Birth Story

Why Graduate School at all?

As you may or may not know, for a designer the decision to go to graduate school is not usually an obvious choice. Most designers will attain their bachelor’s degree then go into a long and healthy career. I began thinking about a graduate degree though during my undergrad studies.

I took a Professional Practices course with Dr. Noel Mayo in 2008. One of the activities he had us do was to create a series of plans for where we wanted to take our careers. In this activity, he had us create one, five, and ten-year visions for each of the following economic conditions: Good, OK, and Bad. As I completed these exercises, they all contained the eventual goal of coming back to academia to teach Design. This is one of the most common reasons that designers pursue graduate school. In Design, an MFA is considered a terminal degree and you can teach at just about any U.S. college or university having attained one. So I knew that an MFA would be in my future at some point.

As we headed into 2009, the economy was is pretty rough shape. I had been applying for jobs in Interior Design and Architecture firms, but nothing was really panning out for me. So I looked to my visions created for Dr. Mayo and figured that if the economy was not yet ready for me, then maybe I should see about staying in school, getting my MFA since I would need it eventually, and waiting out the economic recovery. Besides that, I really enjoyed school and I was good at it, so I figured I should continue with school before I lost the habit.

Applying to Graduate School

In order to apply to Graduate School, I had to prepare a “Statement of Research Intent.” I had not really given this a lot of prior thought because the more normative path for designers is to go out into the world of practice for a while before pursuing a graduate degree. Through this process, designers will usually come across some sort of problem or question that they think would be worthy of their time to really focus on and “solve.” I did not yet have this experience, but I did have the experience of having been an undergraduate design student.

As an undergrad, I was known as the Web 2.0 Media and Productivity Guy by my peers. I enjoyed reading productivity and self-help books the way others might read mystery novels. I had managed to convince some of my instructors to implement the use of Dropbox in our studio courses to help manage our resources in some interesting ways. I used Google Docs (now Google Drive) to collaborate with my peers on projects. I read a lot of blogs and felt that this helped my design education considerably by exposing me to lots of new projects happening outside of the classroom. I also complained a lot about how much paper the design classroom wasted. All of this led me to the notion that, in some way, maybe Web 2.0 could at least make the studio learning environment more efficient, or that it had the potential to have some other positive effect on the ways we teach design.

So I applied to the MFA program in the Department of Design at Ohio State with the following as my “Statement of Research Intent.”

“As services like Facebook, Blogging, Twitter, Flickr, YouTube and many others are rapidly changing the roles that technology plays in our everyday lives, it seems likely to assume that these services will have an effect in the classroom as well. I would like to research the needs of today’s design classrooms regarding how technology can and should be used. I would like to investigate the current and future needs of the design classroom and propose ways to meet these needs through technology.”

Somehow, much to my surprise, this was good enough to be accepted to the program. I really thought it was a long shot, but it worked. In the autumn of 2009, I stated my graduate studies.

Graduate Studies and the pursuit of an MFA thesis

The First Year

During the 2009-2010 academic year, I was off to a pretty good start trying to pursue this notion of Web 2.0 having some sort of a positive effect on the ways we teach design. I refined my research question and read a lot about technology and pedagogy. I piloted a research survey that suggested that there was a wider audience ready to help me think about and explore this topic further. I piloted the use of several different blogging platforms in two different design classroom settings: a large lecture style course for freshman (Introduction to Design) and an advanced studio-based course (Advanced Interior Design II). These interventions had mixed but promising outcomes. I formed a thesis committee that I felt really supported my research direction and I presented a poster on my topic that garnered a fair amount of positive interest from the academics who saw it. All in all, a good first year.

The Second Year

As I kicked off the 2010-2011 academic year, I had high hopes and a strong direction for where my research was going. In the first quarter, I prepared my IRB proposal. My plan was to implement a two-phase study that would help me create case studies of the use of Web 2.0 technologies in studio-based learning environments and give me access to collegiate level instructors who I would then interview for insights into the strengths and weaknesses of these technologies in their experiences.

