Senior Project


Download a word doc of this syllabus here.

Wednesdays 2:30 – 6:20

Room: PDI Studio, Sage 2211

Dr. David A. Banks

Office: Sage 5205

Office Hours: TBA



  • This class is my top priority. It must be yours as well.
  • Attendance is mandatory and no incompletes will be given for this course.
  • You will complete a very large project. This project will make you feel lots of emotions and it will be hard but you have a supportive community that will help you do your best.

Course Catalog Description

Ordinarily consists of independent research, supervised by a faculty member, culminating in a written thesis. A creative endeavor such as a videotape or computer program may be substituted with departmental permission. This is a communication-intensive course.

Real Description

This course will be pretty hard. It will also be uniquely rewarding because you will follow a project of your own design from conception to completion. You will fall in and out of love with your chosen topic throughout the semester but by the end you should have a sense of what it means to fully own a project from start to finish. We’ll go over professional-grade research methods, constructing your own synthetic argument from others’ previous work, and setting workable deadlines that keep you on track.

The class will begin as a workshop. You will be expected to complete a few exercises that will introduce you to research and project management techniques. By week three you will have to start choosing a topic, form into groups if you so desire, and begin work on what will become your thesis. As your theses get underway the class will shift from workshop to studio. By midterms week, most of your work will be self-directed.


You are expected to spend approximately 12 hours a week outside of class on your project, whether that means reading, designing, building, researching in the field, or writing. The projects can become overwhelming if you don’t keep up.  If you’re having problems, please come to me sooner rather than later, so I can help you and get you on track for a successful project. I will make time for you, if you aren’t waiting until the last minute to solve a problem. Except in the case of medically documented (physical or mental) events, I do NOT assign Incompletes in the course.

Over the course of the semester you will do the following (in more or less this order):

1)    Identify a social issue that you would like your project to address.

2)    Identify external STS faculty and graduate students with relevant expertise in that topic area that can help identify literatures, complexities, and interlocutors to frame your design process.

3)    Use design and social science research methods to identify human needs, wants, or troubles, and plan out a research project that addresses what you found.

4)    Engage in an iterative process of sketching, prototyping, and integrating feedback from peers, advisors, and the instructor. Each round of sketching and drafting will be accompanied by reflective assignments designed to center your attention on explaining your thought process. Special emphasis will be directed toward explanations of how a design works along functional, semiotic, and systemic dimensions.

5)    Develop “functional” prototypes of your refined concepts. In general, these prototypes should function as “Looks-Likes” and/or “Works-Likes.” You are expected to make appointments with the relevant resources (e.g., Abe in the wood/metal shop, The MILL, TVCoG, etc) to ensure that the craft dimensions of your design are adequate for testing purposes.

6)    User test your prototypes with the appropriate population.

7)    Use the feedback from your user testing to further refine your concept.

8)    Develop an accompanying presentation and poster.

9)    Write a thesis document that includes an Introduction, Literature Review, Narrative of the Design Process, explanation of the State of the Design, and Next Steps.

Supplies & Expected Costs

All texts for the course will be provided at no cost. Instead, you are expected to purchase materials for sketching, drafting, and prototyping. it is encouraged that, if you work in groups, that one of the first conversations you have as a team is how to share these costs. At a minimum you are expected to spend money on the following:

  • A dedicated sketchbook and requisite/preferred drawing and sketching tools
  • Sketch paper for pin-ups (I recommend some semi-transparent tracing paper for this. Share a $15 roll from Amazon.
  • Materials for prototypes
  • Printing costs for end-of-semester glossy poster.


Show up to class. Excellence in submitted work will not make up for delinquency in attendance. More than two unexcused absences will result in a lowering of your final course grade by a full letter for each class missed beyond two. Four unexcused absences will result in a failing grade. Excusable absences include illness, family emergencies, and scheduled Rensselaer athletic events. If you were supposed to be a part of a group presentation and could not make it to class I need an email summarizing your contributions with your group members cc’ed. If you were supposed to turn something in during class, it must be turned in within 48 hours of the class that you missed.

Learning Outcomes

Upon completion of this course, students should have the following sets of skills:

1)    An understanding of various kinds of research methods, and what lines of inquiry they can best support.

2)    The ability to construct a relevant and engaging literature review that can act as a foundation for actionable research questions and careful research design.

3)    The ability to apply social science, arts, humanities, and design research as a groundwork for a design project.

