DAE Master / Research & Thesis Guidelines

Koen Kleijn

July 15th 2011

Requirements

In the second year of the DAE Master’s programme students are required to engage in a research project that will result in a written thesis, an oral presentation and a design presentation. Together, these three elements make up a substantial part of the Graduation Assessment. In principle, the student will carry out one project, within a set theme; should this project prove unsatisfactory, a second project may be started in the second trimester. Whatever the case, the thesis that is to be submitted for Graduation should be completed by the end of the second trimester. The third trimester will be devoted to completing the design presentation.

A thesis is a report of a period of research. It contains questions, experiments, thoughts, points of vies, an overview of relevant literature and a conclusion, all presented in a consistent way. If it is a text, it consists of no more than 4.000 words (apart from appendices, notes and bibliography). It should be a visually and physically coherent document that can be read by both professionals and the general public alike. Five hard copies and one digital copy of the thesis and any supporting material must be made available to the administration of the Design Academy Eindhoven.

The design presentation may take the form of a physical object, a service, a system, or any form that is the logical result of the research and theoretical analysis.

The thesis, the oral presentation and the design proposal are part of an integrated process. Practical design research is intertwined with theoretical research, and vice versa. The interaction between the two depends largely on the chosen theme, and on the student’s assessment of how these two strands are related.

These are the formal requirements. In the following, you will find guidelines for conducting a research project in a design context, and for writing the thesis text.

These guidelines are just that: guidelines. They are not cast in stone. If your theme and your research lead to an altogether different format in which you wish to present your project, this is always possible. It is your process, your design, your project. Be innovative. Surprise us.

Design research – research-based design

The Master’s programme of Design Academy Eindhoven is based on the concept of research-driven design. A design project is seen in context, always: it is never just about another product, it is about the wider context of a design process.

In the second year of the Master’s programme, students are expected to demonstrate that they can choose and develop their own subjects in a research project. In such a project, they are expected to show both an aptitude for design – in the sense that the project is expected to lead to a physical presentation – and an capacity for autonomous analytical thinking, which leads to a text and an oral presentation.

‘Research-based design’, ‘applied research’, ‘applied investigation’ or ‘action research’ are all concepts that are relatively new and flexible. They incorporate both academic and ‘artistic’ aspects. These aspects are not mutually exclusive.

It is often thought that academics – scientists – rely primarily on rational, analytical skills, whereas artists are assumed to rely mostly on intuitive qualities. Scientists deal with numbers, artists with emotions.

This dichotomy doesn’t really exist. It is clear that intuition plays an important part in even the most fundamental scientific research; it is equally clear that contemporary artists are a long way off from the traditional practice of the artist, secluded in his studio, separated from the real world, confronting utterly personal demons and angels in order to produce an utterly subjective work.

The design world has always been straddled between sheer artistic impulse and the humdrum demands of industrial production. In contrast, the DAE Master’s programmes recognise the personal qualities of the designer, and seek to enhance the awareness of a design student of his or her position in the world – not just as a professional, but as a citizen, a human being. In that sense, the programmes encourage the ‘artistic’ side of design students, i.e. a personal drive, an independent position in interpreting data, a critical view of reigning aesthetics and functionality, a desire to reach challenging conclusions based on daring, intuitive insights.

As Gijs Bakker said, in an interview with Gert Staal:

‘’The problem with many design education programmes is that they do not recognize the way today’s realities have changed. Many schools continue to focus, as they always have, on ‘hardcore industrial design’, generating products that satisfy a programmed aesthetic and a programmed functionality. They don’t consider the environment in which these products are created and used. No attention at all is given to cultural diversity. As if it were immaterial. In our Master’s here in Eindhoven, we see just how significant the wealth of cultures is, and how inspiring the differences between them are for designers. These distinctions are vital for the renewal of the design profession in an age in which information and information-technology are omnipresent (無所不在的), and in a society in which fragmentation and individualization need to be counterbalanced (抵消).’’

At DAE students are encouraged to research and analyze context, even when this is sometimes complex, in order to arrive at meaningful designs. Master’s students use cognitive and visual skills in the examination, analysis and understanding of problems, and in the representation of the interventions that they want to perform on the basis of their research. DAE intends to broaden and enlarge the reference frameworks of the student, to teach them to examine, circumvent and reject everything that seems to be certain and definite, all those assumptions that designers all too often take for granted. Students may become designers who are accustomed to dealing with complexity, and who have developed the confidence to make the choices they need to make.

