / wicked problems will you pay attention or roll your eyes? When I claim that today we face transdisciplinary challenges that cannot be solved by one discipline alone will you nod knowingly or sigh? Of course you already know this line of thinking because we are all living it. We experience everyday the complexity of the challenges in front of us and bear witness to how our local problems are not isolated from the pressing global issues of our time. From climate change to food security, from access to basic healthcare and education to income inequality and ecological sustainability, designers are increasingly exploring the role of design in mitigating the negative impact of our 21st century challenges. The question for design may not be one of complacency or urgency but perhaps it is one of agency. So let’s start there. The value Monash (my university) places on making evident the agency of design is inseparable from our motivation to prepare a new generation of researchers who can tackle systemic problems. We are curious about how we might develop a research education that examines and enacts the agency of design so that we might confidently, with humility, assert what design brings to interdisciplinary collaborations.

Is this too abstract? We could start somewhere else. Would you listen more closely if I begin with an anecdote about the Laughing Yogi? My 6am accidental meeting with the yogi on the desolate Lazy Ranch Road out of Palm Springs makes for a good story. Not just bizarre and memorable — although it was both of those things — but poignant and relevant. The yogi’s lifetime dedication to teaching people how to laugh wholeheartedly is at the heart of a provocative tale where conventional wisdom is confronted by cultural bias. I can even make the case for how the contestation between our personal beliefs, our everyday practices and our institutional contexts makes the story resonate beyond my anecdotal experience. But engagement is a fickle thing and even the yogi knew that his tale of embodied knowing is best supported by biological and neurological scientific evidence. He understood that for me to hear his message of transformation my phenomenological experience of learning how to laugh (turns out I’d been laughing the wrong way) had to be made sense of, put into context.

I am guessing that you think nothing of my offer of multiple entry points into this paper because you appreciate a panoramic perspective. As designers we like to toggle between global abstractions and situated experiences. There is no tension in this piece being as much about design agency and design research as it is about a week at a Californian dude ranch. Sense-making for a designer is about reconciling the incommensurable. The (un)disciplined designer is not wedded to one way of making sense and is in fact open to synthesizing data points from multiple sources. Tracing connections between stories and numbers, theories and patterns, artifacts and experiences allows the designer to negotiate the space between evidence and emergence. This is how design moves from what we know to what might be.

So here, in this piece, I negotiate two entwined ambitions. First there is a social and intellectual commitment for designers to play their part in tackling the complex challenges of this century. Second is a cultural and pedagogical commitment to co-design with a community the kind of doctoral education needed to prepare design researchers to do this work. The first takes a global perspective that these challenges are best addressed by multiple disciplines. The assumption here is that the agency of design will be amplified if the researcher understands the integrative contribution design expertise brings to other disciplines. In return it helps to complement the limitations of design by respecting others disciplinary expertise. This informs the second more local commitment to create a new design PhD. This time the assumption is that engaging design allies in the shaping of the program will sharpen our perception of what design is and could be.

This is how twenty-two people from Europe, the Americas, India and the Asia-Pacific came to meet up at a dude ranch. We were there for the initial phase of co-creating a doctoral degree that educates designers for interdisciplinary research. Our goal was for this future PhD to illuminate and focus the contribution of design in collaborations with other disciplines. Gathered together were a mix of potential doctoral supervisors and candidates who although invested in design came from a range of disciplinary backgrounds from performance studies, education, humanities and neuroscience. Intentionally the invited participants represented a breadth of methodological approaches from participatory action research to auto-ethnography and from fields such as social justice and creative technologies. The week-long event was conceived of and funded by the Design Department and Monash University.

The Australian context, Monash values and department beliefs had determined an initial commitment to a project-grounded, collaborative, pop-up PhD. The project-grounded focus defines an approach to design-led research that privileges the contribution of the research to the transdisciplinary project. The PhD topic will be grounded in a situated, specific context and in this way is distinct from a practice-led PhD or a doctoral topic focused on advancing the discipline. The belief that learning can be an intrinsic motivation for candidates, supervisors and project partners underpins the collaborative orientation. Collaborations extend beyond peer-to-peer to include co-authoring between candidates and supervisors, and working with industry and community partners. The only-offered-once pop-up PhD embraces a cohort model based around a thematic. The shared purpose and intellectual focus seeks to deepen the knowledge and impact of the cohort’s collective research. The pop-up nature allows future PhD thematics to be responsive to critical topics as they emerge. For the cohort starting in 2018 the theme is Design and Learning. Future themes could be design and mobility, design and social impact, or design and ethnography.

We came to the dude ranch believing this sketch presented a foundation for exploring what this PhD might look like in practice. Turns out not so much. There was discord because we had no shared definition of design. There was discontent because in privileging design the voices of the non-designers felt muted. Yet for the tension between us there was little disrespect. From the outset we had a shared understanding that all voices are important, that homogeneity is not the way forward. We went into the week believing that disagreement will be uncomfortable yet necessary, challenging yet productive.

