Fall 2020 Senior Studio — Semester in Review

Juan Estela
9 min readDec 9, 2020

Going into this semester, I felt a weird mixture of nerves and excitement. On one hand, becoming a Senior meant we were slowly but surely heading towards thesis, and that prospect itself was a bit daunting, even with three years of classes under our belts. However, after the Summer from hell that was Summer 2020 in the age of COVID-19, I was eager to get back to learning and making.

Though this semester most definitely came with its fair share of challenges, I am happy to have made it on the other side with some of my proudest works to show for it, as well as a stronger understanding of the role of collaboration and process in Design. Therefore, I hope to use this post a testament to those lessons and the work I have been able to produce.

Impact & Empathy

In collaboration with Emily Knobloch.

For the Impact & Empathy project, Emily, and I wanted to discuss the process of adjusting to education in a pandemic. It was the start of the semester, and we were unsure how long hybrid learning would last, and we wanted to explore what effects this transition has had on us.

Looking at the studio Hyperakt as a source of inspiration, I was personally inspired by their approaches to developing visual systems, including creating motion to develop a narrative, appropriating visual themes and recontexualizing them, and making verbiage a key part of a system.

I began asking a bunch of questions about education in general, and in the context of COVID-19. These questions allowed me to comfortably transition into iterating, and this process also came with its own set of questions about making as it relates to education.

This misprint onto a transparent sheet prompted me to ask, “How can I disrupt the process of printing the same way COVID has disrupted our education?”

Through a thorough iteration process, Emily and I landed on the idea of misalignment, the idea that things don’t feel the way they’re meant to, not only in the world around us, but within ourselves as well.

Our solution was to create a thread between this narrative and RGB and CMYK color models. We took each channel of our preferred media and manipulated them in such a way to create images which implied disorientation. Conversely, by properly aligning the channels to create a clear image, we hoped to inspire a path towards clarity.

Left — Emily employs a print CMYK approach to our system. Right — I experiment with an RGB approach, treating channel sync as disorientation.

With the system in place, I began working on my piece, “One Way”. I went with a time-based narrative approach, using student reflections regarding the transition from in-person to remote learning as my source for content. My aim in presenting the topic in this manner was to offer students an opportunity to feel heard and acknowledged, as well as inspire the viewer to remember that we, the students, are struggling through this together, because in a time like this, it is easy to feel like we are alone. The short-film discusses the students’ initial reactions to school shutdowns, how they struggled in the transition to remote learning, and what strategies helped them adjust to the new normal.


For my Research project, I covered the South Korean video production company, DIGIPEDI. I have taken inspiration from their work before, using my Junior year “Catalog of Influences” project as an example. While that project focused on “What” I found inspiring, my Research project was an opportunity to address the “Why”.

“Remix” juxtaposed my favorite stills from music videos with another song’s lyric.

I used the “video essay” format to elaborate on that “Why” and to narrativize my enthusiasm for their work, talking about how I stumbled upon them in the first place. Additionally, one of the big things about DIGIPEDI’s work is creating a dichotomy between reality and fiction, sometimes blurring the lines between both. To mimic this notion, I actually superimposed my presentation onto a 2-Dimensional vessel depicting my hand holding my phone with my video, including subtle hand movement, making the result a 2-D foreground over a 3-D background, the “fictional” foreground behaving in a realistic way.

Design in Question

In collaboration with Emily Knobloch, Sharon Yu, and Irina Zhikh.

Going back to a collaborative format, the Design in Question project prompted us to pose questions about the Graphic Design process and its community in the form of an installation.

Using two select articles from the Graphic Design Reader as our sources of inquiry, I started to form very passionate opinions regarding accessibility to Design Education. While one article discussed “Design Criticism” as it relates to a Graphic Designer’s output, I looked at “Design Criticism” as it relates to the Designer’s values, and I generated several questions from that critical lens.

3AM Instagram rant regarding the readings for this project, featuring some drafts for my printed share of this project.

