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The Design Journal VOLUME 17, ISSUE 1
PP 115–136
115 The Design Journal DOI: 10.2752/175630614X13787503070079
Design Education
in Germany:
and Experiences
of Graduates and
Enrolled Students
in Master’s and
Doctoral Programmes
Gavin Melles
Swinburne University, Australia
Christian Wölfel
Technische Universität Dresden, Germany
ABSTRACT Germany has a long tradition
of excellence in design, highlighted by
influential institutions such as the Bauhaus
and the Ulm School, which continue to
globally influence design practice and
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Gavin Melles and Christian Wölfel
education. Design fields are principally located in
three of the major institution types in Germany: the
Fachhochschulen (Universities of Applied Sciences/
Polytechnics), Kunsthochschulen (Universities of
Art) and the traditional universities. In all schools
and departments practice-based work and
traditional research approaches compete for a
focus in institutions adapting to the implementation
of the Bologna restructuring of Higher Education
in Germany. In this new context, what design as
an academic discipline (Designwissenschaft) looks
like is being defined and debated by academics.
However, this discussion is taking place without
much reference to the content and nature of
existing programmes or the student experience.
This lack of empirical input from students, whose
experiences and understanding are a key measure,
form the basis of this funded research study. Based
on qualitative and quantitative data (n = 154) from a
survey of enrolled and completed doctoral (n = 39)
and master’s students (n = 116) gathered during a
German government-sponsored research exchange,
this preliminary study assesses the motivations,
experiences and understanding of design research.
The study concludes with an assessment of design
as a discipline in Germany based on this data.
KEYWORDS: Germany, design research, design education, science
of design
Introduction: Structural Changes and Pressures
The economic and social recovery of a postwar divided
Germany was closely linked with the success in that coun-
try of product design, and underpinned by institutions such
as the Bauhaus, HfG Ulm and the German Design Council, among
others (Betts, 2004; Bürdek, 2005; Hückler, 1997; Selle, 2007;
Spitz, 2002). Particularly, in the post-Second World War period,
the different institutions charged with design education, including
Kunstgewerbeschulen, gave way to the development of a differ-
entiated further and higher education sector. In the post-Ulm era
(1968) of education change design fields re-emerged in one of the
three main sectors: the polytechnics (Fachhochschule, FH), art and
design academies (Kunsthochschule, KH, also named Hochschule
für Gestaltung, HfG or Hochschule für Bildende Künste, HfBK) or the
traditional university sector, including the newer technical universi-
ties; a small but growing private university sector has also added to
this number.
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Postgraduate Design Education in Germany
In terms of doctoral education, a few art and design academies
have developed PhD or Dr. phil. programmes (e.g. Hochschule für
Gestaltung Offenbach am Main or Bauhaus-Universität Weimar)
with an explicit design focus. This practice-based tradition with
an ‘artistic’ component is already present in the arts schools
(Kunsthochschulen) as typical for the Fine Arts doctorate (see e.g.
Nolte, 2010; Lenger, 2009). In the mainstream university sector
(Universitäten), including the more recent technical universities, de-
sign fields, particularly industrial design, can be found in faculties of
Architecture or Engineering (e.g. TU München, TU Dresden). Here
Dr.-Ing. degrees are possible. As newer disciplines, such as interac-
tion design, have developed, other faculties, including Computer
Science, now also host design fields. Similar to their Anglo-Saxon
polytechnic counterparts, the Fachhochschule sector cannot offer
doctoral training at present. However, the distribution and spread
of design noted above means that any comprehensive account of
where design fields in higher education are located is difficult.
The Bologna restructuring of higher education has aimed to help
Germany regain some of its lost prestige in higher education (see
Teichler, 2005; Vehrkamp, 2006). International comparisons par-
ticularly with the USA have played a key role (see Lenhardt 2005;
Liefner et al, 2004). Although the Federal Ministry of Education and
Research defines the Bologna framework as national, the different
Bundesländer (federal states) in Germany have individual control
over education and research policy and practice. This has meant
that the replacement of the (typically) 10-semester studio-oriented
Diplom, for example, has not been instituted Germany-wide (see
Schwarz-Hahn and Rehburg, 2004). Another recent change in the
sector has been that since the early 1990s more structured training
programmes for doctoral programmes, including in design, have
been introduced based on UK and US models although the tradi-
tional apprenticeship model remains influential (Baldauf, 1998).
Master’s and Doctoral Degrees:
New Tensions and Directions
As Petzina (2005: 202) argues, the classic dividing line between
‘research-oriented’ universities and other ‘applied’ institu-
tions in Germany is no longer as clear. Schade (2007) notes that
Fachhochschule have helped blur this line by calling themselves
Universities of the Applied Sciences (Schade, 2007: 27). Lub et al
(2003; and see Kehm and Teichler, 2006) claim also that because
bachelor’s and master’s degree titles granted by universities and
Fachhochschulen are not officially distinguished, this has ‘made the
new degrees an important means in the Fachhochschulens struggle
for equal recognition with the universities’ (2003: 256). Given these
developments, it is perhaps not surprising that discussions are un-
derway for Fachhochschulen to offer doctoral degrees in Germany
(see Schwar, 2007 for Austria).
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Gavin Melles and Christian Wölfel
Universities have also had to respond to pressure to be more
industry-relevant, creating some tension and competition between
schools, especially at the master’s level, and new pressures on
students and faculty (Stallmann, 2002; Wuggenig, 2008; see also
Kunzmann 2008). The new master’s degrees with different degrees
of research embedded have been enthusiastically adopted by the
Fachhochschule (see Ludwig, 2000), and promoted as a better fit
for a professional career than the prior diploma study (see Freytag,
2005). Bürdek (2008), however, has suggested that such degrees
have suffered from vague objectives and practices, which are a con-
sequence of an atomized bureaucratic point system under Bologna.
Design graduates from FH who wish to go on to doctoral studies
also require additional bridging studies to bring their training up to
the ‘scientific’ standards of the universities; this is a requirement that
can seem arbitrary (see also Grotensohn et al, 2007).
Building on prior discussions in the English-speaking world on de-
sign as a discipline (see Cross, 2001), one term Designwissenschaft
has emerged in Germany as a focus of discussions about how
a design discipline might solidify out of this variety. The term is
currently used by many institutions as part of mission statements
about the academic pursuit of design at postgraduate level (see, for
example, Folkwang (Arts) University (
According to Romero-Tejedor and Jonas (2010) Designwissenschaft
is, however, frequently used indiscriminately as a synonym for design
theory and research. The term has, understandably, often been liter-
ally translated as Design Science but is semantically much closer to
Cross’s (2001) notion of a design discipline.
Recent arguments about the nature of a distinct Design wissen-
schaft emphasize the ubiquity and uniqueness of design in soci-
ety and culture as a unique contribution of design schools (see
Brandes et al, 2007; Mareis 2011). In practice, however, the term
is employed to describe fields that some would consider tangential
or contrary to typical design considerations. These include gam-
ing design (Edegger, 2008), engineering design (used alongside
Konstruktionswissenschaft; see Eekels, 2000) and information sys-
tems (Bichler, 2006). In addition, the term competes with another
central term for the Fine Arts, Kunstwissenschaften. Rummel (2000),
for example, rejects Designwissenschaften as a relevant term, as
it isolates design processes and objects from general cultural pro-
cesses (Kulturwissenschaft) (2000: 6). In sum, it is a key term in the
discourse about design in higher education but hardly a notion of
widespread use or agreement (cf. Durling 2002).
In sum, the landscape of postgraduate design education is di-
verse, and characterized by tensions and change around the nature
of design as an academic discipline. What certain academics and
institutions (through their mission statements) think about this issue
and its relationship to higher education is somewhat clear. However,
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Postgraduate Design Education in Germany
how students perceive these changes and how they define practice,
theory and research remains an unknown. In view of the lack of em-
pirical work, funding was sought and obtained through the German
Government DAAD (Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst)
to conduct a research and teaching visit to Germany in summer
2010. Surveys of doctoral (n = 39) and master’s students (n = 115),
were also complemented by seminars and teaching in a number of
universities (in German). The analysis and resulting picture suggest
a developing but differentiated picture of Designwissenschaft in
Survey setting
One database suggests there are 74 bachelor’s and 34 master’s
programmes in design fields.1 The most complete Hoch schuler-
ektorkonferenz (HRK) database2 lists 118 master’s programmes in
design fields, including, however, programmes that are specialities
of Media Arts, Architecture, and Engineering. Degrees granted, de-
pending on institution, include the existing Diplom degrees, Master
of Arts (in FH and KH), and Master of Science (MSc) degrees tend to
be the norm in universities.
The list of institutions enrolling candidates with design subjects
into doctorates is much smaller, and the recency of doctoral degrees
has meant that there have been few completions or theses available.
Some information about the cohort of enrolled doctorates is avail-
able on individual institutional websites which publish completed
and ongoing doctoral projects. A recent inspection of such sites
(viewed May 2012), for example, showed Folkwang University of
the Arts shows 10 completed and 10 ongoing doctorates; The
Design Research Lab at Universität der Künste Berlin has seven
Dr. phil. enrolled; TU München show 8 currently enrolled Dr.-Ing. in
Industrial Design; Universität Wuppertal 11 in industrial design; HfG
Offenbach am Main 5; Bauhaus-Universität Weimar completed Dr.
phil. in Gestaltung has 7 while the practice-based PhD (Art & Design
Candidates) show 15 currently enrolled. Habilitation, a postdoctoral
qualification enabling academics inter alia to supervise and examine
doctoral work, has in design fields also totalled possibly as few as
five to date.
Despite this incomplete picture, a pilot study was developed to
begin to fill the research vacuum. The study was conducted as an
internet survey based on semi-standardized questionnaires (see Master’s and diploma students
were recruited directly from institution websites where information
was available. Faculties with responsibility for this area were also
contacted, and, during the study and research visit in June/July
2010, personal contact with students was also used to encourage
survey completion. Following demographic details, questionnaires
to both groups (doctoral- and master’s-level students) asked about
motivations for enrolment, experiences with research methods and
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Gavin Melles and Christian Wölfel
theories, evaluation of writing, speaking and practice dimensions
of the research, and a statement on the relationship between prac-
tice, theory and research in the field of design; the questionnaire
was administered in German. Analysis of the qualitative data was
conducted by both authors separately coding the text inputs for
keywords and themes and both convergence and divergence then
incorporated here in the analysis.
Results – Demographics: Participants and Topics
Tables 1 and 2 illustrate the demographics of participants. A total
of 17 institutions participated in the Diplom/master’s survey. In
Table 1 the two universities that did not have Fachhochschule or
Kunsthochschule status are asterisked. Two German students en-
rolled in master’s at a Fachhochschule in Basel (Switzerland) were
included. Two-thirds of the participants (n = 76) were enrolled in
Master of Arts, a significant number (n = 32) in the Diplom degree
(master’s equivalent) and a small number (n = 4) in Master of Science
degrees (all at TU München); a few participants (n = 3) left this
category unanswered.
The spread of fields answering were in the overwhelming majority
(40.5 per cent) in Graphic and Communication Design, Industrial
and Product Design ranking second (22.5 per cent) and Design
Management (14 per cent) in third place. Other fields included were
fashion, photography, multimedia, service design and interaction
design (combined ~18 per cent); a significant minority (11 per cent)
gave another unspecified field as their answer.
Table 1 Demographics of participants in the Diplom/master’s survey
School – master’s programmes n =
FHNW, HGK Basel 2
FH Düsseldorf 6
Kunsthochschule Weißensee Berlin 7
Folkwang Universität* 9
HBK Saar 16
TU München* 4
HTWG Konstanz 9
HAWK Hildesheim 16
FH Augsburg 5
KH Burg Giebichenstein Halle 1
FH Reutlingen 4
MHMK München 1
HS Magdeburg 1
FH Hannover 3
FH Potsdam 5
HS Mannheim 2
HfG Schwäbisch Gmünd 16
Unstated 8
Total 115
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Demographics for the doctoral students were as follows (Table 2):
nine institutions were canvassed, all of which the first author visited
for further interviews with staff and students. One university, whose
PhD programme had just begun, namely HfG Offenbach am Main,
requested specifically not to participate. The majority of responders,
as indicated above, were still enrolled at the time of the survey and
at different stages of their candidature; a number commented on this
fact in their answers.
Table 2 Demographics of participants in the PhD survey
Institution Degree Total
Bauhaus-Universität Weimar PhD & Dr. phil. 5
Bergische Universität Wuppertal Dr. phil. 6 (1)
Folkwang Universität der Künste Essen Dr. phil. 5 (3)
Hochschule für Bildende Künste Braunschweig Dr. phil. 4 (1)
Kunsthochschule Kassel Dr. phil. 6
Technische Universität Berlin Dr. phil. 1
Technische Universität Dresden Dr.-Ing. 5
Technische Universität München Dr.-Ing. 5
Universität der Künste Berlin Dr. phil. 2 (2)
Total 39 (7)
Postgraduate Motivations: Similarities and Differences
Motivations for postgraduate enrolment vary from individual to
individual, and this study employed categories which had been
mentioned in the literature (e.g. Bauer, 2008; Messing and Huber,
2007; Puzicha and Tucholsky, 2010); the survey of motivations for
master’s and PhD groups was equivalent with one exception. The
master’s/Diplom study included the category ‘preparation for further
study, e.g. PhD enrolment’ as an option. In the doctoral survey this
category was replaced by the need for the degree for an academic
career; this distinctive pair is calculated below.
Two areas where there were major differences between both co-
horts (in either direction) were, perhaps not surprisingly experiencing
research and learning new design methods (Figure 1). For master’s
studies additional motivations (8/115) were: getting to know people
with whom collaboration would be interesting, professional develop-
ment, interest, master’s degree as essential for teaching, working
on a project that one probably would not experience in professional
life and learning about new areas. For doctoral studies the top three
motivations were for personal development, improving job prospects
and meeting the requirements for an academic career. The signifi-
cance of a doctoral degree for an academic career is as important in
Germany as elsewhere.
Two-thirds of the doctoral respondents added additional com-
ments; a common theme in these elaborations was the personal
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Gavin Melles and Christian Wölfel
enrichment students gained from the process. Others elaborated
on the specific need they had for the qualification in their university
position or in some cases in their profession, especially where this
was in a technical domain, e.g. mechanical engineering; a minority
cited social recognition as a motivation.
Use and Understanding of Design Methods,
Theory, Research
Research methods and theories in design research tend to divide
broadly into those which link closely to design practice, e.g. pro-
totyping, and those with a more general social science application
(e.g. Laurel, 2003). The second question asked both groups of
postgraduates to report on their use and understanding of research
methods. The list was developed with reference to relevant practices
in Germany, taken from Brandes et al (2007); multiple selections
were possible. The table and images below rank and compare the
responses of both groups to this question.
As expected, traditional research methods (observation, interview
and literature review) feature more highly for PhD than master’s stu-
dents (Table 3). For this latter group, familiar practice-oriented design
methods for concept generation and data gathering ranked higher.
Thus, at the PhD level the choice of ‘scientific’ methods bring design
under the general umbrella of the human or social sciences; or in
other relevant fields, e.g. engineering. This is a vexed question for
some academics as many practice-oriented methods are included
now in design research texts that collate practice-oriented methods
(e.g. Laurel, 2003). For those who see a distinction, this blurring is
problematic; for those who believe such methods are also tools to
research, there is no issue.
(still) unclear motivation
for social recognition
learn new design methods
international recognition
learn about interdisciplinarity
learn about scientific methods
experience research
degree required for academic career
improve job prospects
personal development
PhD candidates
master students (n=115)
preparation for further study
Figure 1
Motivations for enrolling a
master’s (n = 115) vs. PhD
(n = 39) in design based on
the survey.
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Postgraduate Design Education in Germany
The final comment section asked about the relevance of the cho-
sen methods to study. Here also a range of additional methods for
both groups were listed, including sociology, IDEO Methods Cards,
producing prototypes; creative techniques, marketing and project
management. For the PhD students among the other category
(option 46) the following four methods were listed: model theory,
sketching, moodboards, raw prototypes or mock-ups, design-
based research and gestaltung (design work). The results are shown
in Figure 2.
Comments on Methods Choices
For the master’s students, given the typical project focus of stud-
ies, the number of methods used and the short time frame were
a decisive factor; some respondents mentioned the fact that they
had limited time to be acquainted with some methods. A number of
respondents referred to methods as project dependent. A number of
doctoral respondents referred to the break between pre- and post-
doctoral methods, so that practice-oriented design methods were
partly or wholly replaced by more generic social science methods
and processes, e.g. qualitative research, at the doctoral level. Those
working in more technical areas such as human–computer interac-
tion and industrial design referred to lab tests, e.g. usability tests and
‘traditional’ methods, as expected. Some of the observations on this
question, which asked about this relationship, did provide additional
comments of interest about the use of methods and theory prior to
Table 3 Methods and theory of use (each group 12 highest ranks)
Master’s students (n = 115) Rank PhD candidates (n = 39)
Brainstorming (58) 1 Observation (25)
Group discussion (53) 2 Interview (21)
Observation (41) 3 Literature review (20)
Mind maps (40) 4 Semiotics and semantics (18)
Semiotics and semantics (30) 5 Mind maps (17)
Materials research (28) 6 Brainstorming (17)
Questionnaires (25) 7 Philosophy (16)
Storytelling (24) 8 Questionnaires (13)
Rhetoric (20) 9 Usability testing (13)
Trend research (18) 10 Interdisciplinary studies (13)
Literature review (18) 11 Historical research (12)
Usability testing (17) 12 Semantic differential (11)
Philosophy (17) Ergonomics (11)
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Gavin Melles and Christian Wölfel
0 10203040506070%
Customer Journey
Feasibility Study
Grounded Theory
Critical Research
Semantic Differential
Participatory Design
Case Studies
Cultural Probes
Detail Analysis
User Research
Action Research
Concept Tests
Information Theory
Systems Theory
Cognitive Design
Contextdesign research
Historical Research
Market Research
Intercultural Communication
Interdisciplinary Studies
Usability Testing
Ecology & Ecodesign
Trend Research
Literature Review
Story Telling
Materials Research
Semiotics and Semantics
Mind Maps
Group Discussion
master students (n=115)
PhD candidates (n=36)
Figure 2
Comparing methods
choices. and during doctoral work, indicating something of a split between the
two areas, and a conceptual leap for doctoral ‘research’ students.