To begin the task of figuring out what the PhD might become we privileged four modes of generative design research. A series of social belonging exercises included life-sized physical mapping of our social networks, visual handshakes to introduce ourselves and a walking tour to share our intrinsic motivations. Between prototyping sessions participants volunteered playful interludes conceived as moments for embodied learning that opened up spaces for laughter and insight. The design-led orientation to the week began and ended with material propositions. Carefully curated props helped propose learning machines and playful video sketches stitched together the week’s verbal and visual conversations. However not-doing was also critical for a prototype of the program to evolve. These moments of embodied wisdom significantly shaped the perspectives of the community. Storytelling under the stars emerged as a compelling way to wind down the day—with supervisors candidly narrating their PhD experiences. A silent performance called on each individual to position his or her whole self within the project. While contemplating the sunrise in Joshua Tree National Park offered the complementary yet humbling experience of questioning your role on the planet at this moment in time.

Post the dude ranch it is this notion of position, of location, that I keep returning to. In investigating our commitment to a pop-up, project-grounded and collaborative PhD we began to see that each quality calls for a different orientation. The conviction of a pop-up is wedded to a cohort drawn together around one thematic — in this case Design and Learning. The project-grounded commitment emphasizes an engagement with place and community—in this case individual researchers doing field work with global communities. The challenge becomes one of negotiating how we might together (collaboratively) undertake research that we collectively care about (thematic) yet be intentionally applied (project-grounded). During the week we wrestled with teasing apart the project stances people might be operating from. At the intersection of design and learning there are the field-building research we feel the thematic needs investigate. In addition there is each individual’s project and the cohort’s desire to occasionally bump up against each other. During the week we returned to phrases like the “living field”, “colliding projects”, “the spine” to help us make sense of these different project engagements.

Back in Melbourne I began to wonder how to take this metaphoric thinking further. Rather than cast these projects stances as competing orientations I went in search of a unifying metaphor. I became curious about how the interdependence between the sun, earth and moon might help us interrogate these related research stances. What if the planet is the home of project-grounded exploration, the sun represents the unifying pop-up thematic and the moons present spaces for collaboration? With the space odyssey metaphor I see a Nintendo Mario-like PhD candidate bouncing around the solar system—part light speed traveller, astronaut, and domestic tourist.

“With the space odyssey metaphor I see a Nintendo Mario-like PhD candidate bouncing around the solar system — part light speed traveller, astronaut, and domestic tourist.”

So let’s begin with the sun. The pop-up thematic is the star that has the greatest gravitational pull to bring a cohort of candidates and supervisors together. This is why we have come together. But what kind of research happens on the Sun? At the dude ranch we explored the idea that all PhD students would for brief periods work on projects that advance our collective thinking and provide the useful evidence that helps build the field. We played with the idea that these foundational projects are passed from one candidate to another each building on the previous candidate’s new knowledge. However given the earth only revolves around the sun every 365 days, a sun project might only be an annual commitment.

Yet on the candidate’s own planet the distant star is still the source of gravitational force. Think of the sun’s presence by day as illuminating the project-grounded research. But the planet is critically the researcher’s home — the “living field” where his or her core research question and activities are grounded. On the researcher’s planet the search is for design interventions that respect the social and systemic complexity of the chosen terrain. Here the practice orientation of design is felt as the researcher works in context with a community to discover, speculate and evaluate the possibilities.


The moon projects draw the cohort together as they orbit the planet. The gravitational pull of the planet determines the orbit of the moon, but also recognizes that tides rise as the moon travels over the oceans. In valuing moments of productive collision the moon project invites researchers to learn from peripheral engagement. This is a version of the film school model where everyone gets their moment as director while learning from being crew. Given the 24 hour revolution of the moon these engagements might be as simple as helping someone out with a workshop or a sustained collaboration through a full lunar cycle to explore the transferability of research across contexts.

In that generative week at the dude ranch we just begun to give shape to the kind of Design PhD we want to supervise and study. But for this first pop-up PhD we intend to learn from piloting and prototyping the learning experience as we go. We still need to make sense of Jupiter’s 25 known moons with erratic orbits. We need to consider how and what forms of data our Hubble telescopes and atmospheric satellites are collecting. We need to explore what happens if candidate’s chose to reside on the same planet. However, what we do have is a plan to spend two weeks each year in Melbourne and another two weeks at an always moving space station at the location of a candidate’s research. We have a commitment to privilege the meta field-building questions, build on and apply the insights from other disciplines and learn from the transferability of our research when applied to specific contexts. In this way we dream of piloting a doctoral platform for this moment in time and place. Until the next pop-up that is.


I may have written these 2000 words yet I want to acknowledge the creative and critical input of the dude ranch participants as co-authors of this piece: Shana Agid, Yoko Akama, Gene Bawden, Kylie Brown, Doremy Diatta, Sean Donahue, Alli Edwards, Wendy Ellerton, Anne Gibbons, Ricardo Gonçalves, Anne Harris, Stacy Holman-Jones, Hannah Korsmeyer, Ricardo Sosa, Kate McEntee, Sarah Naarden, Sonali Ojha, Dion Tuckwell, Roby Vota and Yi Zhang. I am also grateful to MADA, the Monash faculty of Art, Design and Architecture, for the financial support behind hosting the dude ranch retreat and the and intellectual vision driving the pop-up PhD.

To track the PhD as it goes into orbit please visit: