Pre-dissertation topic advice for a stuck second year student - any thoughts greatly appreciated!

Hi all!
I have kept the title brief as I will go into detail here. Any help would be hugely appreciated.

I am stuck on a topic to focus on for my first ‘big’ essay (leading up to my dissertation)
My main issue is actually choosing a topic - as the critical analysis part is all okay and a strength of mine. But right now, I am concerned that I won’t even manage to get going with the writing part because, after hours of research, I can’t decide on a good and focused topic. All of my ideas have been broad and I have reached a ‘dead end’ with them.

Some of the ideas I have researched in depth have been:

  1. ‘ephemeral vs. timeless’ which was an essay focusing on the idea of originality (timeless) design vs. trend-based (mainstream) design and to what extent a designer should conform to mainstream trends. The questions/problems for this essay were based around whether designers should work within the framework of mainstream trends, or aim for more eyecatching, striking designs which won’t fall under the radar alongside the many similar designs which are trend-based. This topic also would have touched on design anarchy, so the complete antithesis of mainstream [throughout history] (post modernism as an example), and designers who have successfully placed the message/client and meaning of a design above mainstream visual trends. This idea was inspired by my own thoughts, and being conflicted with the trends I read up on each year. So I can understand why it may be too broad. Right now, a few examples of the big trends are: flat design, nostalgia (memphis retro) and ‘oversized limbs’ in character design. These designs dominate the commercial industry - but (to put it blatantly and briefly) are becoming predictable [tedious?]. They are everywhere. So, if a designer were to follow mainstream trends - such as the above examples - does that not pose the risk of their work falling under the radar among many similar designs? And do these trends not put an ‘expiration’ [ephemeral] on those designs? This essay can draw in many counter arguments about the importance of trends, and the ephemeral nature of graphic design itself.
    I am aware that this topic is broad, and my tutor has also said that I need a more focused topic. I really have had my heart set on a topic surrounding non-conformity and originality vs. mainstream design, and the concept of ephemeral/timeless. But am sensing that perhaps I need to put this idea behind me. If you have any more focused ideas for a topic surrounding the idea of originality/design anarchy/going against mainstream, or anything branching out from the above idea, then I would love to hear some of your suggestions.

  2. I have also considered topics surrounding appropriation and pastiche, as recommended by peers and my tutor. But am not sure where to find resources that are applicable to present day graphic design as I have reached a dead end with research for this. Are there issues relevant to appropriation/pastiche in the industry and its practice right now?

  3. Graphic design and color theory. I am very interested in symbolism and ethics/culture in graphic design, but have found it difficult to expand on this topic for a long essay. Any suggestions for resources surrounding the issue of colours/meaning and culture/ethics in graphic design?

  4. Craft/print design vs digital is another topic of interest to me. Any resources surrounding this would also be hugely appreciated. The main issue has been finding relevant journal articles/resources that are in line with current times.

I am also open to any suggestions for my research; so any brand new topics or ideas for a critical essay topic are more than welcome and would be hugely appreciated.

Thank you to anyone who took the time to read this.

Clare

Clare, hi

There is some nice thinking there and some great directions you could take. Looking from the outside in, there are a thousand possibilities for further, more targeted, development. I guess you are just a bit too close to be objective. So, my take – and these really are just my initial responses – on your four outlines:

  1. This is evidently the one you have done a fair bit of research on and currently courts a huge, wide open question. What is the point of design? For me, if it becomes only about trend, it leans more towards art and ego than it does problem-solving. The direction you take should be based on the problem at hand for the client at hand. Of course that solution has to take account of cultural expectation, but if it is governed by that, then it is not doing its job properly. Equally, if it becomes entirely about the individual designer’s personal aesthetic, then it, too, will miss the mark of solving the problem. I read recently on another thread about the recent trend for design celebrity. To my mind, it is ALWAYS about solving a problem, not showboating. The former is design. The latter, art. So maybe that is a direction you could take this. Where does design end and art begin. What is the purpose of design in society. Is it to sell. Stuff? Is it to inform? Is it to manipulate? Or is it more latterly, to entertain.

Carrying on from this, I have just watched a new Netflix documentary, called The Great Hack about Facebok’s and Cambridge Analytica’s role in the US elections and the UK referendum. It was about the data mining and manipulation. It didn’t touch much on design, but when they had their targeted data sets and people they needed to influence, at some point a designer must have been involved to create the memes and vehicles for the said manipulation. This could lead to another avenue. How much do/should a designers personal ethics bring to bear on the work they do for a client.

  1. I agree, for me, this has less legs than number one. You could take that a step further and investigate the idea of a rise in plagerism in a social media age. In that, copyright infringement is so endemic that people share stuff and don’t even realise that it is illegal to share other people’s work. Sometimes clients (and we’ve all had this happen) send you photos to use on their latest project that they ‘found’ on google. Not sure how to make a thesis out of this, but with a bit of thought, you could get something from this.

  2. This may have been done to death. Unless you can come up with some original thinking. Colour theory and cultural influences have been written about forever. You could look into whether diverse cultural expectations are being eroded visually because of increased use of the internet and social media. Perhaps use a strong, non-western culture, with an historically unique, traditional, visual aesthetic, such as Mexico, and see how this has been influenced by a generic (predominantly western, English speaking) style.

  3. This one also appeals. In the last ten years, there has been a resurgence amongst designers, not necessarily to ditch digital delivery, but certainly to recapture a sense of a more craft-based approach. Not that long ago, letterpress was all but dead. Now more and more designers value the quality and pursue the practice of it. Also, look at people like Seb Lester and Luca Barcelona. Not that long ago, calligraphy was resigned to the domain of night classes in local art schools for middle aged office workers to do something creative. It was there alongside crochet and basket-weaving. Now it has become quite vogue and respected again. Other things, like glass sign painting, stone carved lettering etc have come back to the fore. Why is this? Is there something inherently dissatisfying (though revolutionary and freeing) about digital media. Even for me, alongside my usual work, I now court jobs that involve hand painting lettering. I love the act of actually taking a brush and paints and creating signage. It is never as ‘perfect’ as vinyl letters, but there is something far more beautiful. Is that to do with a general trend and opposite pendulum swing against digital, or is it something to do with the stage of a designer’s career? After a number of years, working entirely on a screen, is there an innate creative desire to ‘craft’ something tangible in the real world?

This may just be early Sunday morning ramblings (with a little bit of me avoiding going out to do some overdue taming of the garden), but I hope, in some way, it helps you to crystallise your own thoughts in a specific direction.

Good luck with it all and let us know where you end up.

Sprout has given you some good direction on 1, 2 and 3 (please don’t do 3. It’s been so done to death, well… unless you want to make your tutor read yet another student piece on color just for revenge on nixing your top topic :innocent:)

On number 4 because of the weird world I work in, I deal with digital vs handcrafted on just about every project. Quite honestly most of the time the choice comes down to money. But not always. When it doesn’t, you can get some beautiful combinations of hand work and digital art in say, for example, a science museum exhibit.

Then you have to ask where the digital stops and the hand craft starts. Sure, we may print the wall murals but it’s a skill to install them. We may use a CNC now instead of a handheld saber saw, either way you still have to assemble and finish the parts. We may use lasers now to cut 3D lettering rather than casting them in metal or two part plastic. But that opens great vistas for the designers who are aware of and able to think beyond the flat. Printers and fabricators are out there who love a challenge. When the first flatbed printers came out, folks in our industry were out at the local home depot filling a panel cart with everything that would fit under the heads. Find those guys, and you find a great partner for doing some really crazy things with your design. The alternative is a print on PVC plastic. And that’s ok too, as long as the process is appropriate for its use.

I’ve seen the curve from 20 years ago (before the time of being able to print on vinyl or direct to boards) when everything was hard to realize, to now where there are so many tools available to the designer, there is absolutely no excuse not to bring a design to its full potential (other than cost.) You can keep your “craft” and still go digital.