One common complaint for both groups was a lack of struc-
tured introductions in research methods and ‘scientific’ processes
through coursework. A small number of students (enrolled in the
practice-based PhD at Weimar and those working broadly in interac-
tion design in the Design Research Lab in Berlin), referred to direct
intervention and co-design being an element of research practice:
‘Since this is a Design Dissertation, it is not about a neutral observer
role but rather changing the situation that I “test”. As a result I will
probably use elements of Action Research.’ In sum, the employment
of distinctive design methods at the research level and beyond the
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Postgraduate Design Education in Germany
practice-oriented phase of bachelor’s/master’s or diploma studies
is attested but has yet to displace normative expectations at the
doctoral level for more generic ‘scientific’ methods.
Challenges: Writing, Designing and Speaking
Academic writing constitutes a challenge to many art and design
students as their studio- and practice-based training typically does
not place a heavy emphasis on this. Related studies point to the
difficulty students in these areas have in conceptualizing the relation-
ship between (academic) writing and creative work (e.g. Hockey
and Allen-Collinson, 2000; Pritchard et al, 2005). Design student
conceptions of the research component of postgraduate degrees
in comparison to project work also vary (e.g. Dickinson et al, 2007;
Shreeve et al, 2004). Although writing demands vary for master’s
(and diploma) study, typical figures for theses in Fachhochschulen in
this area is around 40 pages while in the university sector this may be
considerably more, e.g. 140 pages at TU Dresden. Doctoral theses
meanwhile are of conventional breadth (80,000–100,000 words)
with no exemplars yet of practice-based PhDs to compare.
In the survey, both master’s and doctoral students ranked writing
as overall more difficult than either spoken or, where relevant, design
work. For the master’s students, two main themes were the lack of
experience with scientific writing in prior training, and the fact that
it was difficult to answer the question given that the respondent
was at an early stage. Although this is understandable, it could be
the case, for example, that silence on this issue was also due to a
lack of prior experience by students with writing in bachelor’s study
and a lack of explicit instruction in writing (pedagogy problem). A
number of students (n = 8) explicitly commented that they had little
or no experience with writing prior to further study for the master’s,
alluding to specific weaknesses in instruction. Another somewhat
‘hidden’ factor was the number of respondents with German as a
second language (n = 9), for whom writing in particular constituted
a particular challenge. Because most studies were involved with
practical project design work, comments on the challenge of the
design work (in comparison to the doctoral students) were also
frequent. Presentation and designing skills, however, are developed
in undergraduate studies and while some students mentioned the
(general) challenge of compressing a project into a short presenta-
tion was difficult and nerve-wracking (n = 9), there was no sense in
which this constituted a real problem. In general, it must be said,
there were many comments on the general time-consuming nature
of postgraduate work, and the pressure to deliver; such comments
however are hardly specific to design.
For all doctoral students, writing the dissertation represents a
challenge. This may be particularly so for students in design and
other creative fields. In their quantitative response to ranking the dif-
ficulties of writing, speaking and design work, a majority of doctoral
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Gavin Melles and Christian Wölfel
respondents (30/39 = 77 per cent), ranked writing as the most
difficult component of study. The two major themes were the lack of
writing training in prior studies and the lack of clear guidance by the
institution or supervisor during the research process. Students face
the general challenge of managing a diverse literature, consistent
with the interdisciplinary nature of design research work and writing.
Nearly a third of respondents (n = 9) explicitly mentioned the general
complexity of doctoral work as an intellectual exercise, particularly as
an interdisciplinary field; an observation that is hardly unique to the
field. As one student remarked, ‘My topic is interdisciplinary oriented
and involves very many disciplines. That makes the work interesting
and challenging but also makes the written formulation difficult’.
Of the respondents, 20 per cent (n = 6) alluded to a lack of
clear guidance or communication by supervisors and the institution
because in one or other case there is a lack of frameworks and expe-
rience. This included the fact that the ‘newness’ of the design doc-
torate in one particular institution lead to uncertainties of supervision
and format, as in the following example. As with the master’s stu-
dents, some alluded to the early stage of the doctorate as a reason
for being unclear about format and requirements. Comments which
were less frequent included a difficulty for students in managing
work and study balance and for one candidate the difficulties faced
as being a speaker of German (or English) as a second language – a
phenomenon on the increase as foreign students enrol in German
PhDs. In relation to the introduction of the practice-based PhD, one
of the Weimar candidates expressed uncertainty about the eventual
relationship between project and practice in the submission.
Understanding Practice–Theory–Research –
Defining the Intersection
The final section of the study asked respondents to comment on the
relationship between theory, practice and research in design. The
question was answered by 73 of 115 (average response ~70 words)
of all respondents from the master’s study, and 32 out of 39 of the
doctoral candidates. Again, common themes were discovered for
both groups.
