I don’t know why, but it seems every time the California College of the Arts (formerly California College of Arts and Crafts) holds its end-of-semester thesis show, it rains. I guess it is only fitting: for the students this is judgment day. They either pass or fail; and failing means having to go back to school for yet another semester. This has been the case for about one-quarter of each class in recent semesters.

The Graphic Design thesis program is the culmination of students’ design education at CCA. It was created by Michael Vanderbyl (Head of the Graphic Design program) to challenge and ultimately broaden students’ understanding of what it means to be a designer. The class is largely self-directed and presents students with an opportunity to identify an area of interest and investigate it using design as the vehicle to present their findings.’ (Mark Fox, Thesis Survival Guide) Thesis projects have included books, posters, installations, short films, furniture, and paintings; basically any medium that communicates best one’s thesis statement.

Each semester a rotating group of the best design educators serve as instructors for the class. This semester instructors included Jennifer Sterling (Jennifer Sterling Design), David Karam (Post Tool), Melanie Doherty (Melanie Doherty Design) and of course, the one constant: Michael Vanderbyl.

The Thesis Program at CCA is difficult. Believe me, I completed it just one year ago and the sting of a bad crit and the joy of finally graduating are still fresh. I don’t think I have ever been pushed so hard since entering the “design profession.” Unfortunately, much of its reputation is propelled by rumors and half-truths. You hear about Thesis the first day of your design classes and by the time students are finally enrolled, the tension is unbearable.

It’s raining. I arrived at the school after a short jog from my car, pulling up my pant legs as I walked through the puddles that had formed in the parking lot. Light emanated through the large glass doors of the school. I showed my ID (past expiration, as I am an alumni) to the aloof security guard and ventured through a maze of halls to the auditorium where graduating and not-sure-if-they’re-graduating students had already gathered to watch a series of short films from this year’s batch of students. Damn! I’m late.

Inside the auditorium, hopeful families and friends gathered to support the work of their favorite CCA students. As I settled into a dark corner of the crowded theatre, Joshua Carey’s film, 1+1=1, was just beginning. Through a subtle build up of abstract images, Joshua Carey’s film contemplates the consequence of the proliferation of computers in his life. Through his blurred imagery he communicates a loss of identity and questions if technology is adapting to him, or if it is he that is adapting to it.

Another standout from the film portion of the exhibition was Shawn Petersen’s STANDING ON WATER. His film explores the personal and the historical. Using 35mm film shot by his family as a child and graphics and surfing footage from both modern and archival sources, Shawn intertwines these threads, creating a narrative that speaks of consumer culture and how it has oversimplified the authentic spiritual experience of surfing. Most visually interesting was his modern water footage shot off the coast of Santa Cruz, California, where Shawn was raised.

After leaving the auditorium, the audience adjusted their vision to the bright light of the gallery. On the walls, floors and ceilings, the remaining 40+ projects of the thesis class were displayed. Immediately, it was apparent how much time, energy and money was put into each and every handmade book, poster, installation, and interactive piece. I was inspired by what many of the students had accomplished.

Scanning the rows of projects in front of me, I was immediately drawn to Molly Skonieczny’s book. It looked scholarly: thick, and bound in brown cloth. Throughout the course of class, Molly sought advice from both paid and unpaid sources in an effort to determine if paying for advice really makes sense. Faced with never-ending decisions, she argues that we spend a considerable amount of time and effort seeking advice that we often never intend to follow from a variety of sources. At the same time, we rarely question the value, usefulness and function of the advice giving and seeking process in our lives.’ Through her use of fine typography, beautiful diagrams and witty writing, her book made for one of the most interesting pieces.

Between bites of my angularly-cut deli wrap I spoke to some good friends I hadn’t seen since graduation, as well as former teachers. After one year, the dread of Thesis was still real. But to quote a currently-on-trial creator of media culture I undoubtedly believe “It’s a good thing.” Ultimately, the stigma surrounding the program is outweighed by the fact that students go through the process of research, proposals, revisions and design to produce some amazing work.

If you would like to view more projects created by the CCA Graphic Design class of Fall, 2003 and more, please visit: The site is not in any way endorsed by or affiliated with California College of the Arts.

California College of the Arts
San Francisco campus
Place: 1111 Eighth Street, San Francisco, CA 94107-2247
Tel: 415.703.9500

Text and Photos: Mark Buswell from

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