In short, a Masters’ research project is an integrated (整合的) process, with great latitude and great freedom, but always within the context of design.

In the words of Gijs Bakker:

‘’I want to ensure that students do their research and come to conclusions, but I want them visualize that process too. I want to see their propositions (主張,命題)! More than ever, it is important for the new generation of designers that they are equipped with practical tools in order to arrive at convincing visual solutions. They must be able to bend the image to their will.”

Rules

Design research may involve gathering data from different academic disciplines; reading texts from all sorts of philosophical or theoretical backgrounds; interviewing experts, other researchers or people in the street; drawing on personal experiences, et cetera.

It should also involve keeping an eye on what fascinates you, as a person, as a designer; what kind of designer you intend to be, and what kind of role you’d like to play in society.

There are some very general rules for the organisation of a design research project and the writing of a thesis. These rules do not differ from established academic practice. Design research will include artistic and ‘hands-on’ aspects, but like any other research project it is based on reliable reporting of all parts of the process, and on an orderly presentation and interpretation of facts and theories.

In that sense, the Master’s projects have an academic character, which is: the development of an idea through research, experimentation, background studies, et cetera in order to further our understanding of the world. Within the academic world that process has, over the course of several centuries, been formalized into a fairly simple procedure with a beginning and an end. It begins with a question, and seeks to find an answer to that question.

This procedure is the same in medicine, pharmacology, biology, sociology, psychology and history of art. The means by which research is conducted will always be different – clinical trials, field work, surveys, polls, interviews, digging the archives – but the principles remain the same. The means in design are different too: here, a student may engage with different techniques and materials, but also with texts dealing with economics, sociology, psychology, systems of logistics, distribution, sustainability, production, philosophy, et cetera.

At its core, the academic procedure has two defining characteristics: verification and falsification.

Verification means that your progress should be verifiable at all stages. You should be able to make clear where and when and how you made choices, why you chose one source or one opinion over another, how you chose to organize your data, et cetera. This means that you open up your report to scrutiny. Your readers should be able to check whether your progress makes sense. Did you jump to conclusions? Did you overlook key information? Did you misinterpret your experiments?

Falsification is connected to verification in that you exercise self-criticism. Falsification is similar to refutability: the possibility that any assertion you make can be contradicted. That something is “falsifiable” does not mean it is false; but if it is false, then some observation or experiment will produce a reproducible result that is in conflict with it. What this means for your research at DAE is that when developing your ideas into a thesis, it is necessary to keep an open mind and recognize that things might, in fact, be very different from what you assume.

Usually, the scope of a Master’s thesis is such that this is not a dominant characteristic of the project. Whatever the case, the thesis should contain an element of reflection on the process itself. You’ve asked yourself a few questions and you’ve come up with some answers. But are they the right answers? Should you have asked different questions?

Getting started

Writing a thesis can be an awesome task – in the original sense of the word. For quite a few DAE Master students it is often the first time they undertake such a project. They are not all used to writing or dealing with larger volumes of background literature. The workload can seem daunting.

Likewise, many students find writing a thesis restrictive or even unimaginative. Getting things down in 2D black and white is limiting, compared to the possibilities that other media offer. Some students would rather make a film, or perform live on stage. If you convince us that an alternative form is equally suited to create a valid, intelligible report, DAE will accept other forms of presentation. However, the essence of such a presentation would still have to be the same as that of a text – containing a similar structure, similar formal criteria.

Outline

The following is a basic outline of the different phases of conducting a research project. This is not a golden rule. Some phases overlap, sometimes you will have to return to an earlier stage – in short, this is theory. However, it does provide a solid framework and it can help prevent getting stuck.

1. Orientation

Getting to grips with the goals and guidelines of the project, choosing a subject, getting ready to start.

2. Information

Browsing, brainstorming, scanning. Getting a superficial impression of available information and sources.

3. Question

Formulating a question, drawing up a preliminary table of contents, setting up a work plan.

4. Research

Experiments, literature, background information, interviews, et cetera.

5. Writing

Getting your findings down on paper in a First Draft.

6. Re-writing

Re-writing; re-examining the consistency of the project, revisions.

7. Finalizing

Writing of the conclusion, introduction, abstract. Final lay-out.

 

 

1. Orientation

In this phase, you will be looking at possible project subjects. These can be found anywhere, and they can be anything – anything from personal experience, personal history, an article in the paper, a basic observation in everyday life (‘I was walking down the street the other day when I noticed that …’) Anything that’s triggered your interest, since you were a child or since yesterday.

