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Writing a Masters Thesis is hard

I’ll soon be submitting my proposal for my MA thesis here at the London College of Printing and have to say that I’m a little nervous because I don’t really know what an MA thesis is supposed to consist of. Sure, my professors presented previous student work at the beginning of the year, but a couple of slides and a short description do not a thesis make. Obviously, I’ve also talked to them at length about my concept and how I plan to go about doing it, yet supportive as they are, I feel I don’t have much of a barometer with which to judge my proposal.

An interesting article in Emigre 64 written by Jessica helfland and William Drenttel addressed how it is now very much in vogue to imitate the graphic style of science, charts and tables and careful “scientific” documentation. They write “In documenting, designers dutifully observe the minutiae of their efforts, recording with detail bordering on the absurd.”

In their essay Helfland and Drenttel write about a Masters student who’s whole masters thesis project was a scientific documentation of the lint from a
clothes dryer. They write “Not long ago we attended a graduate design thesis review featuring several months of lint recovered from a dryer. The cumulative, color coded evidence of this rather bizzare little odyssey in textile hygiene was presented, like a rare archeological specimen, in an oversized glass vase, where else, on E-bay.”

Although I haven’t come across anything quite so absurd here, I can attest to an analytical drive by some students where the process of pseudo-scientific documentation has pushed a�— dare I say — contentless project (which might have been salvaged with a little bit of personal narrative) to the point of utter meaninglessness.

Another masters project spotted in Print magazine was about the origin of the word Orange. The final project was presented as an artist book, with what looked like 100 pages, with interesting folds, that was all about the colour orange, the fruit orange, and the word orange.

If the goal of a masters thesis is to further the realm of knowledge in the field of graphic design — which I believe it is — how do these projects do this? What would their thesis statements have been? And how do they even relate to the field of graphic design?

From the outside world of professional practice, the ivory tower of academia is often sneered at, as a place where people with time and money on their hands go to learn to speak in elitist jargon about abstract ideas that don’t relate to the real practice of design. Obviously I don’t believe this — but projects like those mentioned above don’t help.

I’ve learned a lot since coming here, from the very practical workshops to the highly theoretical discussions. I’ve learned a lot from the process of making self-directed, autonomous work. And perhaps most significantly, I’ve learned a lot from an incredibly international group of peers. I’m about to embark on a thesis project that I’m passionately committed to. I hope that it will somehow contribute to the discipline. But the question remains, what is an MA thesis in graphic design supposed to be?

Thanks to Tanya Roberson for the topic.

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PUBLISHED ON May.05.2004 BY Kevin
Kevin Lo’s comment is:

Ouch!!! Look what Tom has to say.

I'm preparing my defense. I would just like to quickly say though, that here at LCP, we have been encouraged to be quite "savage".

On May.05.2004 at 06:24 PM
mitch’s comment is:

my own one-sentence personal opinion of what a thesis should be is:

a thesis is an exploration of some aspect of (fill in the subject) you are passionate about.

note two words: exploration and passionate. I think that quite frankly a thesis on lint is a perfectly valid one if you are exploring the subject and passionate about it. Its sure as hell not interesting to me, but I am not everyone else. As much as a thesis is an externally expressed culmination of a design education in what is supposed to be a broad project, it is in my opinion far more personal and subjective; unfortunately is is also something that is supposed to let you show off how much you learned in school. I think a thesis should be a process that does not neccesarily have a finished product at the end of it, but instead is interrupted sometime in May for a good look-over by some faculty, and then continues for as long as it needs to.

Where i attend school (RISD) the BFA students (like me) only do a 'degree project' which i think falls short of a thesis (the MFA students do a thesis) - it is in the end basically just a large semester project. My DP final review is 2 years away but i am already planning it and intend to begin some initial process this summer (when i should have time) - and i also intend to approach it as a thesis because it is just plain more interesting that way.

just to touch on the issue of analysis in design - when I saw Andrew Blauvelt speak recently I was certainly inpressed with his work, and the projects that came out of the Walker under his direction. However, much as I respect Andrew, I have some personal issues with how much of the work stems from what is essentially research data that is then highly designed and presented to the viewer in a relatively unconventional way - I am not yet convinced that its not just a very fancy pie-chart, or dare I say a highly designed PowerPoint. yes it looks good, yes it is well designed, yes it is sort of interesting, it just starts to fall flat for me. Now then, while I think that while Andrew uses data as a way to inform the design (sometimes too much in my very humble opinion) many thesis projects i have seen instead use the data AS design - and it is just not. Analysis as a means to a thesis is just not the right way to do it, especially when it becomes the thesis. I think that analysis is certainly part of the process to help inform the thesis, it is ONLY a part. I am sure the counter-argument is that it is information design, and yes, it is, but the question becomes do i NEED that information?

if none of that makes sense then someone remind me not to post when i am in the middle of doing my finals and not sleeping more than 3 hours a night.

On May.05.2004 at 06:29 PM
graham’s comment is:

kevin-don't forget, there are differences between college in the u.s. and college in the u.k. some of them are big ones.

On May.05.2004 at 06:37 PM
Kevin Lo’s comment is:

Mitch, don't worry, your post makes perfect sense, and you address a lot of what I was trying to get at (especially my disillusionment with info-graphic projects). And though I like your definition, I think something it misses is that academic institutions should aim to advance the discipline. Now when I say discipline, I don't mean profession - I don't think that thesis projects should be grounded solely in practical issues of graphic design, but c'mon lint? I'm still a firm believer in the romantic notion of academia as a place of autonomous praxis, a place where the borders of the discipline can be redefined, a place where we can struggle freely to find the ways to make the world a better place. And I'm afraid that lint has very little to do with all that. What are other people proposing?

Graham - having recently studied in Canada, the Netherlands(briefly) and now London, I can see a range of differences between their approaches. I'm not so sure however if these diferences are more related to geography than to the individual institutions themselves. Would you care to expand on the differences you allude to?

On May.05.2004 at 06:57 PM
graham’s comment is:

this might be a start. unless there's similar info for u.s. government grants for students.

On May.05.2004 at 07:11 PM
graham’s comment is:

a couple more links.

On May.05.2004 at 07:30 PM
Tom Gleason’s comment is:

I definitely agree that this sort of orange/lint project may only be indirectly relevant to furthering design knowledge, and that a masters thesis should be DIRECTLY relevant to this goal.

I suspect that this sort of project comes from the persistent (even at the best schools I've visited) demand on design students (even at the graduate level) to "produce", "make", "create", "sell"--even when their legitimate academic concerns have nothing to do with, or are even fundamentally opposed to, such demands.

Such demands, to me, are ironically salient because they continue to uncritically ignore, in the interest of tradition and easy processes, what seems to me to be the avant-garde of design knowledge-concerns: the relation of design practice to consumerism, communication, rationality, manipulation, and superficiality. That most projects do not explore these relations but only "produce" uncritically based on current assumptions is a shame. There is a world of thinking to do about design, and the results (which will have designed themselves through the process of thought and communication) do not have to be undermined by "designing" them. Many great design thesis ideas have been destroyed by the mandatory application of facade. I suspect that there might be seeds of great thinking even in the lint/orange theses, but pressures to produce concretely and to display traditional skills overrode the production of meaningful abstractions. The body of knowledge about design practices gained by graduate students should not necessarily be equated with "skill" in designing (in the traditional sense).

A simple example is the idea that a written thesis should be at least "designed". This "at least" tells you something about the (lack of) concern for design thinking. Thinking alone is not legitimate, for some reason. The thought will always have to be collapsed back into previous assumptions; thought is not permitted to fundamentally change the practice of design. Under this system, it makes no difference if you analyze lint or the effects of guerrilla communications-- it always comes back to the surface; surface form, and even surface form's relation to internal content, is such an archaic way of thinking about design. There is no motivation to do serious research or theorizing under these conditions--so why not document lint in a pretty way?

This kind of thinking has its roots in undergrad education, where students are encouraged to think of their resumes as portfolio pieces.

We have created a situation where a simple piece of paper with legible words on it is unacceptable if it has supposedly gone through the hands of a "graphic designer" or "graphic design student". S/he is supposed to somehow turn everything s/he touches into gold. But you can't polish a turd, and you shouldn't try. Spread it on the ground, drop in some seeds from established minds, and make something grow. Forget about designing.

To think of truly useful design as a natural product of communication, to me, is the way to go.

On May.05.2004 at 08:03 PM
Tom Gleason’s comment is:

By the way, the post that Kevin refers to has actually been doubly decontextualized. It might make most sense in the context of the original discussion at the AIGA Journal, where Steven Heller suggests a five-year design program. (fight it...don't let it happen...) I'm not sure it was totally at home even there, but I then posted it on my site because I like to archive in some way the "points" I make or try to make. Now in the context of this discussion I'm afraid it's quite irrelevant.

On May.05.2004 at 08:17 PM
Jason’s comment is:

Relevant or irrelevant, thesis is hard. The challenge lies in focusing on something---one something. It seems unfair to dedicate yourself to one thing, when in fact you have many interests. But, you can do it.

Start by looking at your bookshelf. What do you like to know about? Why does design matter to you? How can you make thesis about you? By you, I don't mean some narcissistic ode to self. Instead, look at what you enjoy outside of design. What can you bring to the design table that you are either passionate or knowledgeable of. Do both, and you've scored a power play.

What's thesis supposed to be? Work, more work, and even more work. Be prepared to have your ideas stomped to death. Don't feel bad when you see that somebody else has done something similar--similar does not mean the same. Look outside of design. Meditate. Read the New York Times every single day---and I don't mean skim through the damn thing, I mean read all the articles. Choose something that will maintain your interest and curiosity, because you don't want to get bored.

On May.05.2004 at 10:41 PM
Tom Gleason’s comment is:

The challenge lies in focusing on something---one something. It seems unfair to dedicate yourself to one thing, when in fact you have many interests. But, you can do it.

