Design PhDs at the Open University

The Design Group incorporates a range of expertise across the spectrum of design research. But, despite this diversity, we are united in a non-discipline-specific approach to understanding design and design processes, that draws generally on the creative industries, from product design to food design, from fashion to engineering. The list below provides an exemplar of the kinds of research we would be willing to support, but it is not a complete list. Further areas of research interest can be found on the personal sites of individual academics, and we are also open to discuss projects that you personally have an interest in.

For more general information about Design PhDs with the Open University, including sources of funding, visit PhD Opportunities.

Potential PhD Projects

Design Education at a Distance

Contact: Derek Jones


The Open University is a world leader and pioneer in both design research and design education at a distance. The pedagogical models and tools developed have proven to work in practice, supporting the underlying theories behind their use. One such tool, OpenDesignStudio, is an online social learning design studio created specifically for our core design courses. With a community of hundreds of students, OpenDesignStudio is one of the largest design studios in the world and the pedagogical mechanisms at work are as psychologically and socially complex as those in a physically proximate design studio. This rich resource provides unique opportunities to research design practice and education as well as social learning and design mechanisms.    

Design Processes in the Pre-electronic age

Contact: Claudia Eckert


Complex products such as ships, buildings and infrastructure projects were being designed and built long before the development of technological support that modern design takes for granted. This research explores a case study of a historic design process from engineering, architecture, fashion or urban planning with an aim to compare and contrast past and current practices. Analysis will of these will be from the point of view of current design process challenges, such as process planning, coordination across the supply chain, communication or change management. 

Design for Additive Manufacturing

Contact: Helen Lockett


Additive manufacturing introduces a range of interesting opportunities for design research: Commercially, 3D printers are being recommended for home hobbyist use, but the expertise required to design 3D models for manufacture is often not immediately available. So how can members of the public be empowered to effectively use additive manufacturing?

Conceptually, additive manufacturing has made it possible for designers to work with shapes that, in the recent past, were impossible to physically realise. What are the properties of these shapes, and how can they be utilised in design and manufacturing of the future?

Similarly, as new forms and materials are introduced as a consequence of additive manufacturing, this introduces questions with respect to the processes used to produce components, from tool path optimisation to design process improvement. 

Material and Design Computation

Contact: Iestyn Jowers


Computational models of shape, and shape manipulation have hugely influenced modern design processes, mostly via the now ubiquitous presence of CAD systems in design studios, but also via methods of generative design, such as shape grammars. Prototyping with physical models often plays as important a role in the design studio as visual prototyping with sketches, but computational models of material and material manipulation are not as well developed as those of shape. With the introduction of additive manufacturing, the computational role of physical material is becoming more apparent, and opens opportunities for research into computational representations of materiality in design.   

Sustainable Design Transitions

Contact: Emma Dewberry


Design appears at multi scales of time and place in sustainable transitions. Understanding where design is, how it evolves and what relationships and links exist or can emerge (the design ecology) is critical in developing new ways to see and evolve existing and developing processes of transition. I am interested in supporting research projects that explore different types of design interventions that shift practice and theory more radically towards creating effective sustainable change. These projects may include but are not limited to:

  • Exploring the design ecology of sustainable urban transitions.
  • Understanding the social dimensions of 'smart cities' in creating sustainable infrastructure
  • The role of ecoliteracy in developing 21st century smart citizens
  • The practice and theory of product sufficiency in long-term resource plans


Design Collaboration Crossing Boundaries

Contact: Nicole Lotz


Without doubt, design teams increasingly collaborate across countries, cultures, disciplines, sectors and levels of expertise. A design could potentially be developed by a Finnish architect, Indian programmer and American graphic designer, produced in a Chinese factory and sold or employed in Africa. But we know little about the challenges of collaborations across the these geographic and social boundaries, such as working with differences in norms and values, or approaches and processes. We also have not yet explored in-depth what benefits such collaborations could achieve. This research would explore the processes and products of design collaborations across boundaries in design industry or education.   

Exploring Sustainable Product Service System Innovation in Urban Environments

Contact: Matthew Cook


In recent years the focus of sustainable design and innovation has broadened and now not only includes products but also novel configurations of products, services and systems. While research shows that such sustainable product service systems (SPSS) hold great potential to move society toward more sustainable futures, the rate of implementation in contexts other than business to business markets has been somewhat disappointing. Research to address this issue has tended to problematize it as one of poor diffusion in business to consumer markets which may be resolved by better understanding consumers and how SPSS may be designed to meet their demands. However, this approach overlooks other contextual influences on SPSS implementation such as those associated with urban environments and favours supply side agency. Thus reparative research focusing on urban environments and the various forms of agency that may be released in SPSS implementation is needed to address these challenges.  

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