The key thing in this first stage of the project is to consider what the size and scope of the project will be. If a project involves one trimester, it will have to be finished within three months. Therefore, before embarking on (preliminary) research, it would be wise to take stock of some simple factors:

How much time you will have to spend;

What is the actual size of the required text;

What kind of background (literature) you would be willing and able to read;

What would the nature of your research entail (literature, interviews, workshop experiments);

What kind of design project might this entail (and how much work would that involve);

What kind of demands would this project make in terms of finances or logistics (will it involve a lot of traveling);

Is the school really equipped for this kind of project? Is there relevant expertise among the mentors? Should you look elsewhere?

Failure to take these basic parameters into account may lead to a doomed start. It is wise to consult with mentors and others about your intentions and ambitions, so that guidelines can be drawn up.

It is good to realize that no subject is truly ‘ideal’. Every choice will have its downside, certainly when you intend to engage with it for a longer period. Selecting a subject for your project should be seen as a statement of intent, a statement that this is something you’d like to engage with; later on, as the project gets under way, you will have to fine tune and specify the subject.

In making this early choice students often incur problems of ambition, especially in setting the limits to any given subject. All too often a student (secretly) hopes to produce the Definitive Work in a given field, a thesis that will provide a breakthrough for the profession and society at large. Often, too, a student attempts to bring out everything he or she has ever read, or learned, and bring it all together in one project’s thesis.

It is important to be aware of what this thesis is supposed to be: a test of your ability to conduct a sensible research project in a limited amount of time. Thus, it pays to consider the amount of work that needs to go into it, what such a project can encompass, and who is going to read it. There is only so much you can do, in a trimester, so don’t feel it’s your job to re-examine everything that has ever been written or said about your subject.

Rather, you are encouraged to present a point of view of your own, and show creativity and original argumentation in dealing with the information you have gathered.

It’s vital, in choosing a subject, that you have some previous knowledge, and some grasp of the possibilities of such a subject – for instance, of the current state of research. You wouldn’t want to engage with a theory that has, by now, been discredited, or outdated. Good consulting with teachers and mentors is often the best way of assessing the possibilities.

2. Information

Once you’ve selected a subject, you will begin by surveying the subject and scanning for source material, for instance in available (scientific) literature and on the internet. This phase is something of a ‘brainstorm’ phase. Anything that comes to mind, spontaneously or otherwise, could be noted without bothering too much about its relevance later on in the process. This a phase to consult with people in the field, other designers, researchers, professionals. They may put you on track, help you define your project. It’s useful to note any question that comes to mind. They will be useful in starting purpose-led background research.

It is usually good to divide your subject into smaller subjects, that might be investigated separately or, if the scope becomes too wide, discarded.

In this phase you do not yet go into the background information and read everything. This is for scanning, and quick assessment, to get an impression of the ‘life’ and ‘resonance’ of your subject, and find your way into truly relevant literature or sources. It pays to keep notes of any text you come across, even when you just browse them. They may come in handy later on.

If you should find that your chosen subject encompasses too much, covers too large a field, or contains too large an amount of relevant information, you will have to start limiting yourself – by, for instance, focusing on a single aspect of your subject or, for instance, by limiting yourself in time or geography.

It is likely that this early scanning phase will bring you into contact with a host of new ideas, pushing the original concept aside. It is usually possible, to nuance, re-align or re-define your subject without abandoning your original idea altogether.

3. Question – Hypothesis

After the information phase, you need to arrive at a clear question. Formulating the question will necessarily limit the subject, and provide a framework/guideline for the research or background studies. It’s important to assess whether the question can be ‘operationalized’, that is: can it really be addressed in a satisfactory manner? Try to avoid questions that are too vague or too wide.

Try to rephrase your question as an hypothesis. Example. Your question is: People don’t read books anymore. Is this because the price of books is too high? Your hypothesis would then be: ‘If people don’t buy books because they are too expensive, the sale of books will go up when the price is lowered’. In this way, you narrow your question down to a specific element (price), and this enables you to convert your question to a clear set of criteria for research.

As soon as you have formulated your question, you should be able to make a rough ‘table of contents’ or, in other words, a sketch of the trajectory that will lead to a conclusion.

Any table of contents will be preliminary and can be altered while writing. But a preliminary table of contents does help to divide up the job of writing into comprehensible parts. You will know where you are going, and you will have an easier grasp of the whole process. You will be able to make a plan, in which you set out what you’ll do first, what you need to catch up on, who you are going to talk to, and which part of the text you intend to write first. This kind of planning also involves a time schedule.