This makes me think of my point in another way. How can you focus on one thing (the idea) when you're forced to focus on two (the idea and a mandatory 'graphic manifestation', even when the idea, (research, theory, whatever) doesn't lend itself to a graphic manifestation in any meaningful way)? Especially when the graphic manifestation is considered more important than the idea. Seems to push you into a situation where you can't help but place more emphasis on the display of presentation skills (at the expense of the real value of the project). Surface is usually the focus of undergrad education, and should not be the focus of graduate education. Graduate students should be relieved of the requirement for 'graphic manifestations' of their thinking, so that it doesn't inhibit or cancel out the production of knowledge in the ways I described above.

On May.05.2004 at 11:01 PM
M Kingsley’s comment is:

But the question remains, what is an MA thesis in graphic design supposed to be?

Kevin —

I can only encourage you to look within yourself and resist the tempation to be academic for academics' sake.

You mentioned on another blog that you were considering a situationist dérive as a strategy and a psycho-geographic document as the artifact. I can immediately think of at least three recent students at Yale alone who have used similar methodology in non-thesis projects — with the same situationist references. Such strategies come from outside; and while they push all the right academic buttons, probably aren't really you.

(Unless you're a pissed-off French anarchist who's angry about the internal politics at your favorite movie theater.)

Are you in a masters program as a way toward a teaching position, or as a final 'finish' before going out into the world? Defining that may help give you a direction.

On May.06.2004 at 02:57 AM
Kevin Lo’s comment is:

Hey Mark,

thanks for the advice, however the thing is I actually DO identify quite strongly with situationsim (at least the french and the anrchist part) strange as that may be to belive. I've been interested in situationism for the last 5 years or so. Just so we're clear, this dérive wasn't the plan for my thesis, just the current project I'm working on. Furthermore it did stem from a deep personal engagement and research, however, and this is where Tom's point on the problematics of visualisation come in, when it came time to "make", I needed to find a point of access, hence the attempt at psychogeography. I'll admit the connections may be tenuous.

As for your question of teaching or "outside world" I'm not really sure. I've had a tendency over the last 5 years or so to bounce between 2years of work and 1 year of school (whenever I could come close to affording it, this time being the exception). So if the trend continues I will probably work for 2-3 years after this before going back to school to teach.

On May.06.2004 at 03:44 AM
Tom’s comment is:

Pardon my ignorance, but I'm sure other people are wondering this too: what is a situationist dérive and a psycho-geographic document?

On May.06.2004 at 04:03 AM
Jason’s comment is:

S�. Dime.

On May.06.2004 at 09:33 AM
M Kingsley’s comment is:

A dérive is a 'drift' through a city — a sexy French theoretical way to hit a bunch of bars — in order to mine the psychological/sociological/economical/etc. character of an urban environment.

A less sarcastic definition of all the sexy Situationist words like dérive, detournment, and spectacle can be http://library.nothingness.org/articles/4/en/display/238" target="_blank"> found here.

A famous psycho-geographical document (Debord's Naked City) can be http://architettura.supereva.it/books/2002/200212003/" target="_blank">found halfway down this page. It's basically sections of a map arranged with arrows.

And Kevin, I would contend that Situationism is similar to an Emigre font: very trendy, and at times overused. Push further.

On May.06.2004 at 12:08 PM
Kevin Lo’s comment is:

Thanks Mark,

I definitely will be pushing further. When I posted that on Tom's site, it was in a sense sarcastic. I do agree that situationism is pretty much en vogue right now, but I think that there may be valid reasons for this. There are definite correlations between the situation in Paris in the late sixties and now. To simply use the terminology (which I in fact haven't really, outside of these posts) is perhaps a trendy statement, but to engage more deeply with their ideas may prove useful. We'll see, I'm not sure yet, but my current project, which will lead into my thesis, is my testing of these possibilities.

As I stated earlier, I have been studying situationist theory for a few years now, and a lot of it is convoluted and contradictory. I think Vaneigem's text The revolution of everyday life is actually the clearest articulation of the situationist philosophy in contrast to Debord's often drunken theoretical ramblings.

I'd like to touch back on to what Tom has been arguing here and elsewhere - on the focus on production. When I began this current project, I focused on a lot of contextual research and writing. As the deadline approaches, I'm feeling the pressure to really give form to the ideas I have been generating. Now I'll agree with Tom that this focus on producing a beautiful artifact is influencing all the thinking I have been doing, the formal considerations are now redirecting and stripping down my theoretical concerns. This is a big problem.

BUT, I have to also acknowledge the fact that I am a graphic designer, NOT a writer. I know that Tom has often posted about writing as a form of design, which I agree with. But I am not a trained crafter of words. Yes I have done a lot of research on my subject and have tried to formulate a strong written argument for my ideas. But it simply falls short. I, as a designer have to judge the most effective means of transmission for my ideas, and the conclusion is that a designed solution will be more effective than my rather trite writing. Are there other ways to do this, of course, but the simple fact is, I am most able to express myself in the ways I have been trained. I'm taking advantage of the opportunity I have here, in the ivory tower,

to testing my boundaries, I am writing more, but my lack of confidence in this area is obvious and cannot be ignored.

I'm making small steps.

On May.06.2004 at 12:44 PM
Noel’s comment is:

If I may, I would like to throw this question in as well: If there is still some vagueness in what an MA thesis in graphic design supposed to be, what more an MA thesis in Interaction Design? I will be facing this question next year. Graphic design is much more established then interaction design. Does this mean there is more to write about since it has not yet been saturated? Or is it as vague?

On May.06.2004 at 02:06 PM
Jason’s comment is:

Noel, interaction design is a strange beast. Everyone wants to own it: industrial design, exhibit design, graphic design, computer science, technical communication, etc. Interaction design is the intersection of all those things, where human factors, behavioral science, and visual communication must work together.

Frankly, it all depends on how you're using the media, Noel. What will you have people interact with? Why will they want to? How will it exist? As software, hardware, or both? Like Hades, the beast known as interaction design has many layers, all of which should be considered before you narrow down your research topic. Call from the sciences and humanities. Good luck. Go forth and conquer.

On May.06.2004 at 02:19 PM
Tom Gleason’s comment is:

have to judge the most effective means of transmission for my ideas, and the conclusion is that a designed solution will be more effective than my rather trite writing

If your writing is trite, why would the ideas be worth transmitting through design? How could they possibly be any more effective?

From MK's recommended site:

"Art will be crucial in this endeavor. But here art as human interaction, art as the creating of new spaces and forms of communication therein, takes precedence over art that produced physical products like paintings, statues, or texts, which can themselves be easily commodified. Everyday life itself must be transformed into art, must become poetry."

Fuck producing the empty, awe-inspiring and power-producing, artistic spectacle/thesis. Create a situation by doing so.

"The term spectacle subsumes all the means and methods power employs, outside of direct force, to relegate potentially political, critical, and creative human beings to the margins of thought and behavior."

Somehow they have everybody believing that the study of graphic design (even when as a guilty participant in spectacle) means the same thing as the practice of it. By following the rules, you can be mainstream, you can get your degree and become a teacher and teach the same things Vienne teaches already, but you can't be a situationist. They will let you unintentionally devalue situationism by viewing it through the lens of design (spectacle itself), but won't let you radically change design through the direct application of situationism.

Kevin: "Now I'll agree with Tom that this focus on producing a beautiful artifact is influencing all the thinking I have been doing, the formal considerations are now redirecting and stripping down my theoretical concerns. This is a big problem."

site:"The very principle of the spectacle is nonintervention" (S.I. Anthology, p.45)

"Mesmerized....beings stray far from the most critical task: changing the world and liberating everyday life. In the meantime, bureaucratic domination refines and perfects it's techniques."

"Immediately, the term [spectacle]implies some sort of circus or show put on by a few and watched by the masses who stare dumbfoundedly in amusement and amazement."

This sounds like academia in general. You are participating in the spectacle; Fuck it.

Small steps are timid steps, and will never get you across that big hole of self-doubt. Take Giant Steps.

On May.06.2004 at 02:26 PM
jessica f’s comment is:

three years after finishing up my MFA thesis at (dare i say) CalArts, i think part of what a thesis should be is an answer to the question "what do i need to examine in order to further my understanding--thus my practice--of graphic design?" --a deceptively simple question. and not necessarily about form per se, though design is a form of writing...

while a thesis project should further the profession as a whole, it can only do so if it's a response to what you personally, academically, theoretically, culturally and formally need to examine, not what you think the profession might need. it's also an opportunity to really think about what it is that you want to think about, how you see the world, and your place in it as a graphic designer. for many of us, it might be the only chance we get to do so in such a focussed way.

it should also be something that's never finished, that continues to evolve in your practice so that you can push the borders of graphic design--what it is and what it does--outside of the academy.

On May.06.2004 at 02:36 PM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:


They will let you unintentionally devalue situationism by viewing it through the lens of design (spectacle itself), but won't let you radically change design through the direct application of situationism.

Sounds great. What does it mean? Can you give some indication of what radically changing design might entail?

On May.06.2004 at 04:25 PM
Jason’s comment is:

Good point, Gunar. Yes, please, Tom. Elaborate. Jessica asks a good question to help lead Tom's answer.

On May.06.2004 at 04:31 PM
Tom’s comment is:


It just amazes me that these spectacular recreations of historical radicalism are now commodities (theses), and they serve none of their original purpose because they have been completely co-opted by the system, turning them into spectacles which the uneducated masses can waste their time looking up to "dumbfoundedly in amusement and amazement". Make no mistake, Kevin is gaining spectacular power by getting his degree, and since that power is tied more to spectacle than to situationism, his critique, even if well-intentioned, is in danger of being a complicitous one. He could become the teacher who amazes and amuses countless young people (for astronomical tuition) as they mindlessly get their degree in order to get a job in order to uncritically do whatever they are "supposed" to be doing, which may include producing empty recreations of historical blog conversations so that they can amaze the next generation.

I'm wondering, however, how guerilla communications relate to situationism, since I don't know much about it.

