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Preliminary Research

Elements of a Great Thesis

Before I go into my thesis topic, I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge the elements that I believe make up a great thesis. I’ve spent many hours studying past student work and I’ve distilled some of my favourite concepts into a few categories.


  1. Urgency: Address a problem that is either currently an issue or increasingly becoming one. Speculative concepts are a fun mental exercise, but fail to provide much value. A good problem expresses a sense of agency. It makes us believe that we can and should do something about it right now. The problem is communally felt and understood as a problem either because we’ve experienced it or we can relate to it. Bernice Wong shows agency by revealing the truth about undocumented work in America.
  1. Trojan Horse: Zeroing in on a feasible change as part of a larger idea. Understanding how the problem fits in the greater scheme, mapping the entire system and finding out which levers to pull for maximum effectiveness. Steve Hamilton focused on walking as an effort to reduce cars and ultimately lower our carbon footprint.
  1. Blending: Adding a personal touch to a new field. This is a big opportunity we have as designers—to combine ideas in unconventional ways to come up with original ideas. Berk Ilhan shows how blending joy with medicine can improve mental health and expedite healing.


  1. Experts: The quality of the experts will determine the quality of the insights. Experts are an ocean of information. They can point you in a direction that’s likely overlooked. Lassor Feasley put a huge emphasis on talking to the leading experts in his field— many of which informed his design direction.
  1. Immersion: Going to where the answers are. The best insights come from true ethnographic research. You can’t just sit on your phone, you need to get your hands dirty. Workshops and field trips take much more effort and planning but lead to better results. Andrew Schlesinger gathered his insights from speaking to kids and dads in their natural environments.
  1. User testing: Putting ideas to the test with real users. A concept is just a concept until introduced into the world. Pivots and iterations based on the finding from user testing tend to lead to the most effective end solutions. User testing is also a commitment to rigor—it means not settling on the first idea and being open to failure. Kathryn McElroy made crucial course corrections to her haptic touch band by testing it on real users.


  1. User centered design: Designs should understand the problem from the user’s viewpoint. The final form should be reflective of the research and how users interact with it every day. Natsuki Hayashi’s dissolvable assisted suicide kit shows empathy for both the user and the accomplice.
  1. Viscerality: Design solutions are based on emotional insights in addition to quantitative insights. Details express the everyday nuances of conditions, biases, language and feelings. Tahnee Pantig expresses intimate details in her designs by revealing the nuances of racism.
  1. Flipping: Reframing the undesirable to be desirable. Reframing is about creating advantages out of constraints and creating new ways of seeing. Michael Lee Kenny makes dynamic interactions out of sedentary tasks. More on temptation bundling by Katherine Milkman.
  1. Closure: Showing what you’ve created had an impact. Concepts can be mentally stimulating, but a good success story is heartwarming and accepted. It’s important to capture these moments in the documentation. Smruti Adya captures these reflective moments in her sketchnote experience.