• Kylie Blair

Applying Design Thinking and Ideation Methods to my Thesis Concept

Before this course, my thesis concept was to visualize climate data and information through storytelling, interactivity, and digital games. My plan was to create a game that was situated within an ecological niche composed of Sequoia trees, mushrooms, Steller's jays, grey foxes, grey squirrels, beetles, etc. within this ecosystem. In this game, the player could switch between different perspectives in this niche, and they would be given different goals based on the species they embodied. These interactions would indicate the need for a balanced ecosystem and depict themes of symbiosis and the linkage between various species.

Through various CFC exercises, my thesis project has evolved. They have also helped me refine my scope for my thesis project. As I explain some of these exercises below, and how they have altered my project, it is evident that this course has helped me to refine my targeted audience, my intended thesis project and written work, as well as the subject matter I am focusing on.

Personal Creativity Map

One of the first exercises we used in CFC was the personal creativity map. While I did this incorrectly (as I focused it on my thesis project rather than my typical creative process), it helped me to plan a schedule and flow of my thesis work. This helped me to contextualize and place my methodologies within my practice, as well as the methods I plan on using. It also allowed me to explore new methods for reaching my end goal, such as user testing, secondary data analysis, and the adaptation of data into a script for storytelling. Overall, this map allowed me to focus on the different steps I want to achieve throughout my thesis work, and how I could combine data visualization with storytelling and interactive media.

The 5 Why's

The 5 Why’s exercise was another important method that I found very valuable. The first reason I find this exercise particularly useful is that it forced me to process my thoughts into language, in order to explain what my thesis ideas were. Before this method, I felt like my ideas were scattered throughout my mind, and it was difficult for me to create links and a seamless flow between the ideas. This exercise forced me to on-the-spot reflect and verbalize my thesis and my intentions behind it.

The second reason this exercise was valuable to me was that it dug into the more philosophical and political reasonings behind my thesis work. It allowed me to assemble the overarching themes and elements of my work that I am interested in, that I was perhaps not cognizant of before this exercise. For instance, it made me realize why I want to visualize information through interactive storytelling, versus solely data visualization or solely documentary format, because the interaction is an important aspect that I believe will allow for people who are both unaware or skeptical of this information to participate in its message.


I also created various mindmaps while at CFC. These include a map of the medium of my prototype, a map of the themes and elements of my thesis, as well as a map of the users, objects, interactions, and places for my prototype. Similar to the personal creativity map, these mind maps caused me to tease out the various pieces that I find important for creating my thesis, while also allowing me to explore new ways of ideation and creation through new methods and new technologies. Before this mindmap (and my discussion with Ana), I was pretty stubborn about not using VR. Yet, as I teased out the idea of using VR for the embodiment of different species in my first prototype, I realized that this course would be a good opportunity to test VR out.

It also allowed me to step back from the content and medium of my thesis, to think about the broader concepts and context of my thesis, such as the objects (physical or digital), the audience (user, spectator, player, participant), the interactions (observation and embodiment, but also whether they are physical or digital interactions, and whether the interactions are between people or in solitude), and the place my thesis would inhabit (installation versus online). This mindmap caused me to consider who I was trying to reach with this piece. Would this audience be able to get their hands on a VR headset? If not, would they be willing to go to an installation where the VR is provided? Or is it more accessible to create it as an online piece? Furthermore, are my audience children, or adults? Is it used as an educational tool, or do I want it to be a broader artistic piece on climate change? I realized that I desire to create an artistic piece more-so than an educational piece for curriculum in schools. Overall, I realized that I want a broad audience, therefore I am still skeptical towards VR, although I think VR creates an interesting opportunity to embody a different species.

Design Method: Findings and telling stories from user testing

In this design exercise, we were placed into groups based on similar areas of interest: my group was immersive environments. Through this method, we would go around the group and discuss our user testing findings and write them down using sticky notes. I found this method helpful when other people wrote down what I verbally communicated, because it was difficult for me to write and talk at the same time. It also identified areas that I have not focused on, which other colleagues found to be important pieces to my prototype and thesis (for example, when I discussed VR as a personal experience that is difficult to balance between users with different opinions, Roxanne asked what happens when aesthetics distract from the message?). It allowed me to realize what areas I want to focus on, and what is unnecessary or not feasible to prototype at this point. Overall, it allowed me to verbalize my own experience of user testing, while also providing an opportunity to hear other people’s perspectives of my user testing (particularly Max and Roxanne, as they were around my CFC prototype the entire day).

