Hamit Alpay Er

Department of Industrial Product Design

Istanbul Technical University


In recent years, design schools in different countries have started PhD programs in industrial design. These programs have been established due to different reasons and under completely different circumstances. Among those institutions there are also design schools from peripheral countries. Given the short history of industrial design in those countries, a rapid development of postgraduate design education to include PhD in industrial design raises questions about the characteristics of those programs and factors that led to their emergence in a peripheral context. This paper discusses the development characteristics of the PhD education in industrial design in Turkey as a case with references to both, the universal standards of PhD programs and local dynamics that led to the emergence of those programs. It is argued that despite an early beginning in Turkey, there is a need for the redefinition of the PhD education in industrial design.


In recent years, universities and design schools in different countries have started PhD programs in industrial design. These programs have been established due to different reasons and under completely different circumstances. Among those institutions there are also design schools from peripheral countries such as Turkey. Given the short history of industrial design in those countries, a rapid development of postgraduate design education to include the PhD in industrial design raises questions about the characteristics of those programs and factors that led to their emergence in a peripheral context.

Design issues of peripheral countries have been overlooked in the design literature for a long time. The development of industrial design education is no exception to this. According to Bonsiepe (1991) the apparent lack of study on design in the peripheral countries fits into the ideological self-interpretation of industrialized countries. In his own words;

“It is all too easy to look at industrial design in the periphery as a second-rate, resource poor and delayed replay of a process through which the industrialized countries have passed during the nine decades in the 20th century when industrial design was transformed into a social reality.” (Bonsiepe, 1991)

Naturally, such a vision would not permit to perceive the differentiated reality of industrial design in the periphery. However, as a diverse reality which has been marginalised for a long time in the design literature, the development characteristics of industrial design in the periphery require investigation as an objective fact and deserve to be systematically explored (Er, 1997). The nature of the PhD education in design in peripheral countries is among those issues that need exploring.

Although Bonsiepe (1991) describes the peripheral condition as a situation without project, without design and its discourse, in fact it may be argued that some peripheral countries have a very clear ‘project’, which can be called as ‘catching up’. They are in a constant attempt of catching up with the central countries in a game whose rules are set by the latter. However, despite the existence of a set of common rules under the term of ‘globalization’, there are still some internal dynamics operating at different levels in each peripheral country.

Hoping to make a contribution from a local -peripheral – base to an emerging global issue of design education, this paper presents the development characteristics of the PhD education in industrial design in a peripheral, newly industrializing country, Turkey. The paper discusses the Turkish case from a critical point of view, with references to both, the universal standards of PhD programs and local dynamics that led to the emergence of those programs.

PhD in Industrial Design

First it seems to be necessary to make a clear definition of the PhD of which industrial design discipline still appears to be lacking a common understanding. The definition of ‘PhD in design’ is an important issue because it is about research, and by definition, contributing to, and controlling the knowledge in design domain.

A common and widely accepted definition of the PhD in academic circles is an original piece of research, the result of which is a contribution to knowledge. According to Collins English Dictionary (1994), doctorate is the highest academic degree in any field of knowledge. In the same dictionary, PhD is defined as a doctorate awarded for original research in any field except law, medicine or theology. So, it appears that what makes the PhD different from any other doctorate is its research orientation.

According to Bruce Archer (1994); the distinguished features of a PhD are (i) the critical appraisal by the candidate of prior research; and (ii) close attention to the principles and practice of research methodology; and (iii) the conduct of a single major systematic investigation; and finally (iv) the delivery of a substantial contribution to knowledge.

From these features, it appears that while ‘contribution to knowledge by systematic research’ may be an acceptable definition of the PhD for many of us, the PhD education can also be described as the process of learning how to conduct a systematic research that, at the end, will produce communicable new knowledge in the concerned field. In that case, a PhD degree is not more than a certificate or license that states ‘this person has successfully demonstrated the ability to undertake independent research that contributes to knowledge’ (Langrish, 1992; Cross, 1998).

Coming back to the issue of ’PhD in design’, the critical question appears to be whether ‘PhD in Design’ is really different from, let’s say a PhD in Engineering or in Biology? It may be claimed that it is different in terms of the subject matter, and maybe some methods during the course of research. But in terms of the basic principle which is ‘contribution to knowledge by research’, it is not different from a PhD in any other field. Then the PhD education in industrial design is in fact nothing more than the research education in industrial design.

A PhD student in industrial design field is trained to become a member of the academic research profession. So, holding a PhD in industrial design stands for ‘being able to conduct independent research with a contribution to the knowledge in the field of industrial design’. It does not stand for ’being able to design a better product’.

