A message for anyone starting this thesis

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I’m writing this for future design students.

In fact, let’s just assume that you are one of those future students. This is for you.

Hello! My name is Gabriel.

Right now I’m a student too, but I won’t be by the time you’re reading this. That’s because this is my graduate thesis. By submitting this book, I will have fulfilled the requirements to receive my MFA. And by receiving my MFA, I will finally have my “terminal” degree. Practically speaking, that means I’ll be done with school. And while I’ll keep learning, I’ll no longer be a student.

Right now, I’m also a teacher. Well, technically just an “instructor” since I don’t have my MFA yet. I’m in this weird limbo between teacher and student, where I teach college-level courses to the same people I take a class with the next day. It brings out some unique social hierarchies you don’t typically see in school.

My life as a teacher-student has helped me learn a few things about learning. Moreover, it has helped me reflect on my experience as a student. What I’ve realized is that so many things that were hard to learn are actually pretty easy to teach. Also, many of these lessons don’t fit neatly into the structure of a traditional course or program. Instead, these lessons are more like stories. These are stories like the ones you’d hear from someone who already took a course or went through a program, about what to do and what to avoid, that might help guide you to make the most of your fleeting time as a student.

That time is certainly fleeting. Most of these stories go unshared and unsaid, because once you learn them you stop being a student — you graduate. And once you graduate, you leave without the chance to pass down what you learned.

When I think about the ways to improve school, I think of this sort of unshared collective memory. How can we maintain and build on what came before instead of repeatedly starting over? In a way, that’s essentially what a college program is — a formal structure with an institutional memory that theoretically improves over time. But in another way, the college model prioritizes the institution over its teachers and students. Teachers and students are pretty important, and students are especially left out when it comes to passing down lessons to future generations.

What can we do about that? What are some ways to include student perspectives as part of this system?

At RISD, student perspectives come in the form of graduate theses. When I was an applicant trying to understand what grad school was, I was able to easily find these theses online. Within each thesis book was the full culmination of a graduate program in graphic design. So, without ever talking with a single RISD student, I found myself charting a course through the program. Now that I’m leaving the program, I can say that the lessons I learned from reading RISD theses helped me make the most of my time as a student. I owe a belated “thank you” to those past students I never met.

Now, it’s my turn to write a thesis. What should I say?

Well, I know what I want to say. I want my thesis to be a guide for future students to help them make the most of their time as a student, just like how past theses guided me. I’d like to offer a broader perspective that could help anyone learning design — not just RISD students, and not just college students. And, I’d like to be as direct as possible. I think the most direct approach is to be auto-biographical and share with you my experiences organized around the things I’ve learned — before, during, and after design school.

Hold up! After design school? That hasn’t happened yet! Or at least, not yet as of when I’m writing this!

So that doesn’t work — a thesis has to be a fixed thing. RISD theses are books — bound and finite. And I see three distinct challenges with that format.

The first challenge is that my work is primarily digital. I make websites. In fact, I love making websites! But websites and books don’t really get along. Furthermore, what’s the point of documenting a website in a book if I could just send you a link?

The second challenge is that my thesis has a hard deadline, at which point it is set in stone. I have to finish my book so that I can print it and have it ready for my final review. And then, I have to submit a PDF to the library, which I’m not able to update at any point in the future. So even if I have more I would like to say, I can’t through this platform.

The third challenge is that a PDF is not a great reading experience. So even after all of that effort — of producing a physical book and submitting a PDF — you might not want to read this thesis simply because it’s uncomfortable to do so.

I don’t want you to be uncomfortable. I don’t want you to only get part of the story — and a rushed part at that. And I don’t want you to get an imitation of a project when you can actually experience the project for yourself.

There’s an easy solution: this thesis is a website.

I’m not really allowed to do that. I’m going to do it anyway.

If you’re reading this thesis via a website, you’re doing great. But if you’re reading this thesis via a PDF or book, now’s a great time to stop doing that. Instead, you should go to this website:

That website is my thesis. I made that website for you. You can have it. It’s yours.

On your website, you’ll find ten chapters split across three parts.

The first part is called “Learning.” In it, I share stories of the experiences that shaped me as a designer. These are the experiences that taught me how to design, code, teach, and run a studio.

The second part is called “Making.” In it, I share almost every project I’ve made. You’ll even find a full summary of every single course I took while studying at RISD. If that’s all you’re interested in, then skip ahead to Chapter 6.

The third and final part is called “Sharing.” In it, I share a series of conversations with the people that helped me along the way, ranging from teachers, to peers, to students.

Since this thesis is a website, it will continue to grow. If you check back in a month, it might be different. And if you check back in a year, it’ll almost certainly be different. I am still working on recounting all my past experiences, and my future experiences are obviously yet to come.

That’s it for now!