I assume that Kevin thinks his project is a kind of guerrilla communication amid the spectacle of academia. That the spirit of it will somehow penetrate into the general consciousness. But if we think of academia (especially the sacred design thesis "artifact") as spectacle, the point is that this won't happen. It will only feel good to people to witness the heroism, and they will remain complacent. I just think there is a more radical way to go about it (which may be to create a neo-situationism that doesn't try to be sentimental or nostalgic, only true to the transcendent ideals of situationism), because as MK has said, the simple rehashing has been done.

Radically changing design means to confront the spectacle (which design has created). Non-intervention is the principle of the spectacle. Intervention is the principle behind reviving design and the autonomy it has lost by falling under the control of it's own spectacular creations. We have to intervene in these systems, even radically, as I suggest rebelling against certain academic demands. These are non-violent, communicative rebellions, and still they seem beyond the realm of possibility for most of our young people, who look at the world through rose colored spectacles.

Radically changing design means to give it autonomy, which it does not have at this point.

On May.06.2004 at 05:03 PM
Kevin Lo’s comment is:

Like I said, I've been preparing my defense, but first let me address a couple of things.

If your writing is trite, why would the ideas be worth transmitting through design? How could they possibly be any more effective?

Trite wasn't the right word, I don't think my writing is trite, but it is not necessarily effective. I have confidence in my ideas, but lack the confidence in their textual expression. My ideas don't necessarily come to me as a string of words and sentences Tom. Writing, as a form of design, is no doubt a human activity, but also a skill in which I have only been trained (or practiced) to a mediocre degree. Images are (and express) ideas too, as is typography, composition, etc. - so I feel that my IDEAS can be expressed more effectively through design. I do see the limitations here, but I don't see how the quality of my ideas has to be directly related to the quality of my writing. I am actively working on becoming a stronger writer.

Also to clarify - my comment about a situationist dérive is related to my current project NOT my major thesis project, though it will lead into it. This doesn't really change anything about this discussion, I just wanted that to be clear.

Also, I'm not sure where the idea of guerilla communications came into play here. It is something I have worked in before, and still do - but it doesn't relate in any way to current investigation of situationism, though the activities themselves are related - one of the most basic tactics of guerrilla communication - subversion or détournment of existing cultural material - was a techinque developed by the situationists.

You had mentioned complicitous critique before Tom, and its something we will have to talk further about. What should be important to realise however is that the situationist themselves in many ways saw their critique as complicitous - as part of the spectacular system. That's the whole paradox of situationsim, if the basic tenent is that the spectacle is totality, then how does one create radical difference:

In a world of cultural decomposition, we can test our strength but not employ it. The practical task of overcoming our discordance with the world, ie, of surmounting decomposition by some higher constructions, is not romantic. We will be "revolutionary romantics," in Lefebvre's sense, precisely to the degree of our failure.

well, they failed miserably then I suppose...

more soon when my batteries charge.

On May.06.2004 at 05:52 PM
Tom Gleason’s comment is:

Total spectacle is something I was afraid of but also quite aware of. And I think we've touched on these paradoxes before in different words.

I asked about guerrilla communications because I figured that it grew out of situationism, but I was hoping there would be a clear distinction between their methodologies, which I tried to make by assuming that the guerrillas accept total spectacle and the situationists don't. I neglected to notice the obvious example of detournment. (I'm assuming that they, like anyone, would have wished they could be something other than, opposed to, something truer than, the spectacle. That in itself seems to be at the root of the ultimate spectacle of all time: religion.) I'm sure there are many ways of interpreting these things, and the idea of the spectacle is possibly limited or flawed because it does tend to become totalized and trivial. Many philosophies are like that though, taking long and amusing paths that eventually lead to the here and now. But if we content ourselves with the here and now, there is no point in doing anything--we'd probably just dissolve into some sort of bliss-state, which is also pointless, because with the knowledge that we finally could do that, we also have the knowledge that other people don't have that luxury, which kind of destroys the bliss.

How could writing that is not trite be ineffective? Only trite writing (ideas, images, design) is ineffective. Effectiveness has little to do with propriety as far as grammar, style, or vocabulary is concerned.

I'm relating effectiveness with originality. What is original will open eyes, and opening eyes is effective.

You seem to be relating effectiveness with manipulation, such as trying to put your ideas into common language, trying to structure your ideas into existing patterns of thought or practice. These are the very preoccupations of "design" that I rebel against.

By doing this you are unnecessarily being a guerrilla communicator, participating in the spectacle when you don't have to. Eyes will remain closed because you're sacrificing whatever is original about the way you do things; you're putting everything through the program and it is "redirecting and stripping down" your thought.

On May.06.2004 at 06:49 PM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:


We don’t seem to be connecting here. I may have misunderstood. When you wrote “They will let you unintentionally devalue situationism by viewing it through the lens of design (spectacle itself), but won’t let you radically change design through the direct application of situationism” I assumed that you were advocating radically changing design through the direct application of situationism.

I’m not worried about whether graphic designers’ odes to Guy and the gang are self-defeating or not in the spirit of SI; I don’t think that they have much directly to do with graphic design.

I’m not familiar with the discussions that brought this subject into this thread so pardon me if I’m misunderstanding. If you are advocating radically changing design through the direct application of situationism, I repeat my question: What does it mean? Can you give some indication of what radically changing design might entail?

I suspect that this is connected to my idea of what a graphic design thesis project should not be: a gussied-up display of whatever one happens to find interesting. To that extent, a report on the Situationists would not be appropriate. A report on (or a project that demonstrates) how design could be radically changed “through the direct application of situationism” could be a suitable project but I still have no real idea what you might mean by that.

Assuming, for a moment, that you are advocating such a change, why is it needed, what would be the likely result, and why would this change fit into the reasonable goals of a graphic design program?

On May.06.2004 at 07:39 PM
Tom Gleason’s comment is:

I assumed that you were advocating radically changing design through the direct application of situationism.

I am suggesting that it's a possibility for Kevin.

I don’t think that they have much directly to do with graphic design.

I think since so many designers have been interested in Situationism, there is certainly something legitimate about that. The obvious application has been mentioned: Guerrilla communications in the way of Adbusters, which has certainly brought a new perspective to the idea of design work.

If you are advocating radically changing design through the direct application of situationism, I repeat my question: What does it mean? Can you give some indication of what radically changing design might entail?

Again, situationists intervene in the spectacle. I have suggested that there are spectacular elements to the common thesis project, which amaze and amuse people without opening up new modes of communication or thinking about design.

So, we need to intervene where these demands are stripping Kevin of his theoretical work and putting him into a category of designers which are easily dismissed as far as originality goes, but yet still constitute the work of respected, revered, and institutionally empowered "Yale" students.

A report on (or a project that demonstrates) how design could be radically changed “through the direct application of situationism” could be a suitable project but I still have no real idea what you might mean by that.

To intervene would be to reject those demands, and this intervention should be considered by the establishment as a legitimate method of expanding design thinking, by not limiting it to the current ways of doing theses.

why is it needed

As I said, and as Kevin said, the current demands often inhibit progress.

why would this change fit into the reasonable goals of a graphic design program?

I'm not sure, because the goals of graphic design programs are not always reasonable. This does, however, fit into the reasonable goals of a human being.

On May.06.2004 at 08:38 PM
Kevin Lo’s comment is:

Perhaps it would be in our(my) interests to push this discussion back on track and move the spotlight away from my work right now, the attention is making me a bit nervous. Also, I think we've gotten sidetracked a bit by the discussion of situationism. What I was originally trying to address is what makes up an MA thesis in graphic design and what its ROLE is for the discipline (not profession) anmd society at large.

I think Tom is bringing up some interesting issues on the relationship between the study of design and its practice. He's argued quite eloquently in previous discussions on the act of research and writing as essential acts of design. What I think is at the heart of this though is the problematic of the emphasis on the visualisation of that process:

Only trite writing (ideas, images, design) is ineffective. Effectiveness has little to do with propriety as far as grammar, style, or vocabulary is concerned.

I don't really agree with this statement. As I've stated earlier I feel that I can communicate more effectively (and I'll take the bait of saying persuasively) through my graphic design at this point (which obviously does include my writing) than through a gathering of my multitude of scrawled notes and highlighted books. Perhaps if I could shape those notes into a cohesive argument/essay then words would be enough, but that 'design' process is something I am still learning.

Finally again, to clarify, I don't necessarily think the form-making process is stripping me of my theoretical base. The simple, fundamental problem here —and its not really a problem, its more of a challenge— is for me to get what is in my head out into some form or the other be it writing, dancing or graphic design.

On May.06.2004 at 09:05 PM
Tom Gleason’s comment is:

The simple, fundamental problem here —and its not really a problem, its more of a challenge— is for me to get what is in my head out into some form or the other be it writing, dancing or graphic design.

I'm never convinced, when I start to think that "it's in there, I just got to get it out on paper", that there really is anything in my head. This is why I don't really separate doing from thinking, because if I'm not doing something, I'm not sure that the thinking part is actually happening. But again, doing/thinking takes many forms, and only SOME of these forms are currently acceptable as 'work'.

what makes up an MA thesis in graphic design and what its ROLE is for the discipline (not profession) anmd society at large.

Thesis projects are not necessarily practical. If we can (and I'm not sure how) think of design as an autonomous realm, it simply needs to be developed according to its "inner logic".

The Enlightenment began the modernist tradition whereby science, art, and morality could be studied and developed independently of each other by experts--autonomously. It is assumed that these developments will end up enriching humanity, and that is questionable. There are some pitfalls: if any of these three realms of rationality take over the other two, there will be a massive imbalance which, for example, could lead to the aestheticization of life (fascism), or the instrumentalization of life. Also, it's not always clear how the culture of experts spawned by this autonomous activity can actually improve the lives of the general public, so there have been reactions against "expertise".

Now, the question, for me, concerning design autonomy (and I'm assuming that autonomous development is the role of grad work for design and society) is: what does it mean to have an autonomous exploration and development of design? Most of us would agree that design is not "art", so the autonomous development of design is not one with that of art. Most of us would say that design occupies a place that encompasses, touches, or resides within science, morality, AND art.

So the question is, what is the goal of autonomous design? It is not one with modern art. It is not simply science or morality. If it is all three, then how can it be autonomous? It would simply be a description of the combination of these three realms wherever they happened to fuse in a specific context.

