Postgraduate research opportunities

Understanding mental imagery processes in creative design synthesis

This PhD project will combine qualitative and quantitative methods from design and psychology to provide new understanding about the role of mental imagery in creative design synthesis.

Number of places



Home fee, Stipend


24 February 2021


42 months


Qualifications & Experience

To commence around July/August 2021 (negotiable), this 3.5 year studentship is available for students who possess a first class or 2.1 (Honours), or equivalent EU/International qualification in Product Design, Engineering Design, Psychology, or another relevant discipline. The candidate should have the following technical experience and personal skills:

  • self-motivated individual with skills and/or interest in design processes, design creativity, design/creative cognition, and mental imagery
  • knowledge in statistical analysis would be an advantage but is not essential
  • a proactive approach, with initiative and ability to work independently
  • ability to synthesise, summarise, and draw conclusions
  • strength to cope with schedules and deadlines
  • excellent organisational and communication skills
  • excellent written and spoken English

Find out more about this exciting PhD opportunity by clicking through the tabs above.

Project Details

In product design, creative synthesis is the mental creation and combination of design knowledge and concepts to produce ideas for functional products. Mental imagery is key to this process, enabling the designer to mentally visualise and manipulate ideas. However, existing research on mental imagery in product design is very limited. The number of studies is relatively small, and they tend to employ qualitative methods with small samples. These methods can generate rich, detailed data on the processes involved, but cannot alone produce the generalisable results needed to create scientific models of imagery processing across designers as a population. Psychologists have conducted studies on mental imagery in creative thinking, typically employing larger samples and quantitative psychological tests of imagery ability. These suggest that various imagery abilities may be involved, including vividness, spatial processing, and control. Furthermore, psychologists have demonstrated that imagery ability and subjective experience of imagery – particularly vividness – varies considerably across people. A total absence of visual imagery (aphantasia) has also been observed in some individuals, including creative professionals such as animators and cartoonists. However, these aspects have not been systematically investigated in designers.

This PhD project will combine qualitative and quantitative methods from design and psychology to provide new understanding about the role of mental imagery in creative design synthesis. The knowledge generated will provide insight into the requirements for revolutionary new tools to support creative design, and impact design practice and education by providing a foundation for new imagery-based methods and approaches.

Funding Details

This fully-funded PhD opportunity is supported by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), and will cover Home and EU Fees and Stipend for 3.5 years. Additionally, all students who are awarded EPSRC DTP funded studentships have access to a Research Training Support Grant (RTSG) of £1,500 per annum. Students recruited for EPSRC DTP awards must meet the UKRI eligibility criteria regarding residency and academic qualifications.


The student will be jointly supervised by Dr Laura Hay and Prof. Alex Duffy from the Department of Design, Manufacturing and Engineering Management. This academic team has the required expertise in design cognition, creativity, and design processes, and collaborates closely with a cognitive scientist in the School of Psychological Sciences and Health.

Please note: We request that potential candidates direct all questions to

Dr Laura Hay

Dr Laura Hay is a Lecturer in Product Design in the Department of Design, Manufacturing and Engineering Management. Her current research investigates the cognitive and neural basis of conceptual product design, as part of a long term vision focused on integrating the imagination with technology to provide more effective and intuitive tools for designers. She has experience with qualitative approaches (e.g. protocol analysis, thematic analysis), cognitive experiments, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), and design creativity assessment, and has published in international journals on both design and cognitive science. She initiated and leads an international Special Interest Group on Cognitive Design Science within the Design Society, and is on the editorial board of the International Journal of Design Creativity and Innovation. She teaches user-centred design, emotional design, form and aesthetics, and systems thinking, covering the designer, design process, and artefact. She has experience supervising undergraduate and postgraduate Masters projects, and currently supervises a PhD project on creative design cognition.

Prof. Alex Duffy

Prof. Alex Duffy is Professor of Systems Design and currently Head of Department of Design, Manufacturing and Engineering Management. He was previously the Vice-Dean of Research in the Faculty of Engineering, and is a past President and Vice President of the Design Society. His research focuses on the application and development of artificial intelligence and cognitive based design, knowledge modelling and re-use, performance and process optimisation, integrated design systems, and design co-ordination. He has published over 250 papers (including 17 invited articles) and led four multi-partner EU and UK projects worth over £40M. He led a recently completed £1M EPSRC project on cognitive based design, and co-leads an international Special Interest Group on Cognitive Design Science within the Design Society. He is the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Engineering Design, an Associate Editor of Design Science, a Strategic Advisory Board member for the International Journal of Design Creativity and Innovation, and on the editorial boards of Research in Engineering Design, Artificial Intelligence in Engineering Design Analysis and Manufacture, and the International Journal of Engineering Management and Economics. He has extensive experience supervising PhD projects, as well as undergraduate and postgraduate Masters projects.

How to apply

Individuals interested in this project should email along with the title of the project you are applying for and attach your most up-to-date cv aligned with the requirements of this studentship.

We will only accept applications from international students who confirm in their email application that they are able to pay the difference between the Home/EU and International fees (approximately £17,500 per annum). The Stipend is not to be used to cover fees. If you are unable to cover this cost the application will be rejected.