Industrial Design in Turkey: Background

Following a short discussion of the PhD in design, now we can look at the nature of the PhD education in Turkey. It is a well known fact that research in design or so-called design research is a relatively new concept even in countries where design professions were institutionalized long ago. Besides, even in those countries ‘research’ is seen as a problem area, as something which exists outside design studio (Frayling, 1993). So it is a natural expectation that general problems of the PhD education in the center will aggravate in the periphery. In addition to this, the PhD education in the periphery has some problems specific to the peripheral condition. The following sections of this paper concentrate on those problems in Turkey.

Before discussing the development characteristics of the PhD education in Turkey, it is imperative to give some background information about the history of industrial design in this country. As in many other peripheral countries, the introduction of industrial design into the context of Turkey was associated with a view based on ‘Modernist Development Paradigm’ (Bonsiepe, 1991). Long before new product design needs of the Turkish industry materialized, industrial design schools had been planned in order to meet the future demand, which was expected to emerge as an inevitable result of the import substituting industrialization strategies that were implemented in Turkey between the 1960s and 1980s. Thus, in Turkey industrial design first emerged at educational level in the early 1970s, prior to its actual practice that has a rather short history in the Turkish industry (Er, 1995). However, with the opening up of the Turkish domestic market to foreign competition, and the increasing share of Turkish firms in international markets for the last ten years, a genuine need for new product design and development capabilities has begun to emerge in the 1990s. Today intense competition appears to be causing an increasing interest and need for industrial design in the Turkish manufacturing industry.

PhD in Industrial Design in Turkey: Not demanded but imposed upon

Given the short history of industrial design in Turkey, the establishment of the first PhD program appears to be surprisingly early. Officially the first PhD program in industrial design in Turkey was established in 1982.

Nevertheless, the establishment of the first PhD program was neither motivated academically, nor demanded by the industry but simply enforced bureaucratically by a centralized body, the Turkish Higher Education Council to restructure the Turkish academic system in the beginning of the 1980s. With the regulations set by the Higher Education Council, a standard academic organizational structure and a standard academic promotion system were imposed on all disciplines regardless of their specific requirements. At all universities departmental organizations were required to comply with a certain structure, and in all disciplines, holding a PhD or a degree of its equivalent has become a precondition to be appointed as assistant professor, the first step of an academic career in Turkey. In other words, now a PhD is required in Turkey if you want to pursue a career in industrial design education.

As a young discipline without strong academic traditions industrial design suffered and still suffers much more from those regulations than the established academic disciplines do. First of all, industrial design was forced into the schools of architecture. In the absence of architecture schools, fine art schools were offered as an alternative to house industrial design programs. Now there are 6 industrial design departments, four of them being under the schools of architecture, the other two being located in fine arts schools.

Secondly, an obligation of holding a PhD, or an equivalent degree, for teaching industrial design have had some negative impacts on the design education in Turkey. First, by preventing professional industrial designers from serving as full faculty members in design departments, it has effectively weakened the undergraduate design education, which strongly needs to be supported by staff with design experience in industry. In addition, the imposition of the PhD created a sudden and artificial demand for postgraduate design degrees among many design educators. The PhD has begun to be predominantly perceived by those educators, as just another step for promotion to be taken one way or another. Therefore, the imposition of the PhD degree upon design educators who otherwise do not voluntarily involve in academic study has had a negative impact on the quality of such studies in industrial design.

A Dualistic Structure in Doctoral Education in Industrial Design

In addition to an early beginning in the PhD, a rather early and peculiar diversification of doctoral education in industrial design was also experienced in Turkey. In parallel to the new organizational structure at departmental level, postgraduate programs were reorganized accordingly. While postgraduate programs of science, technology, engineering and architecture schools were restructured under the graduate schools of science and technology, postgraduate programs of arts, humanities, economics, politics, fine arts were collected in the graduate schools of social sciences. However, in the early 1990s postgraduate programs in fine and applied arts with their clearly distinctive features broke away to be reorganized under the graduate schools of fine arts. With this move, one of the postgraduate industrial design programs was also taken into the fine arts structure under which a PhD cannot be awarded but instead, with its official name, the degree of ‘Proficiency in Art’ is awarded. This is officially an equivalent of the doctoral degree for fine, applied and performing arts.

Now, in Turkey there are two different types of doctoral programs in industrial design; PhD and ‘Proficiency in Art’. According to the university regulations, the difference between these two is adequately clear. The regulations of Turkish universities state that a PhD dissertation must fulfil one of the following qualifications; i. Demonstrate some new aspect to the field, ii. Use a new scientific method, or iii. Apply a known method to a new field (e.g. METU, 1997; ITU, 1997). ‘Proficiency in Art’ which may be considered as a sort of ‘professional’ doctorate, on the other hand, is defined as a higher education program whose outcome must be the production of original art work, or exhibition of outstanding performance and artistic creativity (ITU, 1997). ‘Proficiency in Art’ program consists of courses, projects, exhibitions and relevant performances. The results of the study may be presented in different forms such as exhibition, project or concert, but must always be accompanied with a written dissertation. In all fine or performing art departments at Turkish universities, ‘Proficiency in Art’ degree is effectively accepted as the equivalent of the PhD.