Though our collective inquiry came with differences of opinions and concerns, it was exciting because these differences allowed us to challenge, and consequently clarify, our thoughts.

For my share of risogaph prints for our installation, I attempted to parody gatekeeper-like sentiments in the design community through quote-unquote “typography”, asking my questions via Wingdings. Graphic Design is a field which has recently adopted “empathy” in our job description, but through an improper use of the Wingdings suite and calling it “typographic,” my aim is to criticize the anti-empathic (and socially unaware) standardization of Design Education as a measure of deserved respect.

If the Designer wants to earn respect, it is important to make our community more inviting, not more exclusive, and make our processes more transparent and accessible. As a group, this is a sentiment we could get behind, and we wanted to make our process visible. We aimed to do so by installing our work in a heavily-implied grid. The frame is built from two systems, and the center is a combination of those systems, representing the formation of ideas.

System where borders meet + System where corners meet = System where both meet.

At the center of the installation, our posters were deconstructed and decontextualized. This goes back to our process of “challenging and clarifying” our thoughts on Design, trying to find connections between our individual pieces and thinking. Our prints spilled onto the floor as to bridge the gap between the Designer, represented by the gallery wall, and the audience, represented by the floor, the plane on which the audience exists.

Interrogation, the title of this installation, not only stems from the process of asking relatively difficult questions, but also the collaborative nature of our work through the Latin root, “inter-” meaning “together.” Even still, the word carries a rather confrontational tone, but we delved into that connotation by referencing student-teacher dynamics through the chairs facing each other in the installation. Though the stool naturally puts the occupant at a higher level than that of the supposed student, this juxtaposition also challenges the notion that only the Student learns, or that only the Teacher has worthwhile ideas; the text on the stool empowers and encourages the act of inquiry, regardless of experience.

Thoughts on Thesis

Going into brainstorming for thesis next semester, I felt like I was in a strangely comfortable place. In the last few years, I have slowly become less apologetic and more confident about the work I am able to present, so what note would be worth ending on?

After thinking extensively about what I have talked about in my projects in semesters past, I have realized that there is one subject I have failed to formally address.


Typically, I have felt this responsibility or urge to reach out to someone across the aisle, whether that be a specific few people, or a general audience. However, one of the biggest questions I still have looming over my head is, “What can Design do for me? What can my Design do for me?”

With this idea in mind, I began to consider exploring the schism between my feelings & emotions and my consequent actions & reactions, and how this divide is affected by my psyche. The notion of acting against my interests is one that pops up in many of my therapy sessions, and that was an idea I wanted to understand and visualize.

Ultimately, I am looking to present a self-portrait from the lens of my mental state as I work to understand what I want from life. I want this self-portrait to represent a whole semester’s worth of time, but also include snapshots of my day-to-day thoughts. I feel like a lot of the weight I carry is from my past, with memories coming back in waves, and I hope to use this as a cathartic opportunity to let go and move forward in becoming the best version of me possible.

Working thesis statement:

What Do You Want?
by Juan Estela

What Do You Want? aims to activate a more introspective part of my brain in my Design practice. It acknowledges the divide between my desires and the obstructive behavior that inhibits the manifestation of those desires, using my emotions and the longevity of those emotions as a measure for my level of fulfillment. It challenges the notion that Design’s only purpose is to reach out to someone across the aisle, and challenges myself to have a hard, but necessary conversation with myself in a graphic and inquisitive way about what I value and what I strive for as I transition into a new stage of life post-graduation.

The content, while also informed by research regarding mental conditions and the human psyche, is mostly fueled by a consistent, intensive journaling process, which serves to notice patterns in my thoughts, feelings, and actions. These records allow me to quantify and qualify my feelings and my responses to those feelings, and how those responses either benefit or impede from what I think I want. The result will take the form of various smaller projects, such as data visualizations, a system of communication for myself, and a manifesto which clearly outlines to myself what I want. While this is clearly a very introspective piece, the aim in making myself vulnerable by presenting this content is to make an audience question whether they are honest about their desires, and if their actions align with what they think they want.