After a few decades of professional life, I found the MFA thesis process at OSU to be an invigorating experience. Not that I have any grounds for comparison since this is my first masters degree, but after countless agency pitches, presentations to clients and employees, and various other song-and-dance routines, this was a real challenge. I came into the program noodling with the idea of epic design, which I have written about in previous posts and how design can be used holistically to impact all of the aspects of a brand or an experience. Having preached this mantra for the last half of my career and often to deaf ears, I saw the world of academia as something of the last stand. “Maybe these guys will get it.”
Also, simmering up there was this idea of a graphic novel in CGI. Encouraged by my first year advisor, the graphic novel idea didn’t seem to be as far-fetched as I thought. Can you actually do a thesis on a graphic novel, I wondered, or is this too good to be true? As things progressed, and my research into the art form of graphic narrative using sequential art (the fanciest name I could find for what is essentially a long comic), I felt more and more compelled to make it the core of my thesis.
For those of you who are new to the whole MFA Thesis process, essentially, as a student, you shop your thesis idea around the university looking to find like-minded professors who support the idea and are willing to serve on your committee (sort of a mentorship collective) with a single committee chair. Some professors that I thought would be a natural fit to the idea of communicating story using sequential art were less than enthusiastic, while others, peripherally related areas were more encouraging. Ultimately, I found my ideal team partly in the English department and two brilliant members from the Advanced Computing Center for the Arts and Design (ACCAD).
With the all-important committee established, I still couldn’t shake the challenges posed to me from a couple of Design Department professors, like “What does this have to do with design?” and “Nice project for you, but how is this meaningful for anyone else?” And, of course, for me, I hate any kind of disapproval. While some might get discouraged, I get motivated. Around that time, I literally stumbled on the article from Julian Bleecker, on Design Fiction. And a host of related material from the edge where designers, futurists and even science fiction authors are asking why design can’t be more involved in the future. Instead of asking how much and how fast we might be asking, What if?”
Voila! I had my research component. In essence then, the graphic novel becomes the means to create the visual prototype for this future world and the designer gets to ask the holistic question of what design will be like a hundred years from now in the context of peoples lives wrapped in the narrative of a what will hopefully be a compelling story.
This brings us full-circle to the 3rd quarter review. This is where you put together your most coherent thoughts on the subject and present it to your committee. At this point, they can advise you to go forward, get real, or go home. I got the first. So, why do I write about this? The most exciting thing for me after all the presentations and pitches in the corporate world is that, in this environment, you can get the green light by presenting good thinking and strong evidence. This ever so rarely happens in the business world, which, I believe, is why so few genuinely “new” ideas come to light and why, so few companies leap ahead. Not that there is a shortage of brilliant minds thinking about brilliant ideas but that the corporate structure is not set up to ask the what if question, only the questions that center around better, faster, cheaper or just different.
Perhaps at the end of this adventure, my paper on the practice of design fiction will help not only designers but also decision makers, to think beyond all that. I close with a final quote from the great science fiction author and visionary, Bruce Sterling:
“The technoculture that we currently inhabit (it’s not the postmodern anymore, so we might haltingly call it a cyberneticized, globalized, liberal capitalism in financial collapse) well, it was neither rationally designed nor science-fictionally predicted. Why is that? What happened? Why are we like this now? What next, for heaven’s sake? Can’t we do better?
Rather than thinking outside the box—which was almost always a money box, quite frankly—we surely need a better understanding of boxes. Maybe some new, more general, creative project could map the limits of the imaginable within the contemporary technosocial milieu. Plug that imagination gap.
That effort has no 20th-century description. I rather doubt that it’s ever been tried.”1
1. Sterling, Bruce. “Design Fiction.” Interactions, Volume 16 Issue 3, May/June 2009. ACM New York. Online. (24)