4. Research

This is the main body of work of your project. The actual research activity depends wholly on your chosen subject and should be directed firmly by your formulated questions.

These questions are important tools for selecting your material. You will inevitably find a great deal of information that is related to your subject, but not to your key questions. These will guide your research. It is not unusual to find that your questions were too ‘big’, and you are losing yourself in too much research and too much data. You will then need to adjust your questions. The reverse may also be true: your question may result in a very limited scope of results, ‘more of the same’.

You are largely free to do what you want, but it should be clear that in the context of Design education, there should be both a theoretical and a physical element in your project.

The project works towards both a written text and a physical design presentation, and ideally, the development of both elements proceeds simultaneously – not subsequently. It should be noted that often students find themselves absorbed in theoretical research activities, talking and reading and adding smaller subjects and new questions as they go along – while they tend to postpone actual design work until it’s late in the trimester. This has on more than one occasion led to a marked discrepancy in the presentations: a full-bodied thesis text, but a design proposal with much less substance or quality.

It is important that you try to keep your research focused, and connected to the questions you have put yourself. In the academic world, experiments that prove your initial hypothesis wrong, are in themselves not useless: you have cleared up a misconception. But performing research or experiments that do not match the terms set out by your hypothesis, are usually without merit at all. You will proven something, but it was the wrong thing.

5. Writing

Once you start gathering and selecting information from your theoretical and your practical research, you can compile your notes and begin writing your first draft. Using the initial table of contents, you can start to fill out your chapters and paragraphs. You should never begin by writing your introduction: that comes at the end. Often it is most efficient to begin with the chapter you have the clearest idea about.

If you are worried about writing, there are three things you should take into account.

First of all, even writing for an academic paper is always to a large extent a creative process. It allows for spontaneity, it allows for making mistakes. If you do not have a good view of the gist of your story, there is a good chance you will get hung up on details. Don’t mind them too much, try to get going regardless – all the small things can be altered and improved upon later. Corrections are always possible, at the end, so being too critical about your progress could very well slow you down, or even block you.

Don’t be afraid to write down loose thoughts or sudden associations, that emerge out of nowhere. They may very well be useful later on.

Do not ponder the first line too long. Do not wait for inspiration. Sit down and make text. Get going. Polishing comes later. Don’t fret about correct phrasing, correct language, interpunction, spelling. It’s far more important to have a clear view of your original question.

Secondly: the importance of building a framework for your thesis cannot be overstated. This is largely dependent on the clarity of the question you intend to address – if you have a clear view of what that question is, you will be able to conduct more efficient and more purposeful searches. To begin with a wide-ranging question is a common error, as it often leads to amassing far too much information, that cannot be digested in the allotted time. A good tip in building up a text, especially a longer one, is to sketch it out in short statements or words, a schematic that gives backbone to the text.

Every student is different, and each subject will require a specific approach. It pays to consult with your tutors on your particular ideas.

Gathering all the available data and thoughts and questions and insights will produce a rough First Draft. For the DAE mentors, the First Draft serves as an important indication of the viability of the project. You will be asked to discuss it – so don’t put off writing, even when you feel the material is too shaky or too rough.

6. Re-writing

For a satisfactory result, re-writing the First Draft is usually inevitable. This is the phase where the separate parts are put in the right order. This means you will have to evaluate your work, and the order you intend to present your findings. You will have to be critical, without being perfectionist.

Does your argumentation hold water? Do the different parts really make a whole? Do your experiments really connect to your question? Can address the shortcomings of the project? Is your theory of sufficient academic level? Is it all relevant? Are there loose ends?

In this phase, it helps to re-examine your table of contents. Were you able to fill in all the gaps? Were some of the original plans unnecessary?

In bringing order to your text, it’s important to take into account who you are writing it for. It is very useful, whatever your reader’s level of intelligence, to improve the accessibility of the text wherever possible. Make chapters, paragraphs, headers. At the end of a chapter, introduce the next one. You can never be too clear.

7. Finalizing

In the final phase of the project you write your conclusions, your introduction and an abstract.

The conclusion should be fairly short and to the point. Together with the introduction and the table of contents, it is usually the first thing your readers will turn to. The chapters on background or experiments contain most of your hard work, but the introduction (question) and the conclusion contain the core of your thoughts – and they are key to assessing the quality of the project.

The introduction presents the goal and outline of the thesis. It indicates why you chose this subject, why you find it interesting. It also describes how you intend to focus on a particular question within the subject – especially when that is a general, wide-ranging sort of subject. How will you target a specific subject?