I’ll leave you with an article that has been a major bone of contention in my business. The printing of scenic drops vs the scenic artist. Bear in mind this is written from a sales rep’s point of view. His main purpose is to get the scenic artists on his side, at least for some things.
https://bitn.blog/2019/07/04/part-one-the-digital-divide/

But then, if you’ve ever seen live stream from something like an Adobe Max presentation, NONE of that scenery is printed or painted. It’s all projected! I know exactly how the scenic artists felt when that started happening. Today, a lot of large venue scenery is being projected, not printed, not painted.

My instincts were right. I should have stayed indoors. Just took me 7 hours to strim both gardens! I feel a bottle of Malbec coming on!

Strim?
I was out in mine yesterday. With a weed wacker.
It’s hopeless. But lots of carrots and onions coming on. WAY too much cabbage and eggplant. And a good crop of dry beans for baking if it doesn’t start raining the end of the month.

Ha, I was just looking back at that link and can’t for the life of me figure out why the subscription click button says “Bite Me.” I’ll have to give Ollie some crap about that!

This one has some immediate personal relevance for me, so perhaps I’m biased. Even so, it’s a subject where some hard data could likely be found (analytics about analytics) instead of just philosophical opinions, which are generally frowned upon is dissertations. The subject is also of timely interest given the current state of technology and the world.

As designers, it’s our job to use our abilities to influence people’s perceptions. Usually, this is the benign work of making something look better and more interesting than its competition or drawing attention to something in a positive way. Making a better-designed world is a mostly a good thing, I think. But as Sprout pointed out, the increasing sophistication of technology, data accumulation and data mining can and is being used successfully for nefarious ends that, in part, depends on designers to use this data to target and influence people ways that harm society in fundamentally important ways.

We designers are sometimes called upon to help promote things and influence opinions in ways that we might not personally agree with. How many of us would take work from a tobacco company or take on a project designed to promote the use of synthetic opioids, like fentanyl or OxyContin?

For what it’s worth, I mentioned recently in another thread quitting my agency job in favor of working at a university. There were several reasons that involved a toxic situation with new management. One of them was our work, which had begun to lean heavily in the direction of promoting hunting and shooting sports and the special interest groups associated with these activities. As a lifelong vegetarian, this was difficult enough, but most of the organizations we were working with had strong connections to the National Rifle Association (NRA). Working directly (or indirectly) with, what in my opinion, is an organization that has morphed into a vile refuge for extremists was one step too far. I needed to get out and do something good instead.

For what it’s worth, I’d have done exactly the same. I would not have been able to square that with myself.

However, you and I both have enough experience to have options. Plus, having a few years under your belt helps steel the moral compass. When you are just starting out and the lure of a good job with maybe high profile work could easily challenge that, The older you get, the more you are happy to stand your ground on these sorts of issues, as you become more comfortable with the idea that not everyone has to like you. When a 23 year old graduate is hawking their portfolio around studios, hopefully, are they more susceptible to being manipulated into doing that sort of data-driven manipulative work – somewhat ironically.

Have you started the new job yet? Truth be known, I’m a little jealous. If I were nearer a university, I wouldn’t mind getting involved in the whole ‘giving back’ as a career path, even on a part time basis. Maybe it’s an age thing Good luck with it all. Direction changes are always hugely exciting.

Not yet. I’ll be starting the new job a week from Monday. :grinning:

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Strimming is what we Brits call weed-whacking. No idea why it’s called that. Yours is far more descriptive. I also liked what Italians call it, Pulire – to clean. We Brits are just a bit odd.

STOP PRESS: I’ve just looked up the etymology. Apparently it’s a contraction of String Trimmer. Still a bit lacklustre.

Brits have a funny habit of combining, shortening, and using rhyming shortcuts in speech. Part of the charm. :wink:

B, I’m jealous too.
Are you going to be in a position to fix the Fine Art/Practicing Designer gap? Or where you’re going doesn’t have a design department.