In industrial design field, however, this issue takes a rather problematic shape. Despite the existence of different official definitions, in practice the difference between the PhD and ‘Proficiency’ in industrial design is not sufficiently clear as much as it is expected to be. When one compares the dissertations submitted in the PhD programs to the ones in ‘Proficiency in Art’ program, what strikes most is not the differences between these two but the similarities in their structures, methods and contents.

The basic common feature of the dissertations in both programs, either in the PhD or ‘Proficiency in Art’, appears to be their lack of research orientation. Although this would be an expected and natural result in ‘Proficiency in Art’ dissertations, the lack of research orientation in a PhD dissertation presents a problematic case because, as discussed earlier, the PhD is in fact the education of professional researchers.

Lack of Research Orientation

There are a number of reasons for the lack of research orientation in the PhD education in Turkey. The relatively short history of the research concept and practice in the design field, the insufficient research emphasis made in postgraduate education in general, and the lack of funding for design research are some of those reasons. However, apart from those that are more or less common in many other countries, there is also a specific reason for the lack of research orientation, which is a distorted and reductive perception of the PhD by the local design education establishment.

That may be better explained within a historical perspective. The academic institution with the first industrial design program was the State Academy of Fine Arts in Istanbul. This was a typical fine and applied arts school with a strong tradition going back to the 1880s. The undergraduate education in industrial design which was a 5 years program leading to the equivalent of a European style MFA degree started in 1973. As expected, in the tradition of an art academy, there had been no place for PhDs. In their original academic promotion system, following a long period of teaching assistantship, a proficiency dissertation supported by the exhibition of artifacts or projects was presented to a jury consisting of senior faculty members. Dissertations were perceived as individual projects conducted under the supervision of a senior faculty member, and supposed to demonstrate that candidates had accumulated the necessary knowledge, and had gained the necessary expertise. In other words dissertations were to prove that candidates had the necessary specialization and mastery of a chosen art or design field to able to teach in that field. Research was naturally not a priority issue.

When the academy became one of the victims of the new university system in 1982, it was first incorporated into a new university as two separate schools of fine arts and architecture. The undergraduate industrial design education was reduced to a 4 years program within the school of architecture; a new masters program was established, and the proficiency dissertation was somehow transformed into a PhD program. Thus, having transferred some procedures from close disciplines with more experience in postgraduate degrees such as architecture, and combining these with the old traditions of the academy, the first postgraduate design program in Turkey, including the PhD, was established.

In this institutional context, master’s degree in industrial design was naturally perceived as professional specialization in a design subject, and as being more or less the extension of the undergraduate design education. This is fairly understandable and quite acceptable for a tradition of fine and applied arts. However, the enforced change of the degree titles cannot justify the reduction of the PhD education into further professional specialization in a given design subject.

Specialization’ in Design vs. Research in Design

An understanding of the PhD as ‘specialization’ is a reductive distortion of the original PhD concept as the research education. In the PhDs completed in ‘specialization’ fashion, while it is not uncommon to come across dissertations without a mention about research and research methodology, which is always a key issue for PhDs (Cross, 1998), it is also a general tendency to reduce the whole concept of research into ‘literature review’. In the name of ‘PhD in design’, a reduction of research into the subject matter and sometimes the reinterpretation of what already exists is common practice.

Reading, reviewing, and sometimes criticizing and synthesizing what others said in a given field is a part of the research practice, but it would certainly be wrong to claim that it is the only or the best way of doing research in the design field. On the other hand, there is widespread confusion over the nature of the PhD in design due to the fact that ‘specialization’ is in fact a part of the PhD education. One of the features of the PhD is the critical appraisal by the candidate of prior work done in the chosen field. In this sense, knowing what is known, who knows it, or what has been designed, how, and by whom are undeniably important parts of the PhD work in design. However, it should be noted that, in this sense of the word, ‘specialization’ may only be considered as one of the features of the PhD work, which is to be gained as a by product of the research conducted in the chosen field of inquiry. ‘Specialization’ is not the principal aim of the PhD, which is the acquisition of research skills to produce new design knowledge.