4)    Project management skills, library research methods, and other practical skills necessary for team-based and independently-directed creative work.

Assignments and Grade Breakdown

This course will be graded using a point system, with a total of 100 points possible. Each point corresponds to 1% of your final grade (earning 95 points throughout the semester will result in a final grade of 95% an A). Assignments contribute to your final grade in the following manner:

  • Rapid Design Warm-Up 20 points
  • Iterative Research Assignments 40 points
  • Design Thesis Project 40 points
  • End-of-Semester Peer Review (Can add or subtract up to 10 points to a final grade)

Because the pace of assignments is fast and each project is meant to build on the other, late penalties are strict, harsh, and will only be the beginning of your problems if you don’t take advantage of studio time to complete them and/or make corrections.

Any late assignments (defined as not ready for presenting or having not sent deliverables to my inbox at the appropriate time, with the only exception being excused absences) can only receive a maximum of 70% of the possible points. No credit will be given for assignments turned in more than 48 hours late. Due dates for all assignments are in the course schedule at the end of the syllabus or will be announced well in advance. If you are working in a group and the one person tasked with handing in the materials fails to do so, every team member’s grade will be penalized, regardless of circumstance. Materials are due by 2:29PM of the due date and any presented materials must be handed in at that time. The only exceptions to this rule are physical prototypes (which obviously cannot be emailed) and hand-drawn sketches and thumbnails that are meant to be pinned up for in-class critique. Completed posters should be sent to me as a PDF.

The Rapid Design Warm -Up must be done in a group, but that group does not necessarily have to be the one you keep for your Design Thesis Project. The Iterative Research Assignments, however, are meant to be worked into your Design Thesis Project deliverables and so make careful and deliberate decisions early and often. Haste or poor performances in the early stages of the Iterative Research Assignments will compound into bigger problems later on if not dealt with.

Rapid Design Warm-Up (20 Points Total)

Right out of the gate on we will do a warm-up exercise where you identify a social problem and —rather than attempt to solve it— you will provoke it. You will make it more complicated by exploring the facets of the issue and why it remains a challenge. The final product should explain how and why the social problem exists and who it impacts. No attempts at a “solution” need (or, really, should) be made.

You will find your social problem in the issues of a select group of academic journals. These journals will describe problems and it will be your job to provoke these problems into greater complexity through a design of your choosing. For example, you might read about citizen scientists that cannot get their research validated by governing authorities. You could then sketch out a soil test for lead that not only shows parts-per-million but also automatically finds and lists all of the laws broken by the existence of that lead in specific places.

The deliverables for this Rapid Design Warm Up are as follows:

  • A 3-source annotated bibliography where at least one academic article is drawn from our list of Approved Journals.
    • Chicago-style citation of the sources and 150 words of annotation that describe the main ideas and why it is useful to your project.
    • Due to my inbox prior by 2:29PM on 9/13.
  • A five to ten-minute presentation with accompanying original work:
    • Ten thumbnail sketches of possible design provocations. These should be rough, and demonstrate the evolution of your thinking. These should be hand-drawn and are meant to be pinned up on the walls of the studio for others to critique.
    • Two, polished, original sketches based on the thumbnails. These may be either digital or hand-drawn.
    • About 200 words that explains the provocation and why you abandoned some thumbnails and polished others.
    • You will have time on 9/6 to work on this and approximately 20 minutes on 9/13 to make finishing touches on your presentation.

Iterative Research Assignments (40 Points Total)

The Iterative Research Assignments will create a body of work for you to work with and incorporate into, your Design Thesis Project. In this way you will build a solid foundation for your self-directed work towards the end of the semester. You may choose to work alone, in a pair, or in groups of three or four. Carefully review the instructions for each assignment below as they might change depending on the size of your group.

Pitch Your Project (5 Points)

A pitch is about three or four sentences that describe a social problem, provide an attention-arresting detail about the problem, and make a few predictions about what the design intervention would look like. For example:

Anyone that does not present as a white man on the internet is harassed on nearly every digital platform, from social media to professional digital publishing platforms like news outlets’ comments sections. The Guardian, in an internal investigation of their own site found that “of the 10 most abused writers, eight are women and the two men are black.” We propose a digital design intervention where participants are invited to enter a room where, in real time, algorithms that are scraping the internet for instances of hate speech set off a series of strobe lights and air horns. The aim is to create a sensory environment where anyone can experience the disorienting effects of mass-harassment.

