Professional Doctorate

The Doctorate of Design (DDes) is the first professional doctorate degree in design offered in North America and is aimed at design professionals who wish to redirect their ways of working toward more innovative and responsible practices. This three-year, full-time, non-residential degree involves distance learning with intensive residential components on the CMU campus in Pittsburgh. The format of this degree makes it possible for professional designers to undertake doctoral studies while continuing their employment. This type of research enables candidates to reinvent their own practice as well as further the discipline through the generation of shareable knowledge about innovative design practices. At this time, the DDes degree is only offered to legal residents of the United States.

Program Structure

Year One: involves critically honing design practice to date, culminating in the curation of key projects in combination with written reflection

Year Two: involves exploration of potential areas of practice transformation, culminating in a survey of practice and research precedents

Year Three: involves experimentation with new forms of design practice, and a shareable account of the findings. All candidates are examined by a committee of relevant experts with no prior knowledge of the candidate’s research, and defend their research in a public oral presentation.

There are three components to the program:

1. Residential Intensives

At the beginning of each academic year and during Spring break, DDes and PhD students come together for intensive design research workshops. The intensives at the beginning of each academic year focus on research skill development and critical interrogations of new areas of designing. The Spring Break intensive comprises progress review presentations by all candidates before external panels, peers, and the public. Both intensives are rich experiences that provide the intellectual and social capital to sustain work over the academic year.

2. Curriculum

The core of the program is comprised of two to three courses per semester that can be taken via distance learning. These courses include a review of different approaches to design research as well as the introduction of frameworks for undertaking projects.

3. Publications

At the end of each year, in addition to project work, students produce a publishable paper. The final Doctoral submission comprises a collation and a series of curated presentations and/or exhibitions of research design work undertaken throughout the Doctorate.

The diagrams below provide an overview of DDes coursework.


Candidates for doctoral study must meet the following requirements for application to the DDes program:

  • A Bachelors degree in a design field from an accredited institution, with a strong record of academic achievement
  • At least 10 years professional experience as a practicing designer
  • The DDes accepts extensive professional experience (at least 10 years) in lieu of a master’s degree in some cases. The application process requires candidates to produce certified copies of academic transcripts.
  • Fluency in spoken/written English
  • DDes applicants must be legal residents of the United States

More on Language Requirements

GREs are not obligatory but are strongly recommended. We look for GRE scores of 160 and above for verbal, 148 and above for quantitative, and 4.5 or above for analytical writing.

All candidates whose native language is not English are required to submit recent TOEFL or IELTS scores. This requirement will not be waived.

A TOEFL score above 102 total, with minimum sub-scores of 25, or an IELTS score of 7.5, with no score lower than 7, is required for admission to the program.

Note: Language requirements cannot be waived.


The DDes program is a tuition-based program. Tuition for the academic year 2015/16 is $20,000 per year. While this is primarily a distance program, DDes students are still responsible for some university fees, and some travel and housing expenses will be incurred for the twice a year doctoral intensive that take place on the CMU campus. There are no scholarships offered for the DDes program at this time.

The Application Process

In addition to personal background information, the DDes application has 3 main components:

1. Biographical Essay

This 2-4 page document should give the Doctoral Selection Committee a sense of who you are and why you are interested in, and appropriate for, a doctoral research degree in Design. We are particularly interested in accounts of your level of design expertise. We want to understand how you think about and practice design, and the place of research in your work. You should indicate to us key figures and approaches in design history, thinking and practice that you have learned about or had experience with. You should also indicate any relevant teaching experience. We use this essay to evaluate your fit for the School in general, given that our focus is primarily Communication Design, Environments Design, Product Design, Interaction Design, Service Design, Design for Social Innovation and Transition Design. Your biographical essay should refer back to projects in your Portfolio of Expertise and connect forward to your Research Topic Proposal.

2. Portfolio of Work

Because this doctoral program involves less coursework in order to accelerate candidates to the research phase, accepted candidates will need to have demonstrated a high level of mastery of design and design studies. Applicants should submit a portfolio of selected design and design-related work (no more than 10 projects). The nature of the projects you select should be determined by your biographical essay and research topic proposal (explained below); choose projects that demonstrate your expertise in research-based designing in the areas that you are interested in furthering through doctoral research. Any design-related teaching experience should also be evidenced in the portfolio. Applicants should host their own digital portfolios and provide a web link in the application.

