The first school writing project I remember is writing on paper with lines on the bottom and drawing a picture on top. I felt comfortable in this Kindergarten learning space. This picture writing felt natural oddly just as it does for my son. Like me, this picture writing is a comfort for him. As I moved up in grades picture writing was less and less accepted as if pictures were training wheels for the writing. From this point on, writing was torture. I lost any love or connection to it.
Fast forward twelve years. I am in college taking my first typography course in my declared graphic design major. My professor starts with a plain (sans serif without feet) letter capital E and asks us to sketch this letter form first in pencil, then opaque black paint altered with opaque white paint looking deeply at the form and counter form balance for six hours at a time. At first, the letter and exercise seemed pointless but after hours of pure seeing moving between black and white, a light went on in the dormant tunnel of my educational history. A plain letter isn’t plain. It has visual characteristics and nuances. Did you know that the white space between the top and middle stroke of a capital plain letter E is smaller than the bottom but looks equal? As I advanced in typography, I furthered the E’s journey to include weight, scale and space changes thus changing my relationship to language forever.
"Kristina, can you take this and make it pretty?"
It is subjective
Making it bigger
Using a template
To learn graphic design is to learn a language, not unlike learning to read and write for this first time. The difference? Vocabulary includes pictures, text and the visual aspects of text. Consider it learning to read and write but with an extended communication toolkit.
You plan and make choices everyday. Identify the visual ones, the one visually perceptible by your students, things they can see, judge, ignore, love, engage with, resist. Allow your inner critic to build relationships to reflect on the single choices but also that choice in relationship with your classroom’s physical and digital environment.
Graphic design is a language of pictures, letters, words, paragraphs, colors, and shapes. It allows us to take the everyday and make sense of it, provide a critical lens to question and make necessary changes.
It opens a flexible iterative mind literally helping to visualize these different tapes (another 80s reference) in the minds eye. What If it were blue not red? What if that were bigger? What if this had a different typestyle? Like active drafts or tests, the mind visually tests.
About the computer
About making it pretty
About plastering the walls with posters
There are a lot of books out there on tips, tricks, principles and technical expertise on how to make a good website or Powerpoint. My work isn’t about this. Its about using your own instincts to gain better understanding of graphic design to help your teaching and your students learning. Use me as your inner critic to help provide a mirror to help you see what I see, be your critical friend on your shoulder as you construct your Powerpoint asking, “Is this too much text for your students to take in?” “Does that color distract from the content” Is that image relevant? Is it at the appropriate level for an 18-year old?” Does it engage, challenge your students? Make them curious?
A school with a design consciousness throughout both online and face-to-face. The principal is committed to to this mission. The teachers are committed and evaluated on their willingness to reflect after each design decision. Are there places we can increase engagement? Distractors? Potential barriers? Teachers are working with their content teams to strengthen these decisions. Teachers challenge conventional meaningful text and image relationships with a lens for potential distractions and barriers. Graphic designers work with teachers periodically to offer professional development and coach individuals, content teams and whole school.
When first doing this work, I used the conventions of successful graphic design to lead my suggestions. I would say, “Make it bigger, simplify your color, don’t use Comic Sans!” I learned the hard way. A teacher’s visual choices are embedded in preference, years of habit, and the culture of conventional school language. I have come to learn that most teachers make choices based on care and careful planning. If his intention in the right place, I need to work from this space, not erase it. The best I can offer is to help him see his practice in the mirror of his students perception using my expertise to help guide.
Graphic designers are taught to be visually sensitive to text and image. What does this mean?
- Understanding the point at which the form of your design meets the need
- Consider the audience, what do they need to get the right message?
- Reduce distraction allowing the design to reveal its content
- Spatially organizing elements that clearly dictate a 1st, 2nd and 3rd position
As a “critical friend” I couple my expertise with teachers to look together at the design of their materials. Often teachers will say, “I would have cleaned up first” or “This would have been better if I had the right technology” or “This looks this way because it’s what existed from the teacher who was here before me.” A well designed classroom isn’t necessarily a neat classroom. I have seen very neat classrooms that are austere and unengaging.
Visual perception is defined as the ability to interpret the surrounding environment by processing information that is contained in visible light. Consider all the graphic design one student encounters in a day. He gets on the yellow school bus, sees and ignores safety signs, sits next to a student with a concert t-shirt, looks down social media posts on his phone. He arrives at school, sees his school name on the outside brick wall, sees a banner overhead, graduation signs, posters in the hallways. He is now in class and sees many things at once including a pile of book covers, motivational posters, objectives for the day on the board, he opens his laptop and opens to his teachers website, then goes to a quiz.
Why graphic design learning is important stems from my own disassociation to English and Math learning, particularly in high school where traditional classroom instruction provided no option for students like me. I need alternate pathways to learn. It was only by chance in college where I learned to connect to my own extended communication toolkit and by chance because the intended outcomes for the program was not for students to link graphic design to learning. Realistically, all my peers were in the program to design cool CD covers (this was in the late 80s) and to get good jobs in design studios after they graduated. I am now in a faculty of Design and can tell you that these intentions of a graphic design program haven’t changed except now students want to design cool websites.
For me, graphic design revealed a language beyond plain text, a learning environment where text can be visual but also combined with pictures as a language of learning, to the great benefit of the learner. Now, in my school-based work, I coach teachers to hone their natural instincts embedding graphic design literacy into their practice. Acting as their critical friend, I look with a teacher together with their own graphic design. I probe for and observe innate capacities and tendencies and build on them. My goal is to elevate what can be perceived as ubiquitous unimportant forms in the high school classroom environment — into a more significant and relevant part of a teacher’s visual literacy.