Design for Education: An Aesthetic of Engagement

Visuals, sound, and writing for screen-based media have a rich history of integrated design in cinema, documentary and experimental film. From Charles and Ray Eames’ use of poetic simplicity in Powers of Ten to the layered surrealism of the Brothers Quay unfolding explanation of anamorphosis, this history illustrates the art and craft of utilizing an aesthetic that does not preclude educational materials from rich formal devices. This aesthetic encompasses mise-en-scene from theater and cinema, typography and image synthesis from graphic design, and illustrative explanations crafted between science and art.

Established formal languages from performing and applied arts are synthesizing, and awareness of their subtleties and new potential are being recognized across long established barriers of specialization. Students taking English composition are likely to find themselves not only constructing meaning with words but with images, sounds, motion, and basic interactivity—with the help of the computer everyone has become a visual designer to some degree. We are at a point where recognition of image culture and the need for visual literacy is common while at the same time teachers are retasking their lecture notes to PowerPoint slides and synching a talking head to the fifty-year-old beat of a filmstrip.

PowerPoint has instilled in its users a need to customize using a visual palette while imparting no appreciation or understanding for the print design traditions of presentation or even basic color theory. Design—interactive, graphic, or motion—may be recognized as something one should have, but its formal languages, and history are rarely the point of substantive discussion in the creation of distance education media. If design is considered, it is more likely to be the finishing touch instead of an integrated component. This may be due in part to an over confidence in ones design abilities imparted by easy access to design software, a misalignment of visual design with ‘superficial’ style—infotainment, bells and whistles, MTV—or the belief that design is an option one can do without given budgetary constraints. Whatever the case, crafting educational experiences with a sensitivity to visual design must take a step beyond basic retasking of lecture notes and synching of video.

Cinema evolved from a static frame filled with the novelty of motion to a virtual eye moving fluidly in time and space. From capturing motion, making edits in time and space, integrating special effects and sound to new temporal and spatial structures that utilize nonlinearity, multilinearity, and multiframe, film now utilizes the full gradient of possibilities as each pixel of the frame becomes mutable. In the same way, distance education media must move beyond limited assumptions of visual design and information structure to take advantage of a rich, engaging aesthetic. As educators move into the next generation of delivering their courses through screen-based media, the history of visual design will be explored beyond the surface and used to explain complexity and nuance in ways that exploit the medium to the fullest.

New media structures allow for new simultaneous and unfolding stories to be told: the periodic table introduced not as a monolith to be deciphered in abstraction, but as a timeline building over centuries to reveal patterns, thus building greater historical and scientific contexts. For example, graduate graphic design students at NC State University, College of Design have collaborated with Professor Alton Banks of NC State's Chemistry Department to develop several time-based interactive studies of the table. The student works included a morphology from alchemical symbolism to the present chart configuration, molecular hexagonal frequency in elements and natural states of being, historical patterns in the discovery of elements, as well as the revealing of hidden patterns within the chart through motion and case-sensitive mutability. The student designers considered learning outcomes and incorporated many customizable features to accommodate a range of learning styles.

Within these studies a broad range of aesthetic and structural devices were explored and tested. Some layered and visually rich environments included historical documents, paintings, diagrams, and symbols while others retained a simplified visual palette and relied on dynamic scaling, gestures, and color modulation that animates and brings enhanced meaning to basic geometric shapes. Hybrid structures between database and narrative developed as the students explored issues of pacing, duration, and story-telling. Building on these works and exploring new content, junior-level student designers designed the presentation of large data sets for online access. The research focused on ways of organizing and categorizing dinosaurs, butterflies, trees, minerals, and many other data sets. What developed was a clear tendency to shift from database-oriented navigation with drop-down menus and search behaviors to more narrative explanations that put the data into greater contexts of ecology or history. Searching gave way to browsing and exploration in a visually rich, informative, and engaging environment.

A move away from mere cross-media formatting toward recognition and understanding of these enabling forms of engagement will become the focus as technology meets demands of management and delivery. Color, line, and shape will be considered as much as compression and software. Immersive environments, gaming principles, feedback loops, and sound will be reviewed as much as the management of message boards and assignment uploads. Time will not merely be used as a container for motion, but as an evocative and meaningful device for storytelling and learning as teachers translate their content specifically for the medium. Teaching materials that adhere to strictly linear and prescribed interactivity which rely primary on text-based materials must shift to those which have multiple use, customizability, and which exploit the range of formal and interactive possibility. In this way, teachers can begin to address concerns of disembodied telepresence and engage their students with a broader range of sensory content.

In Artful Science: Enlightenment, Entertainment and the Eclipse of Visual Education, art historian Barbara Stafford writes on the 18th century fascination with educational and entertaining scientific artifacts including curiosity cabinets, illustrated books, and mechanical models. In discussing the role of sensory experience in knowledge formation, she states:

These graphic entertainments, relying on seeing, hearing, touching, and smelling, laid the foundation for future cognitive development. Stocking the imagination with countless images that could be disassembled and reconnected into innovative patterns, engaging teaching tools made consciousness synonymous with the continual processing of the physical world.

Stafford goes on to draw parallels with these artifacts and the affordances of new media while highlighting the shift from oral-visual culture to literary. It has been ten years since Stafford wrote Artful Science and twenty since the mass introduction of the graphical user interface yet few teaching materials have made the translation from text to a well-formed sensory experience. One could make the case that only now, with the development of increased bandwidth, enhanced digital compression, and solid course management options, can one take advantage of the media and successfully deliver it. Indeed we are at a unique point in which ease of accessibility, technological affordance, and engagement in cross-disciplinary collaboration make for great possibility in the development of screen-based teaching materials.

posted by Tony Brock on August 19, 2004 | comments: 1 | post a comment

A natural byproduct of technological innovation is tthat older, more traditional techniques and methods based on older technologies become less valuable to the marketplace, and to the potential employer. Graphic designers who have witnessed the shift in production methods from cut-outs to home computer software are often, if not exactly pessimistic, then certainly wary of the 'democratization' of access to design tools. And to some extent rightly so. A lot of crap is floating around that wouldn't otherwise be congesting the visula landscape. Tony Brock's example of common Powerpoint messes above fits the bill. We've all seen aesthetically hideous stuff produced on some very sophisticated software. We've all seen or heard debates occasionally bubble up about whether the field is 'professional ' in the sense that it should require certification to practice design -- and who might grant such certification or accreditation. All of this chomping at the bit stems from the worry that students' fundamental visual sensitivity and design basics will suffer because of educational time lost to the extensive technical training required to master necessary programs. I worry less than most, although it can be challenging (and tedious) to inculcate software skills concurrently with aesthetic skills in classroom assignments. These worries can be significantly lessened, I believe, with a sound classroom pedagogy, a basic understanding of how humans learn things (learning theory lite) and how new technologies can enhance (or occasionally detract from) the learning process.
The role of sensory experience in knowledge formation is, as Tony points out, poised for a dramatic shift due to massive new technological capabilities for visual and auditory stimulation and interaction. I, for one, can't wait to see how interacticve screen-based media evolves as an educational tool.

There's a quick and easy site that succinctly outlines the prevalent learning theories out there today, constructivist, cognitivist and behaviorist, at (Click on 'Interactive exploration of pedagogical theories')

Posted by Dan Warner on August 21, 2004 02:43 PM