Does design play the role of a fourth autonomy, helping to keep the three realms in balance? Constantly correcting, stressing science when life is becoming too aesthetic, and art when science instrumentalizes people? This possibility would indicate that the purpose of design studies is to understand and coordinate the development of these three basic spheres of rationality. Developing the knowledge and the means of these balancing powers is the responsibility of design studies.

That is an interesting possibility, and closely relates design studies to the study of rationality. It can't even come close to being approached until the focus is on theory in whatever way it manifests, not production based on prior assumptions of what forms production should take. There is no picture I can make that will inspire this kind of thinking to move forward. If there was a diagram or something, sure, but I'm afraid the reader's emphasis would still be on aesthetics, so we need to break entirely out of our current conception of design by rejecting it completely and completely rebuilding our understanding of design, this time from communication to design (rather than from design to communication).

If design is simply a retarded art, then it must be developed as the means of reacting against norms and disclosing new territory, which is the function of art. I kind of hope that design is not simply a lower "art", though.

I wanted to get these perhaps naive thoughts out before they (might be) radically changed: I'm coming into deep conversation with a former student of Habermas, whose 25 years of experience in the area (along with the fact that he is generously reading my entire site and some pretty fat e-mails) will hopefully help shed some light on this problem.

On May.06.2004 at 11:21 PM
Tom Gleason’s comment is:

I might have said art, science, and politics (instead of morality). The three spheres are based on different kinds of argumentation that are distinct from each other and were formerly confused in mythical worldviews: aesthetics (truthfulness or sincerity), science (objective truth), and morality (social norms)

On May.06.2004 at 11:25 PM
david’s comment is:

A thesis must pose a question, or make a statement, which can either be proven correct ot incorrect. I think the final outcome is less important than the process. my 2 cents. from a mfa student to be and a former (succesful) undergrad thesis writer.

On May.07.2004 at 09:34 AM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:


I think since so many designers have been interested in Situationism, there is certainly something legitimate about that.

Most designers are interested in breakfast. Should frying eggs constitute legitimate graphic design study at a graduate level?

The obvious application has been mentioned: Guerrilla communications in the way of Adbusters, which has certainly brought a new perspective to the idea of design work.

Has that “new perspective” advanced the understanding or practice of graphic design?

I asked “why would this change fit into the reasonable goals of a graphic design program?”and your reply: “I'm not sure, because the goals of graphic design programs are not always reasonable. This does, however, fit into the reasonable goals of a human being” misses the point of questions of legitimate academic study toward a degree. Let us assume, for a moment, that a some work on the Situationists from a “situationist perspective” (I put that in quotes because I’m not sure exactly what that might be) is a legitimate basis for granting a degree in graphic design. Is the same work a legitimate basis for granting a degree in political science? In philosophy? In chemistry? Should English departments grant degrees based on graphic design done by their students?

On May.07.2004 at 12:37 PM
Tom Gleason’s comment is:

Most designers are interested in breakfast. Should frying eggs constitute legitimate graphic design study at a graduate level?

I think there is an obvious difference between detournment and oatmeal. One has to do with communications--media, method, and intended result, while the other has nothing to do with design.

Has that “new perspective” advanced the understanding or practice of graphic design?

I think it has certainly advanced our understanding. While the idea of using someone elses communicative "materials" and repurposing them is as old as Echo and Narcissus, only when we made the link between design and language were we able to theorize such a thing as guerilla communications from the visual design perspective. This knowledge improves the self-awareness of designers and likely increases the range of possibilities for practice.

Let us assume, for a moment, that a some work on the Situationists from a “situationist perspective” is a legitimate basis for granting a degree in graphic design.

In itself, doing this kind of work is not a legitimate basis for a graphic design degree. It becomes legitimate because a situationist intervention in the thesis-as-spectacle-phenomenon is very relevant and necessary for the future progress of design knowledge. If such an intervention does not happen, I have made the case that it makes no difference whether you document lint or do more serious research into pedagogy, methodology, etc.; it makes no difference for as long as theses are required to be a grand display of visual skills based on current assumptions about what constitutes visual skills or creative activity. Design is stuck in a cycle of looking in admiration of a photograph of itself, which doesn't respond to the viewers reaction, like a mirror would. So we have a lopsided feedback loop where design students are constantly reacting to the same call "to create something", and this call to "create something" isn't changed by the students' responses. This is the result of laziness on the part of educators; they need to be willing to change and grow along with the students. Otherwise, student growth will simply be a perverse mutation of the point at which the educators stopped thinking.

Should English departments grant degrees based on graphic design done by their students?

I am not saying design should be anything other than design. A study of philosophy is not a degree-worthy project in graphic design. However, design is not simply art and seems to touch on issues of politics, science, and art. What would be useful knowledge for design is HOW it touches them, what are the precise ways in which design interacts with other spheres of knowledge, and how is design a unique discipline capable of developing its own unique forms of knowledge, autonomously, in spite of this strange multiplicity?

On May.07.2004 at 01:27 PM
Tom Gleason’s comment is:

By the way, Design Studies is a field that I think is incredibly broad and can be applied to many different practices, including programming, chemistry, english, etc., along with graphic design and architecture and information design. Some of the conflict seems to come from my focus on Design Studies, because this is where the real autonomous discipline seems to be. This is not to exclude the graphic manifestation of design activity; I just think that Design Studies is the base from which the study of specifically "graphic design" issues has to grow.

On May.07.2004 at 01:43 PM
Kevin Lo’s comment is:

One more clarification: A written thesis submission is wholly acceptable in my MA program, I know that one was submitted last year, however I'm assuming that they are the exception rather than the rule.

So, there is a level of flexibility - which brings up the issue - I don't think that you're simply talking about the issue of writing are you Tom? You argue for an "intervention", but beyond the act of allowance for written theoretical research (which could be written about dryer lint) what subject matter might constitute intervention?

On May.07.2004 at 02:05 PM
Tom Gleason’s comment is:

A written thesis submission is wholly acceptable in my MA program,

Which brings up the difference between MA and MFA (MFA as I understand it is preferred, and stresses visual work. I assumed we were usually talking about MFA theses).

I don't think that you're simply talking about the issue of writing are you Tom?

I don't think so either.

You argue for an "intervention", but ...what subject matter might constitute intervention?

Subject matter should include self-reflection on design as a growing field of knowledge. Since the current theses are not furthering design knowledge, this dead-end methodology has become problematic and challenging it should be made a legitimate topic for grad work.

It is very likely that this approach will be considered "thinking not doing" under the current system. (There is rhetoric to fool you into thinking that this is not the case, but we need to see through that; for all the talk about valuing thought, there is a deepseated bias toward "making" and "doing" in our culture. American pragmatism has has become impractical). We have to intervene in this thinking with strong convictions about the possibility of design knowledge.

On May.07.2004 at 02:25 PM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:


The question was, if I understood, the scope of a legitimate project that will be the defining focus of a Masters degree in graphic design. (The original question was about a British MA degree. Many of us Americans have extended the discussion to the MFA degree.)

Design studies (variously defined) can range from a very broad field (or set of fields) to, as you say, incredibly broad. Most of it is probably not a legitimate focus for a masters in graphic design. Degrees for most of it should, IMHO, be granted by the programs whose methods are central to the studies, whether anthropology, political science, planning, or management.

Two questions should be asked before we get to the main topic (i.e., is this degree being granted a legitimate reflection of the studies?) about a graduate project: Is the student qualified to undertake this study on the level expressed by the degree awarded? Is the faculty/are the advisors qualified to guide and judge the studies at the level expressed by the degree awarded? Most students and most graphic design programs focusing on subjects like SI get “no” twice before even getting close to the no based on the degree being, essentially, in a different subject than the study.

I would not try to allay your suspicions of the level of teaching in most graphic design programs. The level is often pathetic on several levels. I would not, however, buy into the notion that the study of graphic design be abandoned in favor of more suitable topics while maintaining the title. I suspect we have some agreement and some disagreement on improvements that should be made in both graphic design education and graphic design discussions but merely saying “Let’s study this instead but we’ll keep calling it graphic design” makes no more sense than declaring that French literature will be from this day on indistinguishable from historical linguistics. Sure, one supports or throws light on the other but confusing them because of a hostility toward one or the other isn’t reasonable.

While you dwell on one of the obvious and immediate threats to design education (the low level of intellectual interest on the part of students and faculty alike) you invite what are likely to become greater threats—academic imperialism (such as the takeover of design programs by bad political scientists and philosophers trying to escape the scrutiny of poli sci and philosophy departments) and academic squatting (the practice of getting degrees one is not qualified for by moving into a department but studying something other than that department’s field.) The squatters, by getting a terminal degree (ostensibly) in the subject of graphic design, make themselves “qualified” to teach the subject but not to practice so they have few options but to become the next generation of faculty, thus ensuring that the next generation will be taught by people who know little about graphic design and are not even qualified to teach whatever subject it is they think they are interested in.

On May.07.2004 at 02:26 PM
Tom Gleason’s comment is:

Degrees for most of it should, IMHO, be granted by the programs whose methods are central to the studies, whether anthropology, political science, planning, or management.

The problem with this is that you are not recognizing the autonomy of what is common to all of these disciplines and is called Design. Therefore, if we can isolate Design for study, it can indeed be it's own program.

Granted that the qualifications of both student and teacher usually fall short before we even consider these things. But this is all relative, to me. It's the reason why a Bachelors degree is not much better than a high school diploma anymore. Improving standards is a personal responsibility.

I think its a shame that strong voices in design are calling for 5-year undergrad programs. I think we should try to condense what is taught in 4 years down to 2 first, and then figure out what more to do with the extra two years before ever allowing for the possibility of dragging mediocrity out any further.

I understand and agree with your criticism of academic squatting. At the same time I feel that academic squatting could be the useful, covert tactic of advocates of interdisciplinary studies (to read their behavior more charitably). Interdisciplinary studies are incredibly unlikely to happen on their own, and will remain superficial unless we introduce some deep intellectual tensions into the faculty body.