This all hinged on a survey that I had created that would give me much of my underlying data, and help me identify the instructors out there who I would connect with. I spent the Winter Quarter of 2011 crafting this survey. In the Spring Quarter of 2011, I sent the survey out to 70+ individual instructors who I had already identified as those who taught in the spaces I was interested in exploring and who were also OSU alumni, so they might be particularly inclined to help out another Buckeye. I also sent the survey out to literally thousands of others via three different list-servs directed at design educators, scholars, and researchers. Then I waited…

At the same time as I was crafting my survey, I began to lose contact with my primary thesis advisor. This individual pretty much just vanished from email, their office, and campus in general. To this day I do not really know what happened here, but I do know that others in my department who were in positions to be “in the know” on such situations simply told me “It would probably be best to think about replacing this individual on your committee.”

So… my primary thesis advisor disappeared. This was not good.

But at least I had my big primary research activity started. I began to think about possible replacement thesis committee members and checked on my survey results which surely would be really piling up.


In several weeks of my survey being “out in the wild” I had five responses. One of these responses was Dr. Sanders, who I had worked with to create my survey questions and the response was from when I asked her to check that my software was working correctly since I was not getting very much activity on the survey. So really I only had four responses. To say the least, this was a “statistically insignificant” response rate. I continued to hope response rates would pick up. I tried to reach out to others to participate. I tried to do everything I could think of to promote participation in my survey. My thesis counted on it. Alas, five (really four) responses was all I ever received, though I did receive a few lengthy emails essentially stating that this was a pointless topic to be pursuing and that social technologies have no place in the classroom and are just a distraction. To each his own, I suppose.

So heading into the summer of 2011, I had no primary research data (but two years worth of secondary data) and no primary thesis advisor. Things were going kind of horribly wrong.

The Third Year

Starting in the Summer of 2011 I knew I had a lot that I needed to accomplish this academic year. I began that summer with the following “TO DO” list:

  • Find a new Thesis Advisor
  • Find a new thesis direction
  • Take stock of what I had to build upon
  • Salvage what I could of the previous two years of work
  • Make a plan
Luckily, I had a few things going for me.
  1. I came into the process a pretty strong academic writer. This was important because this allowed me to better gauge how fast I would be able to process draft iterations since I would not have to count on professional editing services.
  2. I already had a strong methodology for how I work based on “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity” by David Allen. This armed me with a way to think about the work that was ahead of me and the established practice of breaking large projects into manageable tasks.
In the Autumn of 2011, Dr. Sanders agreed to sign onto my Thesis Committee as my primary thesis advisor. I had already been talking with her about my thesis since she was helping me with my previous survey, so it did not take long to bring her up to speed with what I was interested in and what was going on in my head. An added bonus was that it turns out that Dr. Sanders is pretty amazing at helping people figure out what they are REALLY thinking and seeing the larger picture on things. She really helped me quite a bit with putting my previous two years of work into perspective and finding a new jumping off point to move forward from.
  • Find a new Thesis Advisor – “CHECK”
  • Find a new thesis direction – “CHECK”

In the “taking stock of what I had to build on” part of finding a new thesis topic, I developed a very concrete system to attack my thesis with. This and the rest of that “TO DO” list above are really what Hacking the Thesis is about.

Ultimately I successfully completed my thesis during my third year, though it took a bit longer than I had projected.  It took me the rest of 2011 to really get humming on my new direction and by February 2012 I was pretty much into the “Just WRITE everyday” phase. By August 2012 I finished my thesis. It turned out much longer than I had set out for (48,000+ words – not including appendices), but in the end my new thesis topic ended up far more interesting and “important” than my original topic. I also gained the confidence to consider writing other things that are significantly longer than an email (like this site).

So that is the birth story of my MFA thesis. I hope you enjoyed it. If you are so inclined, feel free to download and read my thesis, “Learning to Be in the Digital Era: A Holistic Learning Framework for Design Education” (13mb PDF).