Theory, Practice and Research are Interdependent
Overwhelmingly, students view practice as either the priority or
as the defining criteria for the relevance of theory and research.
One mitigating factor was that because design is mostly located in
Fachhochschulen this limits the meaning of research: ‘an academic
design culture is less strongly positioned as in other countries. I do
not think one can currently speak of the acceptance of “scientific”
methods in design courses’ (doctoral candidate). The great majority
of respondents referred to an interdependent relationship between
theory, practice and research, albeit commenting at times on which
preceded which in time or priority in a project. It should be noted also
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Postgraduate Design Education in Germany
that many respondents interpreted theory as a reference to writing
as opposed to a separate conceptual or intellectual advance.
In relation to practice, one respondent argued that research could
get in the way of seeing the client/user situation adequately. A num-
ber of respondents pointed to the overwhelming importance of
practice, to the extent that design could exist through practice alone,
albeit outcomes could be improved through a greater ‘research’
engagement. The ‘scientific’ aspects of design research can be-
come an obstacle to communicating good design, as argued by one
student: ‘I find as a designer that the scientific approach is very de-
manding; results are mostly in paper format expected and published.
A designer solution, an application or a prototype as such does not
fit a scientific publishing house’. Another student said, ‘Design is a
creative activity in companies. An excessive academic approach is
not necessary or often useful in specific fields’.
Particular rationales were offered for the widely acknowledged
need for theory and research other than that these were in principle
mutually dependent or to avoid ‘reinventing the wheel’. Foremost,
these included the idea that only through research and theory could
the design process and outcome be ensured of better potential for
success, and not have to depend on intuitive guesswork. As one re-
spondent put it, even designs with no apparent theoretical base but
with simply a visual appeal, ‘to be successful required understanding
of perception, colour and form theory’. The potential sources of
theory and research were multiple, including, as one respondent
put it, ‘Society, Politics, Environment, Medicine, Technology, Art’.
What comes first – practice, theory or research – was also a mat-
ter for some comment. The relationship could be ‘different in the
development of each project’. Design in practice is involved with
many fields, and a number of respondents referred to the intrinsically
interdisciplinary nature of design research and practice. These are
not, however, necessarily key competencies of designers, sug-
gested one student: ‘Research in all fields that does not relate to
aesthetics or use of products should not therefore necessarily be
attributed to design’.
Significance of Interdisciplinarity
Both master’s and doctoral students alluded to interdisciplinarity as
a defining feature of postgraduate design, although the exact nature
of this differed, for example, some referred explicitly to working with
psychology and engineering, while others remained uncommitted.
As with the master’s students there was a common reference to
how design research was characterized by interdisciplinarity and the
use of multiple methods are explicitly or implicitly often mentioned
as characteristic of all studies. However, questions remain about
the distinctive nature of design methods and approaches compared
to other fields, such as: What are the unique methodological selling
points of Design Research? How can Design and Design Research
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Gavin Melles and Christian Wölfel
be marked out or differentiated from other disciplines in definitional
terms? What place does Design Research assume in the University
Canon – will it be categorized with one of the established disciplinary
domains or will it fulfil an overarching function?
In addition to interdisciplinarity, other particular characteristics of
design research were noted by individuals. These included the need
for design research to consider social relevance and responsibility,
as one student said: ‘Design research must also take place in the
context of design for third world countries’. Also, design was seen
to be intimately linked to human-centred issues of health and well-
being through the practical design process. One participant, for
example, talked about the design of clinic and hospital spaces for
patients and health teams:
to plan and design for these people is a complex challenge for
everyone concerned: architects, civil engineers and specialist
medical engineers, facilities managers, interior architects and
communication designers. During this process, questions
about technical function, the smooth running of procedures
and processes, hygiene for medical and nursing supplies must
be as much taken into consideration as questions of durability
and profitability.
The Difficult Distinction between Design and
Fine Arts and Crafts
A number of students alluded to or explicitly mentioned how design
and fine/visual arts were distinguished or not in terms of design
research. As one student put it: ‘Aesthetics is strongly dependent on
personal taste and often an object of philosophy or art. In contrast to
art, the designer must, through his activity, create industrial produced
goods, which must fulfil functions. Aesthetics must therefore follow
an objective’. A few students described their position as an inter-
mediary between both broad fields. One student, who had trained
as a tailor and studied fashion design, pointed to the advantages
such an artisan training could have for working in a practice-oriented
design study. A few respondents explicitly mentioned the lack of
understanding by the public and other fields of design theory and
research, its relationship with fine art and art practice in general being
unclear and leading to misunderstandings. Design, ‘a much more
industrial concept’ than art, required a different more practical and
user-centred approach. One respondent, however, was quite explicit
in referring to a design process that was, ‘very open and not directed
at either materials or form or even function’, then describing studio
drawing and sculpturing with no specific reference to function or user.
