The Graphic Design Thesis

Posted by Alex

As of this summer I am officially halfway through my graduate design program at the Academy of Art. Unlike a BFA degree, the MFA requires the completion of a thesis, and the second half of the graduate program is dedicated to the development of this. The most recent checkpoint I had to clear was Midpoint; basically a review of your work and skills to date, as well as a clearing ground for your upcoming project. It’s a pretty exciting meeting actually; you place all your work on the table, in front of a faculty committee, and they determine whether you are fit to continue. The main focus of the meeting is your thesis proposition. Before they allow you to embark on a 1-2 year thesis project, they want to make sure your idea is viable and worth pursuing.

I am past the Midpoint stage now and am in a class called Thesis Development this summer. It is a very different class than those that I’ve written about previously. Rather than creating a series of graphic design based projects, we are spending all of our time researching and strategizing how we are going to go about the next few years. I always picture that scene in Apollo 13 when they are trying to get back to Earth and only have one chance to fire their rocket boosters to enter the atmosphere at the correct angle. It is extremely important that they get their aim correct, else they bounce off the atmosphere and careen into space and die. I think of this class as that moment in the space flight; we are aiming where we want to go before firing our boosters over the next year and trying and pull off a successful project.

Above you see a piece created for the class. It is a piece of design, as everything we bring to school must be, but the main purpose of the document is to chart my progress over the next year. It divides the weeks up into sections and outlines what I should be doing when. I expect it to change many times over the course of the coming months (it’s already way off base), but it really helps having a checklist like this to keep tabs on my progress. I have never pursued a project of this magnitude before and the planning involved is unlike any design challenge I have been faced with previously. Most of the time I just open Illustrator and start drawing lines and scribbles until things look cool.

A graphic design thesis is a very interesting concept. The biggest thing I struggled with, as I decided on a topic, was whether my thesis would implement graphic design, and pursue an issue outside the field, or whether it would be about Graphic Design itself, and aim to make waves within the design community. Most projects do the former. We are lucky in this way — because design really can be used to solve just about any problem — but there is the concern that this strategy will be of no relevance to the actual field of study. I still don’t know quite what to make of this dilemma. I have tried to meld the two directions with my project (I’ll discuss details in later process posts), but I am unsure whether it will end up being that much more effective because of this, or if it will fail because I never decided which path to pursue. I guess it’s still too early in the process to know.

20 Comments Leave A Comment


Adam says:

July 14, 2009 at 2:21 am

Hi Alex, this is great, looks infinitely better than Microsoft Project. Brings to mind the military saying, “No plan survives first contact.”


Christopher Meeks says:

July 14, 2009 at 6:32 am

I think you are right that we have a wonderful ability to apply our craft to almost any challenge as an avenue to success.

But for a thesis project in a MFA program, I believe you have a unique opportunity to address the design field as a whole. There are millions of projects about something other than design. Very few actually address it.

Someone with your talents should aim to make use of that small pool of design projects about design. If you do something really amazing (which is a strong possibility), it will make even more waves.


It will likely be a more challenging project because your content creation will have to be second-to-none. Designing will be the easy part – in comparison.


Jaythan Elam says:

July 14, 2009 at 7:57 am

Info porn is so glorious. I love that you posted this. The design of the plan is just as important as the plan itself.

BTW: It’s killing me that I can’t place the compressed typeface you used in this piece. Could you please tell me what the name of the face is?


Chris says:

July 14, 2009 at 10:25 am

Love the layout. I’m a sucker for well design graphs n’such. Good luck with your masters and don’t get burnt out over the whole thing. Be passionate about it, but remember to have fun too. The whole school umbrella can really block the imagination at times.


jen says:

July 14, 2009 at 11:15 am

great work yet again alex. i love all your stuff. the film festival project was just awesome and this infographic is fabulous as well. you have quite a good design sense about yourself. good luck!


Mark C. says:

July 14, 2009 at 11:20 am

I echo *completely* the sentiments of Christopher Meeks–the feedback he offered is spot on!

Good luck with your project (sending positive energy your way)! It sounds interesting & fun and grueling all at the same time.


Sasa D. says:

July 15, 2009 at 6:00 pm

I wish you luck. The only thing I’m going to tell you is not to get lost in the magnitude of the project, you might want this to be amazing and something people will remember, but you are doing this for yourself and the best thing to do sometimes is just doing something. Make sure you stay grounded and have fun too.

All the best,



Becky says:

October 13, 2009 at 9:19 pm

Nice work! I am in the MFA program at the Academy of Art as well and I’m about the tackle my midpoint review. Congrats on passing! I’m still working on a developing a concept. The whole thing can seem so overwhelming at times, but what a priceless way to strengthen our design sense!


Si says:

February 2, 2010 at 5:37 am

This is something that I always intend on doing, but like you said, you just normally open Illustrator and go for it until it looks cool!! That’s how I usually work but I guess planning does have its advantages!!!
keep up the good work.


Jerry says:

October 25, 2010 at 7:32 am

nice sir, but can you recommend me a nice topic for a graphic and multimedia artist like me?

please email me sir.thank you