Squatting, though, is not what I'm suggesting (I think it is an amateurish tactic), although I do understand your concern here. To me, though, an obsolete design teacher is just as useless (and dangerous) as a squatter to the stated project of furthering of Graphic Design Studies.

Graphic design needs people who are willing to venture into unknown territory, without losing their focus on a single mission.

On May.07.2004 at 02:57 PM
Tom Gleason’s comment is:

It's interesting to note (for clarification of the relation I think exists between Design Studies and Graphic Design) that without an expanded base of Design Studies, graphic design doesn't seem to have any means of progressing on its own.

On May.07.2004 at 03:01 PM
Kevin Lo’s comment is:

Looking through a couple Yale graduates sites, I came upon Alexander Budnitz's work.

On May.08.2004 at 10:12 AM
tanya roberson’s comment is:

I am in a design masters thesis program. I have read several thesis papers to analyse structure and they all begin with a thesis question, abstract, history and research on a topic, followed by a middle chapter that involves some sort of implementation project that is supposed to work to test the thesis, much like an experiment in biology, followed by a conclusion on the results. The design implementation projects usually seem very forced to me and produce very little conclusive evidence to support the thesis. Sometimes the implementation projects only seem to be loosely related to the paper or only work to illustrate the paper.

I wonder if this is because forcing designers to write thesis papers following the same

structure as a Biology department just doesn’t work. Or is it just that I have been reading some very bad samples of thesis papers?

In one thesis I read, the masters design student set up an educational website for adult learners, and emailed 400 community college teachers and asked them to review it. She asked questions like- do you find it easy to use? How effective is this website as an educational tool? Only ten teachers replied (probably friends) and she wrote her conclusion based on ten answers. In another paper, the student set up a computer interactive piece in a public space and wrote observations about how people interacted. The students conclusion in the end didn’t really answer his thesis question because the public walked by and ignored it.

I am now wondering… Do most design programs force students to create projects that are like experiments and test them? Do all design thesis papers follow this structure? I was hoping to write a paper that was more… analytical. When I chose my topic I was imagining my paper being more like an argumentative essay posing a question and working analytically to answer it. I can’t imagine testing my thesis through interviews , questionnaires, or observation of test subjects.

One design professor I spoke to- from another program said that in the realm of academia -masters thesis writing in graphic design is still in young and because most programmes are relatively new she believed that there needed to be more experimentation in design thesis writing- that it was possible that graphic design writing needs to follow new models.

Do all masters’ thesis papers have to be stuffy and academic?

Everyone I ask about master’s thesis writing has a differing opinion on style.

One professor believes it is ok to make the thesis personal and even to write in the first person, another professor believes writing in the first person is a sin….

Another professor told me that because so many of his students lift and plagiarize he wishes it were acceptable to write personal papers in first person because than at least it would be their own original writing.

Another question I have is: many of the people in this program are focused on making projects that they can sell at the end of the course. Like the educational website mentioned above—so their work isn’t very experimental or theoretical. Their projects are more like real world briefs from clients they want to get work from. Is that acceptable in other programs?

that's probably too many questions for one post-- but are the questions I have concerning-- What is a masters thesis supposed to be?

On May.09.2004 at 02:35 AM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

Do most design programs force students to create projects that are like experiments and test them?

No. Many programs require little to nothing in the way of written material. Since many are based in art programs an “artist’s statement” is often the main written material (usually linked to a major project/show.) Some have a requirement of some sort of major written piece and a major project but not a link between them. (My MFA writing was about university education and my project/show was a deck of tarot cards.) Some sort of big project seems to be the norm but I don’t know that even that is universal and I’d say that the minority even pretend to be “scientific” in their approach.

On May.09.2004 at 02:45 PM
Kevin Lo’s comment is:

Hi tanya, thanks for clarifying the post. I'd have to say that I share a lot of your concerns.

In contrast to Gunnar's observations, I've definitely seen a push for a "pseudo-scientific" approach both here at LCP and at St. Joost in Breda. Here at LCP there has been a constant push to "test" ideas, which I think is great, however the way in which students think of testing (including myself) is often quite limited (as per your examples) and often comes down to questionnaires and then an attempt to synthesize the information into some form of information graphic. When these questionnaires are made, there seems to be little consideration put into how a proper questionnaire needs to be formulated. This isn't a flaw on the parts of the students, after all we're not statisticians, and I don't think we have the skills or the resources to actually run an analysis that would prove empirically valid. And without the proper tools for analysis, synthesis is impossible.

As far as writing is concerned, there is a requirement for a 6-8,000 word written component that goes along with the final project or a 12-15,000 word essay if presented on its own. I think its great that they are making us write, though as I've made obvious in previous comments, I'm definitely a little nervous about it. As for the actual form that thesis writing is supposed to take, I'm not sure about that yet, but I am also very curious. It would be nice if others who have gone through this experience could contribute to this thread.

On May.10.2004 at 03:21 PM
jcg’s comment is:


I am starting an MFA program in the fall and have to admit, I assumed that in the end, I would produce some thing to display the findings of whatever topic that I choose to explore. I'm not sure whether to thank you or not for demonstrating the shallowness of these assumptions. At this point I'm still a bit confused as to what you're proposing be the thesis output of a grad student, and the nature of graduate study itself.

Let's say that I want to expand the field of GD in the direction of biology. If I study how other animals communicate visually and come to a point where I'm convinced that we humans need to rethink the wayfinding systems for international airports and that the new way is based on the way female lions scan while hunting. How is this new system to be presented if not by a combination of the traditional written form and nifty series of wallhangings? I'm not a biologist, and so my abilty to craft a truely scientific comparison would be limited. How can a thesis that brings GD into new territory do so without having an equivalent education in that "other" field? The biology thing is just an example, however, if I understand you correctly, in order for the field of GD to progress the study of another field IS necessary. ?

On May.11.2004 at 02:05 AM
Tom Gleason’s comment is:

I'm not sure whether to thank you or not for demonstrating the shallowness of these assumptions. At this point I'm still a bit confused as to what you're proposing...

So am I. I only know that things need to change in this area. The kind of suspicion of these projects that you are getting will make things difficult for both you and your teachers. But if you're at all convinced by my arguments, then it's a necessary tension, and hopefully something good will come out of it.

if I understand you correctly, in order for the field of GD to progress the study of another field IS necessary. ?

I'm not sure what I said above since it's been a few days, but here's what I'm thinking now:

We tend to assume that a biological insight will give us a new design tactic, or something like that. That's how we think of synergy, and that's great when it happens well, but often the result is gimmicky. Constantly ask yourself, "is this producing a new kind of design knowledge?" Unless you can pinpoint and explain what your project ADDS to the current body of knowledge, it is not legitimate grad work. And you have to make sure that it is design knowledge and not, for example, botanical knowledge.

What do I mean by 'developing design knowledge'? I think we need to examine what we do, and sometimes an outside 'lens' will be needed to begin making new distinctions. A recent example I gave was the idea that we should study how design learning occurs. How people progress through stages of design competency, and how these stages form a logical progression (as in piaget). This, to me, would begin to pinpoint and isolate those cognitive abilities that we can claim as specifically design abilities. I think some work like this has been done, but not a lot, and what exists could easily be developed further by either going beyond what has been done or making more distinctions within the current body of knowledge.

Since design ability has to do with cognitive processes, I would imagine that we can come to understand more precisely what it is that we're learning when we "get better" at each stage of learning. This could be an expansion of morphological possibilities or something to do with context, or something to do with rationality, whatever.

If we understand and can talk about what these things are, then we'll have a better chance of isolating various phenomena of "graphic design" for further more focused theoretical development.

Improving our understanding of graphic design abililties will have practical effects: we might learn to improve design education based on solid knowledge of what is to be done, rather than a mystified, haphazard approach. For example, there may be some ideas that a design student cannot begin to comprehend without first understanding others. Or the situation may be totally different: this idea of using a Piagetian model is totally hypothetical.

I guess there is a distinction I'm trying to make between developing our theoretical knowledge of graphic design and developing its practice. I tend to assume that unless we further our theoretical knowledge, our practical "developments" will likely be just rehashings at a particular plateau stage of design thinking. We won't be able to make real progress until we can theorize what progress will be like.

We can say, "look, this is how design has developed over the course of the last one hundred years; this is it's trajectory, and the next logical (or the next desireable) step will likely be like this..." or "look, this is how all individuals become more and more competent designers; they all follow this pattern. According to the problems you are encountering, you seem to be at this stage, and your next conceptual leap will be like this, so you know what to work toward (or so the teachers know what kind of challenges to present the student with for optimal learning)..."

These are just ideas I'm throwing around to try to explain what I mean by "developing design knowledge". The knowledge of design, the understanding of it. So we can talk about it. I'm leaning now toward analysis rather than synthesis. It's not that we should combine design with other practices or forms of knowledge. It's more important, in order to enable future syntheses, to develop design inwardly. The "front" for design knowledge is introspection. The many recent syntheses of design and other disciplines are calling us to analyze them, to relocate design within that mess and see how the new relationships have allowed us to further our understanding of it. Like learning the properties of something by examining the ways in which it responds to or interacts with outside stimuli.

You might say that I'm not so much interested in seeing "new design" as in seeing new distinctions within design. And this is intended to improve our understanding (that's what I mean, finally, by increasing the knowledge of design). The response to a grad thesis should not be "oh that's a neat idea". It should be "AH, now I understand! (something that he didn't understand before)". And hopefully with that new understanding a designer can go forth in a new and automatically better way, and that "neat idea" is seen as rather short-sighted.

On May.11.2004 at 05:58 AM
kevinhopp’s comment is:

I'd be super sceptical of what Gleason says. Thus far he hasn't attended a graduate school, not does he have a portfolio, or resume online (that I can find.)

MFA programs are huge for us designers, so make sure to ask questions to your program heads about issues that purtain to your pursuit in GD.

As of lately, I've been corresponding with Elliot Earls at his studio here in Michigan, and I'm really into their philosophy at Cranbrook.

Speaking from his point-of-view, a variety of interests outside of graphic design are appreciated/respected, however, when it comes down to exclusively 2D, he wants you to be experimental.