Each portfolio piece should include:

  • a clear description of what your specific role on the project was
  • a clear description of what expertise of yours is evidenced in the project
  • a clear description of the research/research process you undertook for the project
  • a clear description of any external validation of the project by peers, reviewers or users

3. Research Topic Proposal

In 2-4 pages, describe 1 or 2 design research topics. These proposals are not binding – all candidates will develop more extensive research proposals that can vary markedly from their application proposals in the course of the first year of the program. The Research Topic Proposal is used by the Doctoral Selection Committee to determine:

  • a candidate’s practical understanding of design research
  • capacity of a candidate to undertake research in a topic area appropriate for their experience and expertise as demonstrated in the Biographical Essay and the Portfolio
  • the fit between a candidate’s research interests and those of the School, faculty at CMU and potential advisors within the School’s international network

Some guideline for writing a Research Topic Proposal:

While recognizing that all candidates will undertake a year of coursework in design research, the Doctoral Selection Committee is looking for evidence of an ability to:

  • formulate a comprehensive research question that is not too broad in scope, but can sustain 3 years worth of investigation
  • identify appropriate collections of precedents of design work that might inform the research
  • identify appropriate bodies of literature that would frame the research
  • speculate/outline appropriate research processes and even methods, including practice-based design research projects, for conducting that research
  • list possible advisors on the faculty of the School of Design as well as those advisors external to School (within other departments at CMU or other institutions)
  • discuss potential audiences for whom the research outcomes would be appropriate

The School of Design’s Areas of Teaching and Research Focus

  • Communication Design
  • Environments Design
  • Product Design
  • Interaction Design
  • Service Design
  • Social Innovation Design
  • Design Studies
  • Transition Design

More on Transition Design

The School’s Doctoral Programs are prioritizing candidates who can advance a new area of design practice, study and research called ‘Transition Design.’ This refers to the role of design in enabling systems-level societal shifts to more sustainable futures. Transitions are multi-level, multi-stage changes. Transition Design recognizes the role of products, communications and environments in the creation of innovative social systems that can better service everyday needs. In this way, Transition Design is a higher order of designing that nevertheless always involves the more material practices of lower order designing. Transition Design is related to Strategic Design but also learns from and can make contributions to design for complex digital platforms and ecologies. Transition Design also draws on various non-design realms such as:

  • living systems, especially principles of emergence and transitions in ecosystems, but also ideas about co-evolution, self-organization, cooperation, interdependence, parasitism, virality and migration.
  • socio-technical systems, especially the recognition of infrastructural path dependency, the dynamics of social practices, and the importance of niche experiments
  • national systems, especially the significant economic and structural transformations wrought, almost always with unsustainable negative consequences, by waves of globalization in different eras
  • social systems, especially all that is known about the political history of community organizing and social learning
  • personal systems, especially all that is known about the (social) psychology of behavior change and the managing of life-stage and health transitions

A monograph on Transition Design can be downloaded here >>

Applicants are encouraged to think about how their disciplinary expertise and research interests might be reframed within the larger project of design-enabled societal transition to more sustainable futures.

Submitting an Application

The School accepts applications to the DDes program each year beginning on December 1st for the beginning of the next academic year beginning in the fall. Applications may be uploaded from the Doctoral Program Admissions page on this website on/after December 1st. Applications close on February 1.

Part 1 and 3 of the DDes application (the biographical essay and research topic proposal) may be uploaded as pdf files, part 2 of the application (portfolio) should be included as a link to a password protected online portfolio/website.

Shortlisted candidates will be asked to provide certified hardcopies of official documents (transcripts, GRE (if undertaken), and TOEFL/IELTS test results where appropriate) by mail.


If after thoroughly reading all sections about the DDes programs and the FAQs, prospective candidates still have questions, email us for more information about the DDes Programs. Note: language requirements cannot be waived.

Important Note Regarding Distance Education

Residents of Certain States are Ineligible to Apply for Enrollment in Courses and Programs Delivered via Distance Education: For Carnegie Mellon courses and programs delivered via distance education only: Carnegie Mellon is not able to accept students who are residents of Alabama, Arkansas and Minnesota for enrollment in courses and programs delivered via distance education because it has not applied for or received authorization from these states to deliver courses and programs via distance education to residents of these states. Carnegie Mellon has not currently applied for or received authorization from these states because Carnegie Mellon has determined that the administrative and other requirements to obtain and maintain authorization for its distance education courses and programs that would otherwise be delivered to residents of these states, including the fees charged by these states and the additional administrative costs associated with doing so, are disproportionately burdensome, excessive and/or prohibitive, at least at the present time.

ATTN Residents of AL, AR and MN: If you are a resident of Alabama, Arkansas or Minnesota, you are not eligible to apply for enrollment in Carnegie Mellon courses and programs delivered via distance education. Note, however that residents of Alabama, Arkansas and Minnesota are eligible to apply for enrollment in all other Carnegie Mellon courses and programs, including those offered at any of its various campus locations.

Inquiries regarding the above may be directed to:

Director of Enrollment Services
Carnegie Mellon University
Warner Hall A19
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Pittsburgh, PA 15213

Telephone: 412.268.5399