How to start a Design Thesis Project?

Back-to-school time brings many conflicting emotions: dread, excitement, and anxiety.

After enjoying the months of relaxing summer break and facing the hustle and bustle of September (especially after the Pandemic), we all feel anxious about the significant changes waiting for us.  

There are many new and uncomfortable activities for students, especially at the beginning of the semester. Seeing old friends, looking for new classrooms, and even getting up early for the dreaded morning classes( since pyjamas for online courses no longer work) are such examples. 

Those uncomfortable feelings are amplified for graduating class students with many plans and worries: grades, graduation, future career directions

Within these ambiguities, the most immediate worry for the design students is the one project they need to complete before graduation: THESIS.

It is one colossal design project starting in the fall semester and continuing into the following winter semester for completion.  

Being one of the thesis instructors for the graduating class at OCAD University brings back memories of my thesis project at my architecture school a gazillion years ago.  

I remember my first thesis class back at architecture school…wondering what the thesis project was and why the project would take two semesters to work on. How was this particular project different from all the projects in earlier years? 

Even though I was not able to articulate what the thesis project was, I understood the significance.

With the recognition, the challenge of starting (or more like not starting) to work on the project continued for weeks. Thinking about one idea, moving on to complete new ideas, and then returning to the original idea…  

It was a messy and confusing time for myself and my classmates.

Last week, as an instructor, I saw the same familiar confusing looks from my students. While explaining the concept of the thesis project and regurgitating the same “no, that is not thesis” to various ideas/topics students ask, I recall the same struggle of starting the most critical project as a student.

The difficulty with an open-ended project like the thesis is that it is open. YOU have to create and develop the boundaries for YOUR project. Those boundaries can come from many different areas; interest, issues, topics…etc.

I remember I had many questions about the project, especially about starting part, and shared the same dilemma with my classmates who were going through the same challenges.  

Now with the benefits of hindsight (with many grey hairs to go along with), I could offer a very biased opinion about tackling this massive project for the graduating students to undertake.  

Here are my three takeaways from starting my thesis project a gazillion years ago.  

Start with the questions.

Starting a project with questions does not seem like advice. 

It sounds like counterintuitive advice to students asking for guidance and directions to their struggles. They already have questions… It is just that not having answers to those questions is causing the inability to start their project.  

Photo by Olya Kobruseva on Pexels.com

However, starting with questions is precisely the right step to take (especially when you have no ideas:-). Asking yourself the most introspective questions like- what am I interested in? What do I care?- could be the catalyst to kickstart the process of thinking and designing.  

My architecture school thesis started with my advisor’s question.  

“What is the most memorable item you have”? While trying to figure out if there was a correct answer(?) to this seemingly mundane question, I hesitantly said I had an old letter from a friend from my elementary school days.  

He then asked me to bring the old letter to the next class. I told him that he would not be able to read the letter since it was written in Korean. However, he said that it does not matter since I understand the meanings of the letter.

While mumbling (to myself only) the “what does old letter have to do with architecture thesis project”?, I half hazardly said sure to his instruction.  

However, one unexpected thing happened from that interaction. The endless research phase of the work (aka procrastination) stopped, and I started focusing on the topic of memory and its implication for architecture.  

There are many questions/ issues – climate change, housing crisis, economic disparity, sustainability, and accessibility- designers face today without clear answers and solutions.

Why not start incorporating those questions into YOUR thesis project?  

Do not start with the End in Mind.

The well-known business strategy book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey stresses the importance of starting the project with the “end in mind.” 

As a type A/bullet list-loving/result-focused person, I whole heartily agree with his sentiment. I work in a predictable/linear/ systemic approach to tackling my work projects. Creating and crossing off items from construction job site meetings would be a shining example of my highly effective people moment.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Knowing exactly what needs to be done and executing those task items in the set and designated manner sounds like a perfect case of how we should work.  

I admit this clear and focused approach works well in most of my professional settings. Checking and deleting emails at a set time or crossing off unfinished work items at the construction job site requires a laser-focused/machine-like approach to the task at hand.

However, the thesis is not that kind of work.  

It requires continuous iteration of work. It is not a linear process but rather a circular looping process. It may sometimes even require getting off the original loop and creating an entirely new circular loop.  

Hence the expression, “going back to the drawing board.”

During my thesis years, I had to literally “go back to the drafting board” many times over. One of my thesis project’s most stressful moments was beginning over again.  

It was one of those all-nighter days…around 4:00am. I had to present my thesis project to some professors and invited guests in six hours!

I decided to abandon one of the drawings I had been working on for many hours, and starting from scratch was not easy. Not only was I not sure if I could finish the new drawing in time, but I also was not sure if I had a compelling reason for taking such a risk.

However, a somewhat arbitrary but strongly felt conviction of the “drawing seems weak” sentiment pushed me to do the unthinkable.  

Trust the Process

I wish I could say my gutsy(?) decision to start the new drawing at the last minute paid off the dividends during the presentation and the final grade.

It did not.  

Photo by Juan Pablo Serrano Arenas on Pexels.com

Seeing the incomplete drawing with lots of white background and asking the guest critics to “imagine” the undrawn space, I met with silence. 

Inevitably, the presentation did not go well.  

In the end, my thesis advisor (who had seen the process from the beginning of the semester) asked about missing an old drawing and why I did not present it.  

Why, indeed.  

There were similar moments of confusion, indecision, or even wrong decisions as the thesis progressed throughout the semesters.  

Whenever I started questioning the project, I began to question everything else along with it: ideas, working methods, process…Is this the right idea or strategy…am I going in the right direction? Is there a right direction? Etc.

When my thesis advisor learned that I decided to abandon the part of work I had been doing at the last minute, he simply said, “a gutsy move, but I wish you trusted yourself more.”

Wait, what!

What does working on a thesis have to do with trusting myself?

Over the years, I recognized the true meaning of what he said on that fateful day. In fact, I would say it a little differently: trust the process.

I wish I had kept digging deeper into my original idea instead of starting something new in the face of questions or, worse, no answers.   

I wish I trusted MY process.   

Final Thought

The thesis project in design education is significant.

It is a project to learn about who you are as a designer. It is the time to test your ideas and interests and develop your design views while gaining the necessary skill sets to support those varying topics.   

As a practicing architect, I realize how rare the opportunity to work on YOUR project without the restrictions of many conflicting issues/interests for a designer.  

I would suggest students have a bigger perspective in the face of “what is my thesis project” worries and challenges.

See this one-time project as an opportunity to showcase the one and only (hopefully more) project that entirely belongs to you. 

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