This process also allowed me to listen to other people’s experiences, and find similarities in our prototyping process, as well as the affordances and limitations our prototypes brought. For instance, Dikla and I both discussed embodiment with VR, and how that can be a tricky area to explore and attempt to succeed.

Afterwards, we placed these sticky notes into areas on the board: what happened, assumptions, and what’s next? After regrouping with the class and adapting our user testing experiences into stories, I received some great feedback from my peers as I move forward, from thematic advice, such as whether or not I want the players to feel something and VR being an isolating experience, to technical advice, such as fixing the height issue I endured through testing, as well as aesthetics becoming a potential distraction. While I still plan on exploring different ways of visualizing the world from a tree’s perspective, I am cognizant of VR’s effect on the user, and most importantly, I don’t want the visuals to detract from the message I am attempting to communicate.

Reflective Journal

We also discussed the importance of keeping a journal. While I have not formally created a reflective journal, I do keep notes in a physical notebook, as well as online in Google Docs. I think this is a really important step for me to take as I move forward through my thesis, because right now I feel like my ideas, opinions, resources, and the feedback given to me is strung out all over the place. I also realize that if I do not write down the advice given to me verbally, I tend to forget it rather quickly. I think the idea of offloading into a physical journal is more helpful than a digital journal- I’ve noticed that I will copy and paste links into google docs, and it is actually a way of procrastination for me to not read and engage with the material in the moment. Additionally, as I am interested in how we construct nature and the environment through language, visuals, and culture, I think my own personal experiences and opinions could provide a rich display into how my own worldview of nature is constructed, and how my opinions could change through the thesis process, therefore allowing me to critique, analyze and evolve my own conceptions.

Artistic Method: Defining actions and values

This method was probably the most useful method for me so far in this creative process. The first step of this method was to define the actions we asked our user to participate in. These actions are defined through verbs. In a reductive sense, I considered the most simplistic actions I asked the participant to use in my first prototype: observe, and rotate. As I evaluated my prototypes success with these verbs, I decided I wanted to add more actions to the list, as a means of realizing what I want to reach in my next prototype: embody, empathize, interact, sense, listen, visualize.

The next step in this process is to formulate what value we are trying to achieve through our thesis. This was a bit tricky for me to come up with. At first, I felt that I wanted awareness. Yet, this seemed too vague for what I was attempting to do. The next value I contemplated was compassion. While I think this value is something I want to consider, it also felt too cliché and reductive to what I am attempting to do through my thesis. Yes, perhaps I can strive for compassion for other species and animals and ecologies through empathy, but overall I think what is more important to focus on is a sense of connection and entanglement. Therefore, I landed on community as my value. While this is a broad concept, I mean it in a very specific way. As we depend on one another, our sense of community with humans and nonhumans alike is very important, in order for our biosphere to remain intact. This revelation of a sense of community as my value became really thought provoking, exciting, and important to me. Its more than empathy, or compassion, or awareness: it’s a sense of respect and responsibility towards our role in the global ecology.

Next, we focused on how our actions will get us to our values. This was a key component of this exercise, because it caused me to realize what interactions were necessary, and what interactions were just muddying the waters, or were excess to my overall intent. Therefore, I removed rotate, sense, empathy and visualize from my actions: while these will be used in my thesis work, they are simply add-ons and helpful methods that, while they may help me reach the value of community, are nonetheless not vital pieces of action to be used within my thesis work.

Therefore, I will focus on the use of interactions, observations, listening, and embodiment to achieve a sense of community in my thesis work. I think this is the most crucial step through this ideation and creation phase, as it has grounded me and allowed me to focus on the end goal. This exercise provides me the framework of the creative actions I need to produce in order to achieve the overall value I desire, which is a sense of community.

Therefore, these ideation, artistic and design methods have helped me form and refine my thesis project. While I am still focused on visualizing climate information through storytelling and interactivity, I am reconsidering the technologies I will use to deploy them. I have experimented with VR, as well as digital games, but I am still toying with other technologies as I approach my final thesis prototype. I have also gained a more speculative and creative, yet critical understanding of how to visualize this information for broader audiences.

As of now, I would like to play with themes of symbiosis and the effect climate change has on these relationships. I intend to focus my work on the perspective of a tree. This perspective allows me to play with elements of scale, time, and space, as well as an opportunity to speculatively visualize the senses and communication practices of a species that is very foreign from human, and operates through very different biological structures. At the same time, I would argue we have more in common with trees than we think. Using a tree as a storyteller, I will explore how trees can teach us about our entangled biosphere on Earth.