Unfortunately not, but it would have been nice. It’s a large university campus composed of, I think, 17 different colleges. I’ll be in the College of Education rather than the College of Fine Arts where the design program resides.

Eh, maybe a good thing. Head butting can hurt. Especially if the other guy’s is full of rocks.
:slight_smile:

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Hi all,

I just wanted to follow up and as asked, I will send a full update and response soon. Firstly, a big thank you to the users sprout and PrintDriver for your thorough and helpful responses. You both helped me to officially decide on the topic of handcrafted/analog design vs digital - and to ditch the colour theory idea. The handcrafted/digital topic is going quite well. Right now, I am in the process of finding resources for this topic. Some of the helpful writings have been interviews with David Carson, Jessica Helfand and her views on craft, [of interest] Kenya Hara on touch and sensory experiences, ‘Looking Closer’ critical writings series, and the book sample of Fingerprint No. 2 by Design Associates Chen ( Fingerprint No.2 ) - although I have searched high and low for an online version of this (I live in the Alps and there is a lack of libraries up here!) , there were a few pointers in the sample that helped.

If you all have any writings that may be of interest, or a resource you have found interesting on this topic, any suggestions are always welcome. Once I have finished putting the plan together, I will send a full update for anyone interested.

Thank you again! This forum was a big help.

Clare

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To both Sprout and PrintDriver (will copy this message to both of you)

I am back to say that I just successfully submitted my paper early for this essay, which is a huge improvement as in my entire student career (only one and a half years, but still), I have never managed to feel like I have fully completed my essays due to rushing to meet the deadline (I have done absolutely fine on my essays in the past, but don’t ever quite get to reflect my true ability in writing because of rushing to meet my deadline)

Now this is where you come in, after your suggestions towards a topic surrounding the resurgence of the handmade and the tangible experience (Sprout) and where digital stops and print starts (PrintDriver) - you both sparked a very in depth and focussed essay - which I managed to plan well too. I found a whole lot of useful research through some of the keywords in your comments, which lead me to soon decide on a unique and personal essay focus, and complete in time. I was very stuck and caught up in my thoughts when I posted on here, and it is due to both of you that I was able to take a step back, and find a bit of focus to get this essay done which counts for 80% of this module for this semester. Thank you thank you thank you.

While I am going to refrain from posting more about my topic on here as my plagiarism checker has given me the all clear and I don’t want to up the percentage in anyway (they will be scanning it again via the university)

I just wanted to say that you gave me some very valuable advice, which essentially, saved me from digging myself into a hole with all of my thoughts.

Clare

To both Sprout and PrintDriver (will copy this message to both of you)

I am back to say that I just successfully submitted my paper early for this essay, which is a huge improvement as in my entire student career (only one and a half years, but still), I have never managed to feel like I have fully completed my essays due to rushing to meet the deadline (I have done absolutely fine on my essays in the past, but don’t ever quite get to reflect my true ability in writing because of rushing to meet my deadline)

Now this is where you come in, after your suggestions towards a topic surrounding the resurgence of the handmade and the tangible experience (Sprout) and where digital stops and print starts (PrintDriver) - you both sparked a very in depth and focussed essay - which I managed to plan well too. I found a whole lot of useful research through some of the keywords in your comments, which lead me to soon decide on a unique and personal essay focus, and complete in time. I was very stuck and caught up in my thoughts when I posted on here, and it is due to both of you that I was able to take a step back, and find a bit of focus to get this essay done which counts for 80% of this module for this semester. Thank you thank you thank you.

While I am going to refrain from posting more about my topic on here as my plagiarism checker has given me the all clear and I don’t want to up the percentage in anyway (they will be scanning it again via the university)

I just wanted to say that you gave me some very valuable advice, which essentially, saved me from digging myself into a hole with all of my thoughts.

Clare

Glad we could help. Nice to know my over-verbose diatribe can be of some use sometimes.

Thank you so much for the thank you. Hope it all goes well!

I’ll second that. It brightened up an otherwise pretty arduous day for me.

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