I Did My Thesis as a Podcast, Not a Paper

Why I did it and what I learned.

I recently completed an MA in Digital Experience Design at Hyper Island. This post is excerpted from the brief academic paper I wrote to supplement a seven-episode podcast, which constituted the bulk of the work of my final thesis.

Why podcasting?

In releasing my thesis as a podcast, I hoped to make the content more accessible and widely consumed.

The format forces me to speak in a jargon-free, conversational way, which helps the content reach a diverse, non-insider audience. Hopefully the work will have a bigger impact (spreading ideas, connecting people across disciplines, promoting a progressive perspective) this way.

It also just sounded really fun. As a podcast fan and a former pro video editor, I always wanted to try my hand at making one.

Capturing things live, so that listeners will feel like they were in the room with us.

Storytelling techniques

Renowned podcaster Alex Blumberg uses a storytelling formula which I learned in an online course. The formula is ridiculously simple:

“This is a story about X and it’s interesting because Y.”

This is the formula I used to frame the podcast. According to Blumberg, people simply won’t engage or stick with a series without a good story. My version of that formula looked like this:

“This is a story about service design and it’s interesting because you’ve never seen complex social problems approached in quite this way.

In 2010, iconic host of This American Life (and mentor to Alex Blumberg) Ira Glass discussed “the laws of narrative” in an interview with world-renowned designer Bill Moggridge. (A broadly-curious designer, Bill understood the value of good storytelling. It’s a tool that can help designers advance our craft in a number of ways.)

Ira explained the classic storytelling structure as a simple back-and-forth volley between “action” and “reflection.” I employed this structure throughout the podcast.

Going Quasi-Live

Sarah Koenig’s Serial is a record-breakingly popular podcast which helped popularize the medium. In 2014, Serial season 1 captivated audiences not only because it was a great story, but also because it was created quasi-live: each episode was released only a few weeks or days after the events had taken place. The audience was experiencing the story together in time with Koenig and her team of journalists.

Another very popular example of the “quasi-live” podcast format is Alex Blumberg’s StartUp: the surprisingly dramatic, enthralling story of Alex’s early days founding his own media company. I decided to adopt this format too. I released episodes weekly (with a few skips) throughout the course of our design project, bringing listeners along for the ride.

There is one way in which AYS breaks ground. All of the design podcasts I am currently aware of are purely interview-based — experts chatting about their craft. There are no design podcasts focused on a single project, and told in a quasi-live, story-centric format. I was excited to be the first.

Podcasting as a design tool

“Reporting” on our project live and openly on the internet proved an effective way to bring in stakeholders and invite feedback. Designers are moving more towards techniques that bring others, especially non-designers, into the process, seeing themselves as facilitators rather than auters. Kevin Slavin’s Design As Participation captures this ethos very well.

Working in public was beneficial to the work. It helped me to synthesize and organize my ideas continually throughout the project. It brought relevant professionals into my orbit who I would later interview or bring into the project itself. I also received very positive responses from strangers, which suggested the project’s value before it was even finished, motivating me to keep working.

Lessons learned

Making a podcast is extremely time-consuming. Anyone who does media production knows this. Editing time-based media is tedious, and it’s only right for you if you really love it (which I do). When I’m editing a piece of audio or video, the time flies, and I’m enjoying myself greatly, so I didn’t mind this.

I did have one or two little moments when I thought, “Katie, you’re nuts!” I was upset with myself for having taken so much onto my plate when I could have made my thesis much simpler by going with a standard format. If you’re thinking a podcast (or film or whatever) for your thesis is going to “get you out of the work,” you’re dead wrong.

That said, it will feel like less work to communicate in the medium that comes most naturally to you. So if you feel more comfortable communicating in graphic novel format than in academic writing, you will have more fun doing your thesis as a graphic novel but it certainly wont be any less work.

I had to do extra back-and-forth with my university to get everything approved and make sure they were OK with the length, scope, and submission details of my podcast.

The need to publish episodes weekly was a blessing and a curse. (Weekly episodes was something I imposed on myself, for reasons described above) During crunch time, when my peers were only just starting to get into the bulk of their writing work, I was already more than halfway done with my final deliverable.

The curse bit was a biggie, though. I couldn’t dedicate myself fully to the actual content itself of the research (understanding and addressing poverty in the developed world) because, well, I was busy telling the story at the same time I was trying to actually be part of the story. I think at times my collaborators in the project were frustrated with me for not diving in fully to the research portion. This is a tradeoff that we all just had to accept.

Hopefully this article helps you to think about alternative formats for your academic work which can make your projects more fun and more “you”! Below are the episode synopses to give you a feel for what my final project looked like.


Episode Synopses

Episode 1: WTF is Service Design

“Service design is about shifting political power to people in communities” — Mike Press

In this first episode, we debunk the biggest misconception about design, explain service design, and introduce the team we’ll be following for the next two months. We explain the process with help from a jazz band and a pinball machine. We also introduce the taboo and challenging design brief that will drive the rest of this season.

Planning out the episode flow: not easy during a live project

Episode 2: The P-word

“In a digital world, because we are the de-facto urban planners of our time, I think [redlining] is a term we need to pay a lot more attention to.” — Michael Hardy

In this episode, we share and summarize the findings of our research in financial services and inclusion. From the poverty premium to digital “poor doors,” there are a lot of opinions and complicated politics to understand. We hear from a digital expert, an ethnographer and lots of people immersed in problems of finance and banking while struggling to make ends meet.

Episode 3: The Fog

“Design research is not something comfortable, at all.” — Dalma Kadocsa

There’s this little secret about the design process that nobody likes to talk about. It’s an anxiety-provoking, scary moment. It can feel pointless, but it actually has a purpose. What is it? Why do we work this way? Our team hits this moment of truth, and tries to maneuver out of it through a meeting with a certain expert in the sector.

Episode 4: A-ha

“Reframing from struggling to juggling — that’s a designerly lens.” — Nick Durrant

We finally make our way out of the fog, with help from an unexpected source. Building off this “a-ha,” we design phase 2 of our research plan, which takes us away from our desks and into the world. We also hear from Jeff Greger, a member of the FAIR Money research collective, who turns out to be doing some very similar work on the opposite side of the globe.

Episode 5: What’s this thing called?

“How many designers does it take to change a lightbulb?” — Gill Wildman

This episode is a special discussion about naming in design disciplines. What’s this work called, anyway? Service design? Experience design? Strategic, transdisciplinary, post-disciplinary? At the table are George Oates, Sarah Drummond, Gill Wildman and Nick Durrant — founders of various design agencies here in the UK — plus Lily McCraith, an undergraduate student who’s just starting out.

Episode 6: Interviews & Insights

“It’s possible to be in business and not be an asshole.” — Neil Hinchley

In this episode, we reveal the results of our three-part research plan: understanding local business owners’ thoughts on community-building, a survey about loaning to neighbors, and learning from people who manage low incomes well. We dig into the design tools that helped us get the most out of our research. A special segment on power dynamics features two unusual and creative projects addressing the issues of economics and class.

Episode 7: Open Studio

This episode marks the end of phase 1 of this project. We’ve covered the first half of the “double diamond” process: discover and define. We close this chapter with an open house — a space to share what we’ve done, invite people into the process, and get precious feedback. Gill, Nick and Katie each share closing thoughts and hatch a plan for what will come next.

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