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How to think about a Graphic Design Thesis

This blog post was originally published on my sisters blog the Thesis Whisperer because there are many articles about doing a thesis but far fewer about doing a thesis by practice. This post is intended to help art and design graduate students googling around feel less alone. My colleague Jeremy Stout now runs a helpful blog about doing a graphic design thesis, Graphic Design Advice. If this blog posts resonates with you I suggest you check it out.

A Thesis Without Words or, or “where is my mug?”

Doing an art or design thesis by practice and looking for advice can sometimes make you feel a little bit like the kid called Jupiter (or Anitra) looking at racks of mugs with names like Madison (or Jack) printed on them. There’s stuff about doing a thesis, but little already written about you and your sort of thesis.

In effect there’s no mug for you.

That’s perhaps because if you are doing a “normal” thesis there are certain ways of producing the finished actual thesis. The building blocks of the finished product are known—words, numbers, data, pictures. Pages in other words. (Probably in Times New Roman, double line spaced, shudder).

But what does “a thesis in art or design” look like when you hold the final thing in your hand? How is it made? Not many people have written about the challenge of defining and making that sort of thesis, at least as far as I can tell. Because doing your art or design degree by practice can be a lonely experience sometimes—or so my students tell me. So that’s why I’m here.

I’ll start right at the beginning, with what my twin sister, the thesis whisperer, calls “Identity Work”, both for you, and for your poor misunderstood thesis. Both of you lie down on the couch, there, that’s good.

Now. Let’s begin…

Yes you can do your thesis in that.

Probably the first thing you encounter from people when you tell them you are doing a thesis in fine art or design by practice, is a snort, and a comment along the lines of “how can you do a thesis in THAT?” Sadly this is commonly from your art and design colleagues.

There is often a subtext, of the “if you’re master at it why don’t you go do it and get paid for it?” kind. If you are a competent professional, there’s your first bit of identity work. Doing your art or design thesis by practice doesn’t mean you can’t do what you do, and do it well. There’s nothing wrong with your thesis either. It is “normal”. But you’ll have to get used to explaining why.

Here’s how you can do that.

I think the reason for this sort of response is that many people traditionally think about a thesis in terms of words. Words, and the writing of them have currency. And if you can’t write it—how can you do a thesis in it?

Sure people have written about art and design for their thesis projects, but when your discipline is best expressed by practice that is made doesn’t it make sense that if you do a thesis it should actually take the form of your art or design?

As anyone who does a thesis will tell you the words are a big deal, but it’s the work behind them that counts. If the point of a thesis is to display the work you do the only real way to show mastery is to be really, really good at it (art, painting, sculpture, web design, whatever). That “it” can’t be experienced as words. It has to be seen. It has to be made. By you. Experts should be able to see the thing you made (i.e. your thesis) and say, “Wow, you really know your stuff!”

Put it this way, you can look at the Sistine chapel and write about it, but that doesn’t make you the master of painting like the guy who lay on his back and painted the thing for 8 years. That guy is a genius, but would he be handed a graduate degree for that work? Now, happily, yes (or I hope so—that whole misunderstood-artist-while-you-are-alive thing sucks.)

If the Sistine Chapel was a thesis by practice project people would now call that guy Dr Michaelangelo and turn up to hear his papers. But think about that, should he even be writing papers? Wouldn’t it be better to stand and watch him paint and learn from that? See? A thesis by practice just makes sense!

When the examiners “read” your finished thesis they won’t read it, they will essentially “unpack it” (as my sister the thesis whisperer says). So your thesis should enable them see your skill—mastery— of your particular flavor of art or design. In the same way a well-written thesis when read by an examiner becomes transparent and shows the skill of the writer in the subject, not in the mastery of being a good writer.

You can do this because you already are (or are becoming) a master.

And that idea, the idea that you can show your mastery of a subject, by actually doing it, that’s the first thing you must wrap your head around. My experience from watching graphic design thesis students is that understanding this means everything else follows on, and the thesis work is easier, because it makes sense. Because you understand why it is made the way it is, and who you must be to do it.


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