Personally, I'd engage in some valuable discussion regarding MFAs, and stick with people who've actually taken the time and money to do so.

When it comes down to it.....there's nothing further apart than talking and doing. Academics ARE NOT DESIGNERS, DESIGNERS ARE DESIGNERS. So, go out there find some recent grad students THAT ARE WORKING, and pick their brians.

On May.14.2004 at 03:07 PM
Tom Gleason’s comment is:

Definitely, be sceptical when it comes to what I say. That goes without saying. You always have to consider the source, and I'm certainly not an authority.

On the other hand, why would someone who has been through grad school necessarily have a better opinion than me? Going through grad school isn't the same thing as having a critical perspective on it. I know many undergrad students who can't properly evaluate their experience.

Going through school of any sort often requires you to avoid taking such a critical perspective. Jessica Helfand said on Design Observer that students are expected to leave their proverbial baggage at the door. What could this baggage be other than experience which might be fuel for criticism? Students have become gradually assimilated by being broken down again and again by the system. It is time that the schools drop their own baggage and allow themselves to be broken down and rebuilt in light of the students' new needs and concerns. The road to learning goes both ways.

Talking to professors also has drawbacks; I rarely hear them criticize their own school. They have an interest in promoting it. MFA programs are becoming big business because of failing undergrad programs. So we shouldn't be looking to MFA students automatically for advice, because they might just be those people who couldn't get anything out of the undergrad program.

What is their philosophy at Cranbrook? I'm trying to figure that out.

On May.14.2004 at 04:33 PM
tommy’s comment is:


Can you give us a basic run down of what it is that you like about Cranbrooks philosophy? Do they require a written paper? I have seen some work from Cranbrook masters students a few years ago. It was really interesting and involved mostly video work, twins, photographs of sliced brain (braincookies) and what seemed to be photographs of scar tissue wrapped around 3d models. It seemed like a fine arts exhibition. I have always wondered since then what her thesis topic would have been to produce such work. Is the goal of thesis students at Cranbrook to just be experimental? Do they have to write a thesis paper that poses a question and works to answer it?

On May.22.2004 at 08:52 PM
Danielle’s comment is:

Cranbrook is different from every other design program I can find... I was a student there with the Makela's, and I'm fairly certain the direction of the program has since shifted. Each student's thesis experience is quite personal. Cranbrook is wholly independent study — we were only required to attend critiques once a week, and we defined our own lines of inquiry. No specific assignments were given. This made the studio dynamic extremely important. I think the philosophy at Cranbrook depends a lot on who the students are at a certain moment in time, and what their particular interests are. When I was a student at Cranbrook, there seemed to be a trend toward "design as performance" (this characterization is very generalized, however). I saw my thesis as a moment of reflection in a lifetime of study/research. I wrote a paper (which, looking back, sucks) and created a related visual piece for the museum's graduate exhibition.

Kevin mentions having reservations about his writing skills, and I think this is a problem throughout design. I certainly don't feel as comfortable with my writing ability as I do with the making of artifacts. I think a lot of really thoughtful people in design feel this way as well. I'm trying to get over it. I think a lot of the writing that gets published these days isn't because it is good writing, but that there are not many people out there with the confidence to speak their minds... leaving the same old fogies out there rambling on and on.

Design education should focus more on reading/writing. I ask students in my classes to read and write all the time... Many of them can't even write a complete sentence, much less make a strong arguement in writing. I think these skills are essential for design practitioners... even in traditional design practice where clients often expect designers to act as final proofreaders and editors.

On May.28.2004 at 10:58 AM
Danielle’s comment is:

Tommy, I think you are referring to my class at Cranbrook (98) — the twins, the brain cookies, the portraiture... It was all very fine-artsy (or so it seemed). I know from my personal experience, all of those experiments and all of that research has found a place in my professional practice and in my teaching philosophy.

On May.28.2004 at 11:01 AM
Brooks’s comment is:

I love the fact we are actually dealing with the issues of relevancy in an MFA thesis. I was bothered by the fact Helfand and trusty sidekick Drenttel were even brought up in this topic, but now I am happy to see that some valuable points are worked through in this discussion unlike the frivolously tossed word candy Helfand enjoys spinning on the word of design, one she thinks she owns.

On Jun.01.2004 at 09:04 AM
Jennifer’s comment is:

I am in the masters program at Carnegie Mellon University. Here, they offer an MDes (Masters of Design) as opposed to an MFA or MA, and they also offer a PhD. We are required to do both a thesis essay and a thesis project. We were instructed that a PhD dissertation is meant to create new knowledge in the field, but that a masters thesis is only meant to demonstrate your mastery of the discipline. I don't know whether that's considered the norm, and I think the issue is different depending on whether you are pursuing what is considered a "terminal" degree (not lethal, just the end of your formal education). That's just how they do things here. Hope this helps.

On Jun.01.2004 at 02:30 PM
Tom Gleason’s comment is:

That's interesting, and pretty clear. How does one demonstrate mastery of graphic design through a thesis project?

On Jun.01.2004 at 04:07 PM
tommy clarence’s comment is:

Brook, you brought up the comments that Helfland made about a masters thesis project that featured a careful scientific documentation of Lint. Like you, I am not that interested in what Helflands comments. But I still am wondering what the Lint project had to do with graphic design. I would love to know what the students thesis topic was and what his/her paper was about. I think the Lint project could have been perfectly valid and that it is unfair to call it absurd unless people know the thesis topic and have read the paper. Does anyone reading this thread know more about the lint project?

On Jun.02.2004 at 08:04 PM
Aran Baker’s comment is:

I'm a graduate student about to embark on my MFA thesis. I've been reading all of your postings on this topic of what a graphic design thesis is supposed to "be" and I think perhaps it's different for everyone. Some people may focus more on the design aspect and some more on the adademic, research, aspect, but in the end, design is only the vehicle for the idea. The idea and research must be solid, or there is nothing to design about. I think someone raised this point already.

A thesis should be able to educate, depending on its audience. We have a great teacher who asked us, "Can your thesis contribute something to the world? Who will benefit from the knowledge your thesis?" These seem like relevant questions to me.

On Jun.03.2004 at 12:33 AM
Tom Gleason’s comment is:

No, a thesis should definitely have to "be" something that we can define; and it can't be, at the core, different for everybody. The common ground for all good theses should be either the production of new knowledge or the display of "mastery" (which I don't quite understand and no one has elaborated).

I think if we have to choose between design and research, which to stress, we haven't understood anything.

Design is only the vehicle for the idea?? If that's the case then lint projects are fine. I would expect more of a masters thesis; but that's just my opinion-- I think design should be the idea.

On Jun.03.2004 at 12:31 PM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

A PhD dissertation in a research field is supposed to give evidence of having done original research that added to the knowledge of the field. A Masters dissertation is supposed to be evidence of having learned how to do research and having conducted research (but not necessarily a significant addition to the knowledge of the field.

A couple of interesting questions:

What is the equivalent of “research” for graphic designers?

Does an MFA’s status as a terminal degree make it more like a PhD in the “added to the knowledge of the field” sense?

Another concern is that, despite all protestations to the contrary, the MFA degree is a license to teach. It is the only real requirement for being hired to teach the next generation of graphic designers and that seems to be the primary function of the degree. A project or dissertation cannot reflect everything learned in the pursuit of a degree but where is the place where someone asks “Are we willing to certify this person as competent to teach the next generation to be graphic designers?”?

If a degree project does not show “mastery” [just throwing that in to make you crazy, Tom] then is there another place where it needs to be demonstrated?

A phrase worth noting in my first paragraph is “of the field.” Just as excellent research in biochemistry wouldn’t get you a PhD in astrophysics, one has to wonder about wannabe sociologists and amateur artists being grated terminal degrees in graphic design. I’m not an advocate of drawing the lines tightly but shouldn’t there be lines?

On Jun.03.2004 at 12:56 PM
Do Young Ahn’s comment is:

I'm in the MFA graphic design program and about to do my thesis.

I think brainstorming of yourself might be helpful. Think about who you are. Make a list of things you like/dislike, favorite music, books, artists, foods, colors, inspriations, dream jobs, things you passionate about etc.. Because you do not want to spend over a year on something you do not like. What a nightmare just thinking about it!

Find and follow your own voice. Also think about what and how your design or your thesis makes different from others or makes unique and special. One of teachers in my school recently showed us advertising of Kenneth Cole and Abercrombie (Go and find out what they are doing). You will be surprised. Also think about what the graphic designers roles are in our society.



p.s. English isn't my first language so if there are things not make sense to you, please let me know. Thank you.

On Jun.03.2004 at 01:00 PM
Danielle’s comment is:

I think a Masters thesis has to be flexible enough to allow the student to research in a variety of ways... through making, reading, writing, etc. I don't think this research always has to be about design in the traditional sense of the word. Sometimes the most seemingly random thing (like lint) could provide for some of the most relevant acquisition of knowledge.

For example, the guy who invented velcro got the idea from sandspurs stuck in his socks. Had he been sitting there ONLY concentrating on fastening apparatuses, he would have never seen the answer to his question lodged in the fibers of his socks.

Maybe the lint project has some relevance to design. There's no way to know unless/until we have heard from the designer. Design is an inherently interdisciplinary practice...

see Looking in the Mirror and Flexing

We don't typically get the opportunity to design for designers about design. We're most often designing about cell phones, cars, ice cream, exhibitions, forklifts, politics — or anything.

Presumably then, a master's candidate should be aware of A LOT more than just design proper and should be able to find many connections between design and what at first glance might seem totally unrelated (ie. lint, or brain cookies, or whatever).

On Jun.03.2004 at 05:14 PM
Julia’s comment is:

If I may, I would like to throw this question in along with everything you are talking about: What characterizes an MFA graphic designer?

I came into the MFA program at the Academy of Art University ignorant, with not a lot of expectations, and in my life right now, I am about to embark on my MFA thesis and I feel when I graduate, thanks to my great teachers, I will too arrive at the global community table, with gifted hands and open heart, to do the work of restoring wholeness to our planet.