On the other hand, the dominant and reductive perception of PhDs in design as ‘specialization’ in a design subject rather than the research education cannot be completely attributed to the enforced transformation of a single educational institution. It has wider and deeper roots. Understanding of the PhD as ‘specialization’ is widespread in close disciplines where the first generation of some design educators had their doctoral degrees. Therefore it is not fair to confine this reductive understanding of the PhD solely to the industrial design field, rather it may be more accurate to say that it is imported from neighboring disciplines such as architecture and engineering. The interpretation of the PhD in a professional specialization context might have been an implicit compromise between conflicting academic and professionalist discourses in those disciplines (Teymur, 1996) since ‘specialization’ has also certain professionalist implications. After all, even you have a PhD, you are still to be accepted within the design profession. In this respect, what makes one with a PhD in design different from others may be nothing more than having more knowledge and expertise in a narrow design subject. On the other hand, a true definition of the PhD as an independent research license may be perceived as a radical break up with the professionalist design discourse for the favor of an academic one, and admittedly this may not be desirable for many design educators who have been forced to embark on a PhD venture purely for pragmatic reasons of promotion within a university system.

Redefining the PhD Education in Industrial Design in Turkey

In general terms ‘PhD in Design’ is a new issue in everywhere regardless of whether it is peripheral or not. Problems regarding the definition and scope of the PhD in design and related discussions appear to be within the design education communities’ agenda in many places of the world. Nevertheless, this issue presents some additional complexities and difficulties in the Turkish context. This is because, unlike in many other countries where the possibility and necessity of ‘PhD in design’ are still being discussed, in Turkey we have already a tradition of PhDs in industrial design for about 15 years. Nevertheless, despite an early beginning, today most PhD works in industrial design suffer from the lack of research orientation since this experience, with a few exceptions, mostly relies on a distorted and reductive perception of the original PhD concept.

Now, the challenge ahead us as Turkish design researchers is to redefine the PhD in industrial design, and to create a design research culture in Turkey. Admittedly, this is not an easy task. First of all, such an attempt is likely to face a stiff resistance from the members of local design education establishment. While some of them think that they already know what a PhD means in industrial design, and are quite content with the current practice, some others may be categorically against a professional research education in their own domain. So this makes the redefinition of the PhD a part of larger academic discussion in the design field.

Probably not unnoticed by many in design education, for the last ten years industrial design education in central countries such as the USA and the UK appears to have been divided into two camps due to two different attitudes towards the future of design education (see. Giard, 1990; Friedman, 1997). While the traditional camp treats design as the skill of making an artifact or object, the other camp, on the other hand, treats design ‘as a knowledge intensive process that involves selecting goals, then developing and executing strategies to meet those goals’ (Friedman, 1997). Although the basic arguments are just beginning to be spelled out publicly, industrial design education in Turkey is not free from those competing and often conflicting views. Therefore, in Turkey too it is not uncommon to face hostility for the emphasis made in theory and research in design education, even for postgraduate degrees in some academic institutions. While most design educators are indifferent, if not antipathetic, to research, some are somewhat resentful of their colleagues with research capabilities. Therefore, in order to create a research-friendly design culture in Turkey, one may have to face the anti-research cliques of the design education establishment.

Another factor that makes the redefinition of the PhD in industrial design a sensitive issue among design educators, is the increasing importance of new knowledge that is demanded by the industry which itself is forced to compete in a much more knowledge intensified economy. The production, acquisition and re-production of the design knowledge, which is to be utilized in design practice (Bayazit, 1993) is an academically sensitive issue since educational institutions are increasingly encouraged to start joint research projects with the industry, and the academic competence of faculty staff at many universities is intended to be judged against the contribution made to that knowledge.

On the other hand, the same increasing importance of the knowledge also makes the redefinition of the PhD in industrial design rather necessary and possible. Industrial design of a product may be defined as a special knowledge about that product from which it can be materialized and positioned in the market place (Er, 1997). Therefore, for central and peripheral countries alike design is one of the most effective resources available to improve their economic performances. As Owen (1998) observes, there is a new and growing interest in the quality of design, and in how design can be improved. Thus, a strong demand for design research to develop high quality design tools; theories, methods and processes is developing on a global scale.

Also in Turkey, in the second half of the 1990s, due to the Turkish industry’s emerging competitive needs, a demand for knowledge-based, interdisciplinary postgraduate design programs started emerging. Such programs require a strong theoretical framework and rich research input, and in turn they increase demand for professional researchers in industrial design field. Despite the existence of distorted and reductive views on design research, now in Turkey necessary external conditions and internal academic motivation appear to be emerging to meet the challenge for the creation of a design research culture in general, and the redefinition of the PhD in industrial design in particular.

This will be a significant step towards the reciprocal cycle that ‘connects practice to education to research and back to practice, with each component of the cycle interacting with and enriching others’ (McCoy, 1990), that industrial design as a mature discipline or profession must have, regardless of whether its context is peripheral or not.

I would like to thank Professor Nigan Bayazit of ITU, and Dr Ozlem Er and Fatma Korkut of METU for their valuable critiques and suggestions as well as sharing their insightful observations with me.


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