Pedagogy Problems
Implicit and explicit in some of the comments regarding the priority
for practice and application against theory and research was not
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Postgraduate Design Education in Germany
only an intrinsic dislike of theory but a disjunction between theory
and practice exacerbated by bad teaching. Particular problems were
raised regarding the quality of teaching and supervision in higher
education. Several respondents pointing to quality issues in their
institutions: ‘Design theory and research are not, in my opinion, in the
early semesters sufficiently well taught’. The supervision of students,
whether practical or theory-oriented, could also be wanting, with
several pointing to the need to learn independently. An example from
one school makes this patent: ‘At the [name of school] very little
design research takes place or current art and currents/trends are
examined. It is left to the student to do this by themselves, and it is
naturally difficult to motivate oneself and tackle such a complex topic.’
Raising the Profile of Design
A particularly common concern was the need to bring design from
the margins to the centre of public and academic consciousness.
A ‘cheap’ understanding of design as style added to luxury goods
was another intellectual obstacle to design being taken seriously:
‘Particularly in Germany a major enemy for Designers is a danger-
ous “cheap mentality” among middle class clients’. In addition to
the greater emphasis in higher education potentially improving this
poor understanding, a number of other strategies such as including
design in the education training of non-designers are implemented.
In order to mitigate a superficial grasp of design, the field needs to
raise its profile. A more frequent engagement with other scientific
fields was also recommended as a way of improving design’s profile,
although handing research over to cultural studies and other fields
was not the way to go: ‘In my view, design research in Germany in
comparison to international research activity still needs to catch up,
but is increasingly becoming better known’.
From the doctoral students, one reflection by several students
was that a clearer definition of the relationship between theory and
practice and Designwissenschaft in general would enable Germany
to participate in broader international discussions. One of the
Weimar-Bauhaus PhD students noted, ‘That the development of
increasing numbers of academic projects and offerings in the area
of design research is now taking off also in German-speaking areas
is essential for the field to be and remain visible in international ex-
change and standards’. The professionalization of design discourse
might lead to the field playing a broader role in discussions about the
future: ‘On the one hand the professionalization of design practice
through theory and research is very important so that Design (again)
will be capable of participating in important discussions about the
future’. As one doctoral candidate noted, developing design theory
could help with professional legitimacy:
Design theory I find essential so that we designers are not (seen
as) only unskilled labour who execute projects but also who
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Gavin Melles and Christian Wölfel
can take responsibility for our activity, i.e. that we construct
values and principles which define how we might operate.
Economics, Functionality and Design – A Priority
Economics and commercial questions define design. One student,
recently returned from an overseas experience, had, as a result,
changed his opinion about the rhetoric of the importance of culture
for design, noting that principles such as these gave way to com-
mercial and economic imperatives. The focus on the user–client
should be the priority with the aim of attracting as many clients as
possible. According to one respondent who referred to aesthetics
and user factors as the key competencies of the designer, other aca-
demic research skills were not key competencies for designers. In
some cases this was interpreted as being aware of the user reaction
to the visual properties of the product. Numerous other respondents,
however, suggested design theory and history was essential to
reach the target user group.
Other important user factors included delivering the functions
required by users (the target group), economically and ecologically.
The economic angle and consumer needs were, according to one
respondent, the crucial factors which limited the designer’s freedom
to design (Gestaltungsspielraum). Economics also featured in one
response which pointed to the need for theory and research to avoid
producing goods which might then be produced a thousand-fold
with errors. Several doctoral students also alluded to the signifi-
cance of economic and innovation processes. As one respondent
put it: ‘I understand design in my research area as the connecting
together central success factors for (business) innovation and found-
ing teams. For me, design is the combination of customer need,
feasibility and economic factors’.
Scepticism Regarding the Scientific
Pretentions of Design
One obstacle to the development of design research is, claimed sev-
eral candidates, that it has limited significance in company contexts.
Design as practice-oriented and arts and craft-linked (e.g. graphic
design) is not a discipline but can contribute to others:
I don’t believe that design theory – I specifically don’t mean
marketing and sociology methods- plays or will play a major
role for Graphic design practice. In my understanding graphic
design is primarily (art and) craft activity with few theoretical
interests which would justify it being acknowledged as an
independent discipline. (Doctoral candidate)
As another respondent noted, ‘Designers see themselves as
problem solvers, research is pragmatically viewed and external (sci-
entific) studies often remain not acted upon. Designers are (however)
The Design Journal131
Postgraduate Design Education in Germany
conscience of the fact that sound consultation and developmental
research cannot be managed without scientific support (doctoral
In conclusion, the consensus of students is that research, theory
and practice hang together and this interdependent relationship,
although sometimes complex and problematic to put into practice,
is important. Underpinning many responses from both groups was a
desire for more legitimacy for design. Given the overwhelming belief
among participants that practice, commercial and user requirements
was the deciding factor in the usefulness of theory, and that design
typically had to pragmatically access theories and ideas from a range
of domains, the nature of the theoretical engagement is neither
abstract nor deep in a philosophical sense. A significant number of
students see the engagement with theory and research as a path to
better recognition of the seriousness of design, an enterprise that still
requires the input from fields outside of design. It should be noted
that this positive perspective by students, of course, says nothing
specific about their understanding of theory or how it is taught.