  • People working individually: Two pitches of totally different projects
  • Working in pairs: three pitches, two may be riffs on the same project
  • Groups of three or four: five pitches, three may be riffs on the same project

Deliverable: A word document sent to the instructor’s email address before class.

10-Minute Presentation on Your Chosen Project (5 Points)

This presentation will flesh out your pitch into a full project proposal. This presentation must cover the following:

  • The problem as you see it
  • Why you see the problem that way, according to your literature (with citations and explanations)
  • An explanation as to how the design provokes a problem and communicates the provocation to the user.

How you deliver this presentation (e.g. all digital in powerpoint, hand-drawn pin-up) is entirely up to you, with this one restriction: individuals and pairs must have ten thumbnail sketches and three polished sketches of a design. Groups of three or four must have twenty thumbnail sketches and five polished sketches of a design. These sketches must be sent to my inbox (scanned / digital) or handed over to me (paper) by the end of the class.

Annotated Bibliography 1 (10 Points)

Each group member submits a 7-source annotated bibliography. Each annotation should be about 150 words. All sources should be form peer-reviewed journals and group members cannot use the same source. (i.e. A group of four must find 28 unique sources.) At least three sources from each group member must come from Approved Journals. These must be emailed to the instructor prior to the class meeting in which they are due and be available for review in class.

Annotated Bibliography 2 (10 Points)

Each group member submits an additional five sources, three of which must come from approved journals. All sources should reflect feedback from the previous week.

Pairs or working individually: A design collection of 10-15 images (cited), with a 150-word synthesis of the images.

Groups of three or four: A design collection of 15-20 images (cited), with a 150-word synthesis of the images.

Pin-Up and Peer Review (10 Points)

On two occasions studio time will end in a pin-up session. This is meant to give you some semi-soft deadlines that will push you to assess the present state of your project and consider course-changes or refinements. At each pin-up I will be looking for:

  • Working individually
    • Eight 2x2 Thumbnail Sketches of a Critical Design Provocation based upon your literature and design research
    • Two 10x10 Polished Sketches of Design Provocations, Based Upon Ideas Developed in the Thumbnails
  • Working as a pair
    • Ten 2x2 Thumbnail Sketches of a Critical Design Provocation based upon your literature and design research
    • Three 10x10 Polished Sketches of Design Provocations, Based Upon Ideas Developed in the Thumbnails
  • Working in a group of three or four
    • Twenty 2x2 Thumbnail Sketches of a Critical Design Provocation based upon your literature and design research
    • Four 10x10 Polished Sketches of Design Provocations, Based Upon Ideas Developed in the Thumbnails

Design Thesis Project (40 Points)

Length: ~8500 words (individual or pair), ~11,500 words, (groups of 3 or 4), not including references, plus images and sketches

The Design Thesis represents the written and theoretical record of the literature, methods, materials, process, and challenges that brought about the Critical Design and its Prototype. The thesis must be well-written for a professional and academic audience, and must show, though its interlocking sections, how the social scientific literature researched by you or your group identifies and complicates a particular social or cultural problem, and how the design collections, design methods, and the group's creative production materially communicates that problem to an audience. As such, it takes the hybrid format of half academic thesis/half design document.

The Design Thesis can be roughly broken down as follows. The lengths of each section are estimated for a group of three or four. Subtract about 500 words from each section if you’re working in a pair or by yourself. In any event, these numbers may vary slightly depending on the particularities of each project:

Introduction (1000 words)

The Introduction to your project that summarizes, without going into detail, the general problems that the group is addressing, and the critical design solution that communicates, challenges, or provokes users into understanding that problem in a new, different, or better way. It should contain some kind of “thesis statement” that, in only one or two sentences, encapsulates the most important part of your project.

Literature Review (2500 words)

The Literature Review synthesizes peer-reviewed, academic literature into a compelling description of a problem space, as well as provides the analytical and philosophical frames that the group will be using as a foundation of their critical design. The Literature Review should draw heavily upon the work done in each group's annotated bibliography. Examples of successful Literature Reviews might be:

  • a tracing of several types of social, environmental, biological, and economic influences on the price of coffee, and an explanation of what Actor-Network Theory is and why it's useful for understanding the system of coffee production;
  • a description of the organizational and pedagogical structures and failures of engineering education, and the use of social-justice and engaged engineering pedagogical theory as a way to address engineering education;
  • the explanations of the kinds of neurological, social, and problem-solving advantages and disadvantages that autistic children have, and the use of the concept of neurodiversity to better understand and address mental illnesses.

