Visual Design in the Writing Classroom

Okay, let’s see if I can get back into blogging! I want to start with the post I promised way back in… November? December? on teaching visual design in a writing class.

The “Visual” component of the WOVEN philosophy of composition is probably my favorite addition to my teaching. I love teaching writing, and I think I’m good at it, but I really, really like the fact that part of my job is now teaching students to make not just their words but their documents pretty. Of course, that’s an oversimplification of what I’m doing. After having done it for two semesters now, I really do think that the way I teach visual design helps make students better writers, not just better communicators.

My own experience with visual design and documents started pretty young; I was on the newspaper staff in high school, and I remember spending hours using Adobe InDesign (though I think it might have been called something different way back in the 1990s) to put together our “paste-up”—there were a couple occasions where I was in the Newspaper office at midnight, making sure my center spread looked great. I didn’t really have much of an education in this, though—I wasn’t in the official journalism class because it conflicted with my schedule; I was just given assignments and expected to complete them during a free period on my own.


Graduate Study For a Galaxy Far, Far Away

“Project Thank You Greg”: A spoof on Graduate Study for the Twenty-First Century, 2nd Edition.

But I loved doing that kind of design, making words and pictures work together to tell a story. It wasn’t long after that that I taught myself HTML and started coding websites by hand. Mostly I made fan sites for X-files on Geocities, because I was 14 years old and just discovering fandom (thank goodness everything that was ever on geocities is gone now, however). Since high school, I’ve played a lot with photoshop, been involved in a few major website re-designs, and designed some posters and book covers–including a Star Wars spoof cover of my advisor’s book that we gave him when he stepped down as graduate director.

My initial difficulty in moving from these experiences to teaching was that I’m almost entirely self-taught. I didn’t have a lot of vocabulary to describe the things I know how to do instinctively. (You could have watched me butt my head against Photoshop and InDesign for hours, knowing there’s a tool to do what I want to do, but having no clue what the technique was called, so I couldn’t even Google it.) But I’ve read a lot in the last year, and worked with amazing colleagues that pointed me in the right direction. Now I’ve developed a better, more nuanced vocabulary, and I’m starting to get better at teaching visual design as a result. Also, my own skills are improving, after long disuse.

My second difficulty is that I don’t have time to teach them more than the bare basics, and I have students who have come in with radically different backgrounds in visual design. Some of my students have their own versions of the experiences I did—some of them have created hand-coded websites just like I did, some worked on yearbook in high school, and some of them are bonafide artists. One of my students made me an amazing miniature of Michaelangelo’s image of the fall of Adam and Eve from Sistene Chapel as part of her Paradise Lost remix project last semester:

But other students don’t have any real experience creating visually appealing work. They often don’t think of themselves as artistic and creative, and while they know what looks good when they see it—at least some of the time—they don’t know how to manage color, contrast, balance, or movement.

As a result, when I teach visual design, I tend to focus on the most basic principles. A few colleagues introduced me to Robin Williams’ book The Non-Designer’s Design Book, which gives four principles that are a great place to start: Contrast, Repetition, Alignment, and Proximity. I’m not going to go over what those are here (there’s a great summary in this LifeHacker article), but suffice to say they are some of the most important features of design, especially for students who don’t have a lot of experience or talent with design, because they are all things any student can do. And, even better, together they make a great acronym that helps students remember the principles: CRAP. (As I tell my students: don’t MAKE crap, use C.R.A.P!)

CRAP principles work particularly well when paired with writing. In fact, they’re very useful in simple document design, such as writing reports. But I usually introduce students to the concepts when we are doing a slightly more ambitious project, such as creating a poster or infographic. I like teaching posters and infographics because the visual design requires students to have very tightly structured arguments in order to actually enact the CRAP principles. I already have students create logical outlines when they write papers. I make them do the same for posters, but with an added step. Once they create a logical outline—which, by design, is linear—they have to create a series of visual outlines that transform those logical relationships into several different visual layouts. They have to think about the multiple ways that information is linked. This is crucial, because proximity and alignment (and, to a lesser extent, contrast and repetition) only work when you know which ideas belong together, and can organize them in 2D, and sometimes 3D, space. In this way, teaching writing and teaching design can go hand in hand. Visual organization and hierarchies become visible as the equivalent of verbal transitions, and seeing how disorganized information becomes without those cues helps them take back the importance of transitions to their next project.

Student Poster on Milton and 17th Century Science

Student Poster on Milton and 17th Century Science

Additionally, in the course of creating the visual design, students literally begin to see connections between pieces of information that they didn’t see when they were just writing them down in a traditional, linear format. For example, last semester, I asked students to create a poster or infographic that made an argument about Milton’s Paradise Lost in relationship to its historical context. I gave them a list of broad potential topics (English Civil Wars, The Restoration, Milton and Religion, Milton and Science, Gender in Paradise Lost, etc.), and then asked them to narrow a topic down into a research question of their own choice. They conducted research, wrote an annotated bibliography, and then transformed their research into a visually organized argument. One poster I got was from a student who worked on Milton’s relationship to ideas about science in the early modern period. His poster, in its initial draft, read almost exactly like a paper. However, he included three images, one from each of the three primary sources he was working on (Thomas Willis’Cerebri Anatome, William Harvey’s De Motu Cordis, and Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium). In being forced to include images, and putting these images side by side, he realized that the images each proposed a slightly different view of the relationship between science and God. He was then able to rewrite and restructure the poster around those three images.

Teaching the poster and infographic in a writing and communication class that is also a literature class really proved valuable. The poster takes a lot more work on the students’ part, and a lot more work in terms of teaching than the traditional paper. But that work is not just in learning the technologies of creating posters, or figuring out how to get the boxes to all line up the right way. Rather, it’s the work we want our students to be doing all the time: thinking about arguments, about connections between texts and ideas, thinking about audiences and how they’re going to process the information the author gives them.


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