Summary and Discussion
This study examined postgraduate student views on their motiva-
tions, experiences with research methods and theories, views on
writing, speaking and design, and perspectives on the relationship
between practice, theory and research in design. The study aimed
to develop a more empirically based account of what design as an
academic discipline (Designwissenschaft) means to postgraduate
students. This was the first such study of its kind in Germany to
focus on this issue and should be followed by further systematic
work. The fact that master’s and doctoral student responses were
brought together in this report may be viewed as a weakness in
the study as the time frames and expectations differ. However, as
indicated in the results, many similarities exist across both groups in
terms of such issues.
In general, respondents revealed an understanding of the value
of combining research, practice and theory in producing high qual-
ity responsive designs. There were some exceptions to this with a
significant minority suggesting practice and creativity were priorities,
and some suggesting design as a field or practice that could proceed
without being complicated by theory and research. Many also rec-
ognized that design research and theory remained on the periphery
of mainstream ‘scientific’ discussions and practices and much was
needed to be done to address this. Definitions also frequently al-
luded to interdisciplinarity as an essential feature of design, although
to what extent this was theorized remains unclear. There was also
recognition that Germany lagged behind other nations in developing
design research and theory. Flaws in the design of programmes in
several institutions were indicated with respect to the teaching of
research, practice and theory. Finally, several respondents explicitly
The Design Journal132
Gavin Melles and Christian Wölfel
linked the significance of design research and theory to specific
fields, e.g. interaction design.
The experience of students prior to doctoral enrolment remains
largely embedded in practice-oriented, non-theoretical domains
and the transfer into doctoral degrees is consequently a challenge,
particularly in the area of writing and theorizing the thesis. A growing
number of completed and enrolled candidates, however, suggests
that the growing emergence of completed theses and the further
expansion and development of programmes will lead to greater con-
sensus on disciplinary characteristics. However, for this to develop,
it will require debate and discussion that does not exclude adjoining
disciplines, e.g. engineering and architectural design, nor remain
focused on the rhetorical characteristics of design.
The authors acknowledge the support of the Deutscher Akademischer
Austauschdienst (DAAD), who funded the travel and expenses of the
primary author as an academic researcher exchange in June/July
2010 at HfG Schwaebisch Gmund, Folkwang Universitaet and TU
Dresden, Germany.
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Dr Gavin Melles has a PhD (Education), a Master’s (Linguistics) and
is currently studying for an MSc in Sustainable Development at
School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS), London University.
He researches, supervises and teaches in design thinking, design
education, and research methods. He has been visiting professor
and researcher in Germany, Switzerland and Sweden.
Dr Christian Wölfel is a lecturer and design researcher at Technische
Universität Dresden, Germany. With Katharina Bredies (UdK Berlin),
he leads the Design Promoviert special interest group at the German
Society for Design Theory and Research. In his PhD thesis (2011),
he investigated the specifics of design knowledge in industrial design
and the support of its acquisition by narrative and reflective meth-
ods. Being responsible for numerous applied research projects, he
specializes in designing medical and healthcare devices and related
capital goods.
Addresses for Correspondence
Gavin Melles, Swinburne University, Faculty of Design, 144 High
Street, Prahran 3181, Australia.
Tel.: +61 3 92146851
Christian Wölfel, Technische Universität Dresden, Center for Industrial
Design, 01062 Dresden, Germany.
Tel.: +49 351 463 35798

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This article compares the results of the implementation of the new bachelor-master system in the Netherlands and Germany. The Bologna Process presents the common European context for this reform process. However, the respective national contexts differ, and so do the actual implementation processes and the emerging outcomes. For each of the two countries, a limited number of aspects of the reforms that emerged as most relevant are highlighted. In the final section, some commonalities and differences are discussed.The former mainly concern the characteristics of the binary system in both countries and the introduction of accreditation in relation to the bachelor-master system. With respect to the latter, the implementation strategy and the funding conditions are most strikingly different, related to the fact that in Germany the new system is implemented in parallel with the existing system, whereas in the Netherlands the new system will replace the existing one.
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