Earlier this year I mentored Nicole Ryan with her thesis project, as she embarked on her last semester at the Academy of Art in San Francisco. This post showcases the resulting work.

Nicole graduated as an MFA this past spring, complementing her previous BFA degree in photography. She was one of my students in 2011 at Nature of Identity class, and having won a Brand New Award for her work in it, expectations for her thesis project were high. She did a great job.

Worried about the diminishing role the arts are having in a typical high school curriculum these days, she set out to find ways graphic design could be deployed to help. She created a series of tools that could inspire both students and teachers. In her words:

This project focuses on the role the arts play in education. Love and appreciation for the arts in some capacity is unanimous among the people I know and interact with. People love the arts, even if they personally feel they lack the skills, because all forms of art can entertain, entice conversation, challenge ideas, alter our mood, and teach us something about ourselves and our culture.

This book is a curation of supporting information (both from my own field research and from published professionals and educators), case studies and potential methods for arts integration in and outside of the classroom. Educators, parents and advocates can utilize these resources as inspiration and as a starting point for projects of their own.

By the time we started the mentoring sessions, Nicole had already been working on her thesis for more than a year, and had a solid research foundation. She had gathered materials, conducted interviews, visited schools, and collected wonderful visual documentation along the way.

When it came to the developing a compelling design approach, I got a chance to mentor her along that journey. I tasked her with better defining her audiences, when and how she could motivate them. Equally important was exploring how the visual communication would look.

She was then able to develop and expand a look and feel system that required variety to engage those audiences. And we discussed each application’s purpose within her system, establishing strengths and weaknesses in each approach.

Within all the expected and unexpected applications worth designing, could there be one core application that embodies the thesis solution in its entirety? In Nicole’s case, it was an exercise kit containing booklets and flashcards that would help engage students and teachers with various art forms.


Teachers and parents who want to offer their kids creative activities, but feel they lack the resources and knowledge, can use exercises as a tool and a source of inspiration. The exercises were conceived following insights Nicole found in her research. For example, students prefer art activities that are group-based instead of individual endeavors, so the exercises encourage collaboration and sharing. Through beautiful typography, a fresh colour palette, and inviting illustrations, these pieces show it isn’t hard to make any learning experience interactive and more engaging.

And there’s more. To find out about other applications, read the thesis book, or visit Nicole’s portfolio entry on the project.