The introduction also indicates what your chosen method will be. Why do you want to hold a city-wide poll, why you choose to stick to a review of current literature, why will you focus on iron and copper, and not on zinc? You may also give a brief preview of each of the different chapters. The main questions will of course be answered in the conclusion, and you can point towards that, without giving the core of that away, of course.

Obviously, the conclusion is also written at the end of the process. From an academic point of view the main importance is that you return to your original questions and assumptions and discuss them. Have you come up with an answer? If so, what is it, if not, why not? Have your experiments proved relevant, or were they perhaps insufficient? This is the moment to reflect, critically, on the process. Bear in mind that a good experiment that proves your assumptions were wrong, is still a good experiment. For the academic, the process has merit even when the results are not what you imagined.

You don’t introduce new arguments or new facts here. However, as the conclusion closes the trajectory, it also looks forward. What new questions have emerged? What would be interesting for a future student to undertake?

In this phase, you also add notes, a bibliography and any appendices you want to include.

The abstract is a 200-word summary of the whole project, with the main question and the main conclusion. This will precede the thesis text.

After you finalize the text, which includes the division and subdivision into chapters and paragraphs, and correction of spelling (!), all that remains is determining the form, in which you’d like to present it.

Quotes / notes / bibliography

The list of notes and the bibliography serve to verify from which fountains you’ve drawn your knowledge and your insights. The bibliography must be a realistic representation of the material you have based your work on – it should not contain titles of books you have not really used.

Footnotes should be used when you use another’s work, but they should be used sparingly, and only when this use is pertinent to your own discourse – for instance when you agree with or contradict another author. A footnote implies that you have ‘digested’ the other work. The use of the internet has opened up a treasure chamber of seemingly relevant quotes, that can be used to back up any kind of argument. These can be overused easily, and detract significantly from the seriousness of the text.

Any literal quotation needs to be clearly marked. A single phrase may be incorporated into the text, but longer passages must be clearly distinct from the rest of the text.

Appendices

The importance of the thesis is the development of an idea, through research, not the presentation of large volumes of data – graphs, lists, questionnaires. These may well be relegated to separate appendices, at the very end of the thesis. Each should have a title, and the pages should be numbered.

Formal aspects of the thesis

The following is a strictly formal list of contents for a thesis. In a good text all these elements will be present. However, this does not mean your particular thesis will have to be organized exactly like this – in these chapters and subdivisions. That will largely depend on your specific subject, on your particular approach, and on your own views on how to present data.

Some of these ‘chapters’ may very well be combined. Some may prove to be less relevant in your research. It is recommended that you adhere to the framework to help you structure the writing.

A. Title page

Stating the title, subject, author, date, educational institute and programme, examiners/mentors.

B. Abstract

200 words, in English, describing the research, results and design in brief terms suitable for a general audience.

C. Table of contents

A formal element, but also a tool for the reader to navigate through your text. A table of contents gives a good indication of the coherence of the text – which questions will be dealt with, which problems will be tackled? Is there a logical structure, here?

D. Introduction

E. Question/hypothesis

A specific description of the subject, formulated as a question for which you seek answers in your research. A description of the goals of the research.

F. Method

A discussion of the methodologies you intend to use and justification for the choices you made. When you intend to do empirical research, you might want to describe the population you intend to interview, to assess its statistical relevance.

As you are restricted to the limited format of this thesis, it’s good to mention what you intend to do, and what you will NOT do.

G. Research

The heart of the text. This should present a thorough overview of your activities – sources, experiments, et cetera. The way you choose to present these is up to you – diagrams, photographs, drawings, pictures, text…

The overview should include a review of the current state of affairs. Obviously, you will not re-iterate everything that came before you – you are not expected to go back to the dawn of civilization to explain the arrival of the 3D printer. But you are expected to give a brief summary of the main ideologies, opinions, books, conflicts and considerations that determine your subject; from that, you can state your own position with respect to these predecessors, and give an indication of how you intend to contribute.

The core of the chapter will be a review of your findings and experiments. These are both theoretical and practical, and you are expected to always consider the development of your research towards a design proposal, not just the theoretical aspects. Again, the analysis could be supported by drawings and photographs of models, pointing ahead to your physical design presentation.

H. Conclusion + reflection

The conclusion should be short and to the point, and be supported fully by the discourse that went before. It should include some reflection on your own process, and the role of designers in this specific field.

I. Notes / references / bibliography

A list of references. Footnotes, sources, bibliography, contributors.

 

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