Design Process (5000 words)

The Design Process is a catch-all process section that describes the mechanical, practical ways the design was created (materials, processes, internal mechanisms, etc.), as well as documenting how the design changed from the initial sketches through the process of building the prototype. Any setbacks, sudden changes, failures, and surprising successes should be included here as well.

The Design Process section should also contain user-testing reports of the design at various stages. Have friends, other groups, and instructors demo your critical designs as you create them, and document (not necessarily visually) how users are using and interacting with your design in intended and unintended (not necessarily a bad thing) ways.

Design Narrative (2000 words)

The Design Narrative uses the design collection research and the work done in the theoretical section of the literature review to explain the thought process and goals of the critical design artifact. The Design Narrative section should contain:

  • a description of the design (including polished, finalized sketches/imagery, and pictures of the final prototype),
  • a review of how it incorporates the theoretical and design movement research,
  • an identification of the target audience of the design, an explanation of how it is intended to be physically used, including how the design is intended to communicate its meaning to the user. The Design Concept section should not contain any build or construction information that is not relevant to the conceptual and formal components of the design. In other words, talk about the use of a spring mechanism in the object should only be discussed if the spring is integral to the formal, communicative, aesthetic component of the design. 

Next Steps (1000 Words)

After developing the material artifact, you will develop an organizational plan to bring the product “to the market.” This includes detailing ideal construction materials, sourcing and pricing for those materials, environmental impact of the production process, regulatory concerns (if any), target audience statement and analysis, marketing and distribution strategies. Note that not all of the products designed will be easily promoted or integrated into the marketplace.  If this is the case for the team’s product, what are alternative, non- or alt- market distribution and production strategies that can be developed? If traditional advertising and marketing campaigns don’t fit the critical product design, what are other ways in which you can reach out to and communicate with your target audience?

Poster Details

By design there are very few requirements for the poster. Feel free to be experimental within the following constraints. (Reminder: send me a PDF version of the poster by midnight December 13.) The poster should, in general, convey how your design provokes your chosen social problem.

  • The poster must be bigger than 11x17 inches
  • It must have at least two graphics depicting your design or the design process.
  • Must have a title / name for the project.
  • All group members' names must be somewhere on the poster.

List of Approved Journals

Any reference in class or this syllabus to “Approved Journals” is a reference to the list below:


September 6

Discussion: Intros / Syllabus / Seeing the Water You Swim In

Assignment Given: Rapid Design Warm Up

September 13

            Reading: “What is ‘Critical’ about Critical Design?” by Bardzell and Bardzell

            Discussion: Starting a Project: Basics of research and refining the signal-to-noise ratio

            Assignment Due: Rapid Design Warm Up Presentations

September 20

            Reading: “Chapter 5: Reviewing the Literature” By Kristin Luker

            Discussion: Joining the Conversation: Literature Review and annotated bibliographies

            Assignment Due: In-class private pitches.

September 27

            Reading: Alternative Design Scholarship: Working Toward Appropriate Design by Dean Nieusma

            Discussion: Design as Inquiry: Brainstorming critical designs

            Assignment Due: 10-minute presentation on your chosen project

October 4

            Reading: “Critical Technical Practice as a Methodology for Values in Design” by Kirsten Boehner

            Discussion: Relationship of theory to practice.

            Assignment Due: Annotated Bibliography 1

October 11

Reading: “Chapter 5: Adversarial Design as Inquiry and Practice” in Carl DiSalvo’s Adversarial Design (I might get a better quality PDF instead.)

Discussion: Pruning your literatures.

Assignment Due: Annotated Bibliography 2

October 18

            Reading: “Critical Making: Conceptual and Material Studies in Technology and Social Life” by Matt Ratto

October 25

            Studio Time


November 1

            Studio Time

November 8

Studio Time

November 15

Studio Time


November 22 (Thanksgiving Holiday, No Class)

[Eating Noises]

November 29

Studio Time

December 6

Studio Time

December 13

Presentations in class

  • Poster, prototype, and paper are due. 

December 15

Poster and prototype session in DCC Great Hall from 12-4PM (stay for at least an hour).