MPhil/PhD Design

The School of Design is home to internationally significant research by its staff and students, much of which is practice-based. The teaching areas of the School – Design Products, Fashion Menswear, Fashion Womenswear, Global Innovation Design, Innovation Designing Engineering, Intelligent Mobility, Service Design and Textiles – represent a wide range of approaches to research, from the industrially oriented to the highly speculative. The School is also home to RapidformRCA, the digital manufacturing and rapid-prototyping centre. We have a close relationship with the College’s Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design.

Our research ranges from individual projects by world-leading designers to large team projects with other institutions, including international companies such as Microsoft, Intel, Tata, Tussauds Group and Philips, with academic partners such as Imperial College London, the Victoria and Albert Museum, Science Museum and Natural History Museum as well as government bodies such as the Technology Strategy Board, Transport Systems Catapult and Future Cities Catapult.

Our MPhil / PhD Programme

As a research student in the School of Design, you will be a self-motivated candidate with a strong creative initiative matched by a keen drive to uncover fundamental new insights. The majority of PhD research students combine a significant practical project (or series of related projects) with a 40,000 word dissertation. You are welcome instead to submit a dissertation of 80,000 words. This latter option does not preclude undertaking practical work; it simply means that the work is not assessed in its own right.

We welcome inter-disciplinary as well as highly focused research – the approach required varies from between different teaching areas. It is not essential for you to have a design background; innovative design research is often undertaken by those from other disciplines. If in doubt about the suitability of your previous experience, please discuss your questions with the research studies leader of your preferred programme.

As a research student in the School of Design, you may be designing an innovative object or system, or your research may prioritise the conceptual or historical. Research topics range from those which are strongly needs-focused – such as designing new forms of medical equipment – to those which are more speculative – such as considering the philosophy of computer games. The research methods you adopt will be attuned to your subject: you may use established methods or develop your own.

PhD study leads to a range of opportunities: it enables you to become a researcher in industry, within government and official organisations or in a university; it opens academic careers to you internationally; it is an opportunity for you to investigate a research question or issue in depth, enabling you to take a more reflective, more innovative role in design and related fields.

All research students attend the cross-college Research Methods Course in their first year. This is supplemented by research methods provision within your chosen programme. Unlike PhD study in some countries, research at the RCA is primarily led by your personal inquiry, not by taught courses.

Research students normally enrol as MPhil candidates and then proceed to PhD.  Occasionally, applicants may be admitted directly as candidates for PhD, especially where a particular funding scheme requires it. In either case, the programme extends over three years full-time, and a minimum of five years part-time.

Our Students

Entrants to the MPhil/PhD research programmes in the School of Design have a wide spectrum of prior experience and qualifications and undertake their research in a range of different ways. You will be highly motivated, able to work intensively on your own but able to make good use of advice. You will be determined to question existing assumptions, methods and practices.

Our Collaborations 

External research collaborations benefit staff and students of the College and the external partner. Staff and students are exposed to a wide range of issues and questions in both academic and non-academic contexts; they apply their research skills and experience to solve current problems and to invent new futures.

PhD study with external organisations in the School of Design currently includes:

  • Intel: the future of money
  • Kingwood Trust: sensory design for autistic adult independent living
  • Microsoft Research Cambridge: the future of our relation with robots
  • Science Museum: the role of clay modelling in 20th Century car design
  • System Simulation: data visualisation of cultural collections
  • The National Archives: ambiguities and connections in visualising history
  • Victoria and Albert Museum: fashion mannequins for the twenty-first century

Our Staff

Supervisory staff are world-leading designers, who have exceptional connections with industry, the arts, and networks for exhibition and publication. Current research supervisors include:

  • Professor Stephen Boyd Davis (School of Design) – data visualisation, chronographics, history of design methods
  • Professor Ashley Hall (Innovation Design Engineering) – future of making, ‘glocal’ production, design methods.
  • Professor Dale Harrow (School of Design) – vehicle design, future mobility, automotive history
  • Dr Nick de Leon (Service Design) – smart cities, future cities, enterprise innovation
  • Dr John Stevens (Global Innovation Design) – design in business strategy, enterprise innovation, design and non-designers
  • Dr Qian Sun (Service Design) – design management, design policy, Anglo-Chinese innovation 

A full list of supervisors can be found here.

After Graduating

Our primary motivation is to prepare our graduates for their future careers; by fostering creative excellence and innovative thinking; and supporting rigorous research training and the public dissemination of new ideas. Recent graduates include:

Louise Kiesling – Louise is Head of Interior and Product Design at Coop Himmelblau, an international architectural firm based in Vienna. Louise’s PhD investigated the role of fashion in the cyclical changes that drive development and consumption in the automotive industry.

Artur Mausbach – Artur’s PhD was in the aesthetics of sustainability in vehicle design. He has given presentations and lectures on these subjects, winning prizes and organising sessions on vehicle design at international conferences. He is currently Course Coordinator at Universidade Anhembi Morumbi in São Paulo, Brazil, and head of Mausbach Design which aims to create a new design culture protecting environmental value.

Ben Shaw – Ben is a researcher in Cognitive Computing at IBM Research Almaden in California. His PhD was on shared visual representations in collaborative design. His current research centres on human-computer interaction in socio-technical systems and the dynamics of collaboration and value co-creation.

Luke Harmer – Luke is Senior Lecturer in Product Design at Nottingham Trent University, specialising in sustainable consumption. His PhD was on a new design process called ‘Experience Sections’, a visual tool for documenting and designing for an experience, which he used to evaluate perceptions of bus travel in the modern city.

Kleber Puchaski – Kleber is managing partner and design director in the São Paulo office of Designit, a 300-strong international company headquartered in Denmark. His PhD developed a co-creation process for automotive design.    

Apply for a Research Degree

We welcome applications to undertake original research by project or thesis. You must have a clearly defined research project and be able to demonstrate your ability to engage in research at the appropriate level. 

Follow these links for more information and guidance about Applying for a Research Degree at the RCA, the College's MPhil/PhD Application Process, including research proposal requirements and portfolio requirements (if applicable), and for full details of cross-college MPhil/PhD Entrance Requirements.

See Open Days for upcoming opportunities to visit the College and meet with our staff.

Fees & Funding

Follow these links for further details on Tuition Fees and Funding for Research students, including details of studentships, AHRC awards and doctoral loans. 

"‘Real world’ practice feeds into theory and vice-versa. Much of our research focuses on new ways of thinking about design, and on new contexts and roles for design that relate to the social, cultural and ethical implications of current and emerging technologies." Professor Stephen Boyd Davis

School Research Leader