Something both Aran and Do-Young said, this new idea (to me) of the designer's role in the world, this understanding is what characterizes an MFA graphic designer.

On Jun.03.2004 at 08:38 PM
Janice Hsiao’s comment is:

I'm a graduate student about to embark on my MFA thesis at the Academy of Art University. I start to get my thesis idea from the subject that I am passionate about, and I start to brainstorming to get all the big words. Then I do research for those words and start to build up the idea. I also try to talk different people and listen their voices. As a Graphic Designer, I tried to explore and discover more, and to prove my thesis idea as an argument to make the society better. I think the quality of the concept is more important than the quantity for what you will do. Maybe you can ask yourself some questions and write it down to get start. First to know yourself as who you are? What could you do to make the world better? How to make the thesis different from others? Until the end, you will see the thesis as a mirror or a lens for others to see wider and deeper into universe. I hope this will help.

On Jun.03.2004 at 10:52 PM
Chris R’s comment is:

This is great discussion. I’m glad this question of what an MA thesis in GD is supposed to be has been raised. Certainly, there’s no single answer to this question that is more valid than another. Like Aran said, it is different for everyone. A thesis is a very individual concept. I do believe however, that it should speak to your audience, who ever that may be, in a way that provokes thought and initiates action. The challenge, no matter what your topic is, is to take an approach that is unique enough that it will have an impact.

As far as the lint and orange thesis topics go, I have mixed feelings. As creative professionals (as MFA students, we are professionals, yes?) we have an ability to inspire others through our own interpretations of the world no matter how abstract an idea may be. In essence, what we do is design relationships. We establish relationships between objects, emotions, ideas, demands, values, etc. In reality, the lint from a dryer may be a beautiful metaphor for the most complex of ideas. If that metaphor helps distill the idea to a more deliverable concept, then a successful implementation has been achieved.

On Jun.04.2004 at 01:02 PM
Shana P.’s comment is:

Like a number of other contributors to this discussion, I am also in the ideation stage of my master’s thesis in graphic design at the Academy of Art University. What we’ve been focusing on, and what I think is essential to keep in mind, is that we, as designers, have so much potential right now to address issues about which we care deeply, can express effectively, and thus increase awareness about in order to implement change.

As a group of students heading into our theses’ we have come together to discuss and develop our topics. What I have noticed and have come to appreciate out this process, my own topic, and my fellow classmates, is the fact that each topic began as a personal interest or passion and has gradually found its place in the greater social, economic, environmental, and psychological system of this world. We are gaining awareness that each topic is not simply a solitary thing that functions solely as a part of our mind, but also has many different global avenues to explore.

The ideation process that we are all participating in right now is based on the idea that a topic that we care deeply about and will sustain interest for the time frame of our thesis should also be something that will sustain interest far beyond out time at the Academy. We have all been wisely advised to think of our theses not as the end of our academic pursuits but as the beginning of our professional pursuits. Choosing a topic for which we care deeply will yield a highly developed, carefully executed, thoughtful, purposeful, and effectively communicated body of work that makes up a thesis.

On Jun.04.2004 at 01:16 PM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

there’s no single answer to this question that is more valid than another.

it is different for everyone.

a thesis is a very individual concept.

I keep reading this mantra but am not sure what it means. Maybe someone can answer some questions that relate:

1) Is a dissertation or project a central part of any MFA program or is doing one/not doing one another “You like chocolate; I like vanilla” thing? (Is it just an institutional whim or a silly hoop for people to jump through?)

2) Does the granting of an MFA degree in graphic design mean anything?

3) If the answer to #2 is “no” or “there’s no single answer to this question” or “there is no meaning that is more valid than another” or “it is different for everyone” or “an MFA is a very individual concept” then (ohmygod. sub questions):

A) Why would someone want one?

B) Why would an institution like a university want to grant one?

C) Why does anyone care whether someone has one?

On Jun.04.2004 at 01:21 PM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

Maybe I should have just asked the seemingly-simpler question: What’s it for, anyway?

On Jun.04.2004 at 01:24 PM
YaoLien’s comment is:

I think the topic of the thesis would be related to the things happening around us. And I have some ideas of finding the topic. First, you may find the problems in environment or human life and then you have ideas or thoughts to save the problems. I always think this is the important purpose of design project. Second, I have my personal passionate field to explore and experience. This is more related to personal interests. I think these two different directions of finding topics can help you to distinguish your personal preferences and meaningful reansons of developing your thesis.

On Jun.04.2004 at 01:33 PM
Tom Gleason’s comment is:

Why Gunnar's comments seem to be ignored is a mystery to me. Moreover I'm not usually impressed by grad students', and as often their teachers', level of self-understanding. Pardon me if I'm not rushing back to school.

Grad work, if it is supposed to show mastery, should make a person more likely to be able to get a job, not less. But it is often the case that firms prefer BFA's--people who know how to do it but haven't thought about it too much. Masters of Design have a purpose above and beyond the profession.

MFA's have sometimes developed a personal agenda which conflicts with the needs of a design business. Still, schools often prefer or require MFA's as teachers. This to me is an example of academic autonomy--the education of the designer is not necessarily supposed to be totally vocational; he or she should be taught by somebody who has in some sense gone beyond mere professional qualifications. That's a good sign, since the school should be an agent of change. But what does it mean to have gone beyond, and to have become able to be a teacher?

To have gone beyond means, first of all, that the person has to have been there. I agree with Gunnar's comments that teachers who claim to teach design have to actually teach "design". Someone who has gone beyond would be able to do that.

Gunnar has denounced "academic squatting" and fraudulent advertisement of liberal arts programs as graphic design programs. I certainly agree with this. But someone who has gone beyond is not a squatter, and a liberal arts program that actually teaches the practice of design is not fraudulent; I think these are possibilities. Gunnar expressed concern on my site that such a thing would be "subverting the cirriculum". But subversion is something done by someone outside or against design; someone who has gone beyond will be pushing the cirriculum forward from the inside; he/she will not be against design, but radically for it.

Gunnar repeatedly says that we need to make sure that the "theory" we promote is relevant to design. I agree, in a way. But serious work in design theory will be to extract what is relevant from largely irrelevant theories. This is important work; we shouldn't ignore a possibility just because on it's face it looks irrelevant. To situate design discourse within the broader scope of human discourse means to find these connections. Gunnar, constantly warning about the threats against vocationalism, doesn't confront the dangers of mindless faith in the established cirriculum or the appropriateness of purely vocational training as the basis of a Bachelors degree.

He says "It is a mistake to confuse design studies with design." This, it seems to me, is a typical approach to design that Gunnar questioned in his infamous artical "Graphic Design as a Liberal Art". He said that design education seems to be the only subject that goes from specifics to generalities (therefore, I think, leading to a large group of working designers with very little general knowledge, and even more designers-in-need-of-work with no education of any value outside of the profession.) Since liberal arts education cannot claim to be "graphic design training", but Design Studies can claim to be a liberal art, I have always thought that designers should be trained first in the broad base of Design Studies and work up to graphic design practice rather than having the option of someday getting into this "higher level" thing called Design Studies.

People who have "gone beyond", from vocational training to Design Studies, are the only people capable of bringing more and more Design Studies into the core cirriculum of design, as it should be, and increasing the requirements for the approval of practitioners to insure that their specialization has had a chance to grow organically from a rich and relevant body of background knowledge.

On Jun.05.2004 at 05:32 AM
Kevin Lo’s comment is:

I'd like to step in here and offer a bit of a response here to the criticisms being levelled at an MA education in design. Granted I started off this thread with criticism in mind, but I think its become a bit of a shitfest (excuse the language) when Gunnar can seriously ask the question Does the granting of an MFA degree in graphic design mean anything?

I know that this question was asked rhetorically, but even so, for myself, whose has struggled damn hard to get where I am today (halfway through an MA at LCP), this kind of comment is more than a little discouraging, especially coming from one of the strong voices of our field.

Of course I believe what I'm doing "means" something. I've driven myself into deep debt because I believe this, and I think this meaning resides in both my personal development and I would hope the development of the field as well.

Gunnar asks;

What is the equivalent of “research” for graphic designers?

I don't think we need to search for equivalency here, research is research, regardless of the field. My research techniques were similar when I was doing an undergrad in psychology. I looked for information on my subject and attempted to critically analyse and cogently synthesise the information I found.

Another concern is that, despite all protestations to the contrary, the MFA degree is a license to teach.

Yes, this is another reason why I'm doing this course. Does someone that has had twenty years in the industry, designing international menu systems for McDonald's have more credibility as a teacher than someone that has gone through a rigorous MA programme, learning about the history, theory and practice of the discipline? What other requirements should there be to teach; a number of years in "professional" practice, having works recognised in the design press?

Is a dissertation or project a central part of any MFA program or is doing one/not doing one another “You like chocolate; I like vanilla” thing

As far as I know, a dissertation/project is central to any MFA/MA programme.

As to what it means, yes the answers to this question seem too often to fall into a relativistic trap. Here at LCP, the topic of one's thesis is open, students can choose to address whatever subject they feel is relevant. As such this may seem quite relativistic - however - if I look at the process by which a proposal is given the go ahead, I think the standards can be quite rigorous.

I'll begin writing my proposal next week - and have about 3 weeks to write it. The form is basically a short written proposal, with initial bibliographic information and supporting visual material. This is formally presented to tutors and peers who are all required to give critical written feedback. This feedback is then compiled and given to the student who should adjust the proposal accordingly. The proposal is then sent to an external examiner, who along with our tutors determine whether the project goes ahead or not.

You would have to ask my tutors what the specific criteria are, but as far as what we have been told, a clearly defined field of study and methodology of investigation are inherent to the selection process. I think this methodological emphasis may in turn limit the possibility of "unrelated" topics - how can you apply a methodological investigation into lint, I'm sure you can, but....

Oh yeah, and many thanks for the explanation of the omnicrom Gunnar. Much appreciated, see, I am learning something here.

On Jun.05.2004 at 07:38 AM
Danielle’s comment is:

I absolutely agree with Tom: the education of the designer is not necessarily supposed to be totally vocational

... especially in the case of the Masters candidate.

There are way too many students graduating with degrees in graphic design who now hold jobs they could have gotten right out of high school (coffee shop clerk, for example).

The undergraduate graphic design degree has to be broad enough to allow for a bigger variety of job opportunities for graduates. Simply learning the software isn't going to cut it for these students since there aren't enough specialized employment opportunities out there once they graduate.

But this is a discussion about the Masters Degree. I agree with Tom — the Masters has to show an awareness of the bigger implications of design on the profession... expanding the knowledge base within the profession, pushing the possibilities of design with regard to more than just surface style and knowledge of technology.

A Master's thesis can be about anything (lint), but the outcome necessarily has to relate to the profession in one way or another, however tangential.

I was distressed when I found out what kinds of thesis projects were actually awarded the MFA degree at the university where I taught last year. Several students showed me their thesis proposals and asked me to be on their review committee. These proposals were often nothing more than self-directed undergraduate level projects. I would not agree to be on their committee until they reworked their proposals. Only one of the students came back to me after re-thinking his research plan.

For example, I told one student to return to the drawing board and to think about why her proposal for a breast cancer awareness campaign should qualify as graduate level work. How does this subject matter expand the base of knowledge for the graphic design community as a whole? What are the implications of this project on the profession? Is there something different about this project, in terms of process or outcomes, than all the other breast cancer awareness campaigns already out there?

I think it is possible to use the topic of "breast cancer awareness" as a vehicle to research certain aspects of design practice/theory. But instead of following through on my questions, the student sought out different faculty members who would be less likely to ask tough questions.

In this case, I think the student's MFA is worthless. She has not done anything above or beyond undergraduate level work. I fear that this kind of work is acceptable in many Masters programs. And it upsets me, because then the integrity of my own MFA degree is compromised.

On Jun.05.2004 at 01:44 PM
Arja Karhumaa’s comment is:

Having just finished reading this whole rather long thread I decided to bring some Nordic flavour to the discussion since I too am in the making of my final thesis. I have just finished my first year in MA program in graphic design in the University of Art and Design in Helsinki.

Before starting my MA studies I have already worked in graphic design for 7 years, and so during this first year have found my goals and motivations in doing the degree are somewhat different those of the students who have only just finished their BA. In Helsinki the standards are pretty much the same as in Carnegie Mellon University described by Jennifer earlier: the thesis consists of both an essay and a project, and its task is to demonstrate the much debated ”mastery of the discipline”. A solely theoretical thesis is possible as well, but not many students have ventured on this. I for one am going to.

A typical thesis project in Helsinki I think is one that's done for a paying customer, let's say a company identity or a redesign of book jackets in a series. Here the written part is basically a story of how things went. Another typical project is an artistic one, say an exhibition of illustrations or paintings, and again the written part is a story of how things went and what the artist felt during the process. Not much analysis there, not to mention broadening the horizons of the discipline. From what I have seen, some of the projects get through with not much criticism being laid on them.

There is one single reason for this: at least in Helsinki, it is hard enough to get the students to make the thesis in the first place. There are dozens of students out there having left the school lacking only the thesis from their degree. The fact that the thesis has two parts does not make things any easier: the project part can be finished successfully, but the essay part was left lingering, so naturally writing about the project seems more difficult by the day. At the same time, the University is sweating under the government pressure to get a certain amount of graduates out — less funds for the next years students otherwise. So all in all raising the quality of thesis works is more than a tricky business.

For me, the final thesis is an excellent chance to fully concentrate on something I am passionate about. (What more can a passionate person wish for?) I would gain nothing for myself from making a new logo for a company or designing a layout for a magazine: these are things I have done for money, for years now. Also the discipline of graphic design which is so dear to me, would gain nothing. What I know now is that my thesis will be some sort of an analysis, somehow important for me as well as the discipline, an assessment of the state of the discipline itself and its place inside the society. For this is what to me is the fundamental quality of graphic design: its constant and mandatory connection with the society in which it works. Having witnessed the sorry state of the graphic design field in working life, to me the result has to be something that at least aims to ”push the borders of graphic design”.

On Jun.05.2004 at 04:51 PM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

Kevin—Sorry. I’m not sure what, exactly, “shitfest” means in this context. When I asked “Does the granting of an MFA degree in graphic design mean anything?” I was not meaning to be discouraging nor was I making a rhetorical question. I probably should have asked “anything in particular” or “anything specific” for more clarity but why would my question be depressing when other voices saying, essentially, it should be anything you want it to be are not? That attitude makes the degree meaningless; I was attempting to rescue it from the notion of it meaning everything, which would, inevitably, make it mean nothing.

You replied to my question What is the equivalent of “research” for graphic designers? by saying “I don't think we need to search for equivalency here, research is research, regardless of the field. My research techniques were similar when I was doing an undergrad in psychology. I looked for information on my subject and attempted to critically analyse and cogently synthesise the information I found” but undergraduates’ notion of research isn’t what research means in most fields at the graduate level. A cogent synthesis of existing knowledge is the starting point of research at a PhD level, not the result of it. The research adds to the body of knowledge of the field. Although I believe I have done work that may be the equivalent of research, I do not believe that I have done anything that is clearly literally research in the sense that most fields understand the word.

Less clearly and literally research but probably the equivalent would be to state a topic, problem, or situation and, after a review of what others have done, through some combination of writing and design work manage to add something to the body of knowledge of graphic design and/or graphic designers. It sounds like LCP is insisting on that. Good. Few places do. (Since over a month has passed since you posted this topic I suggest that people might want to re-read your original posting. It does a good job of laying out the problem.)

The problem might best be considered as twofold: On one hand the question is “What should a masters dissertation and/or project be [from the standpoint of an academic ideal]?” and on the other hand the question is “What should a masters dissertation and/or project be [from the standpoint of a student making the choice of what to do]?” In a better world or a more academically sophisticated or advanced discipline these might be closer to being one and the same.

The former can be answered like it would for other disciplines (and as it seems to be at LCP): Something that first demonstrates that the student has a grasp on the nature of knowledge in the field and then advances that knowledge. (Tom is right about advances in many fields pushing the edges of the definition of the field. It is, as he has implied, especially true of a less mature field like graphic design. The questions of frontier locations can be subjective but I would argue that many attempts to academize or artify graphic design wander over the border, through the DMZ, and quite objectively well away from graphic design.)

The latter can be answered more cynically. I would argue that the “anything someone is interested in” answers are cynical or at least selfish. I would also argue that they are not even the best selfish answer. The best selfish answer would be something akin to the following: Whatever they will let me get away with that can serve as a tool to advance my interests over the next few years. From this standpoint this is an opportunity to do something that you might not have the time or energy to do otherwise. Whatever might most advance your career—knowledge, skills, or standing in various groups—would be the best selfish choice since at this point there’s not much agreement on what graphic design knowledge is, let alone how to advance it. As Arja’s post indicates, what is a great opportunity for one person might be just more of the same for another.

On Jun.06.2004 at 11:15 AM
Kevin Lo’s comment is:


my apologies for the "shitfest" remark, it's obviously hard to read intonation in blogs and I read your initial comment in a highly sarcastic light. my bad. I agree with most of what you've said and will comment further in a bit.

On Jun.06.2004 at 11:26 AM
tanya’s comment is:

Gunnar's remark... "Whatever they will let me get away with that can serve as a tool to advance my interests over the next few years." Pretty much sums up the attitude that everyone I have talked to has toward their masters.

I wish were a bit more like Kevin and had a little more faith in the worth of a masters in graphic design—But unfortunately I am cynical and

the question Gunnar asked runs through my head all the time- What is a masters good for? I think that attitude comes from the fact that I can’t find a masters thesis paper that is good for anything except collecting dust.

Does anyone know of a master’s paper that is really inspiring or enlightening and has something original to say that adds to the realm of knowledge in graphic design? I am in New Zealand and Masters thesis writing is very new here. I have contacted several professors who teach in masters programs in New Zealand and they do have samples of masters thesis papers but admit that they don’t think any of them are benchmark thesis papers. I tried to contact some grad schools in the US to get copies of their masters papers but was told that you have to read them in their library. Does anyone know of any published masters papers that are benchmark papers?

On Jun.21.2004 at 11:32 PM
Kevin Lo’s comment is:

I should probably let a dead topic lie, but for those that might be interested, my (convoluted) thesis project proposal can be found here (pdf).

On Jul.25.2004 at 06:37 PM
Tanya’s comment is:

Mark — I don’t think your thesis and letter introducing this topic is very intelligent and well written--you are much to humble.

It is a shame that this thread has died down—

I think this thread could become the beginning of a Masters thesis or even a Phd on Graphic Design education Masters thesis writing.

So many graphic designers are asking the same question- what is a masters thesis supposed to be?—and there are so many disparate answers and points of view-

Which is why there needs to be more research on the subject.

On Sep.19.2004 at 10:00 PM
Tanya’s comment is:

Huge apologies Mark ---- I meant to write-- I think your thesis and letter are intelligent and well written--- I need to stop posting after I havent slept for three days-- that was meant to be a complement--

I am so embarrassed

On Sep.19.2004 at 10:07 PM
Eric Benson’s comment is:

I am currently working on getting my shit together for my 1st year progress review of my MFA thesis. I can tell you that its not entirely a black or white issue. The struggles with the thesis is to have your work reflect your concept. I have about two paragraphs written down (poorly I might add) that describe my goals of my thesis work. However, my work so far is somewhat limited in its correlation to the writing. The faculty doesn't seem to really care how "valid" or important your thesis is to the field of design, instead they are more concerned you have a thesis. Many of the students in my program find it difficult and somewhat unecessary to even develop one. We all share the same beliefs that we just want to create and explore our work as opposed to only work on one specific kind. But regardless, I agree with the faculty that an MFA thesis should be developed from a passion of the designer and not always some profound statement on the craft of design. I think design in general (academia) takes itself too seriously and needs to take a step back and stop being so anal with itself. After all you can only discover your own humanity while at play (Herbert Simon).

On Mar.15.2005 at 10:40 PM