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How Do We Teach and Learn Visual Communication Design? Toward the Development of an Interdisciplinary Research Community

Stacie Rohrbach
Assistant Professor of Communication Design
School of Design, Carnegie Mellon University
Suguru Ishizaki
Associate Professor of Rhetoric & Communication Design
Department of English, Carnegie Mellon University

Visual communication skills are considered important in many disciplines. However, visual communication education has only recently been incorporated into general education. A recent national survey found that roughly 23% of English composition teachers in the United States, who usually have no training in visual design, ask their students to produce visual artifacts. The same survey found that 50% of teachers ask their students to write about visual artifacts. Unfortunately, few, if any of these efforts build on a strong theoretical foundation that employs systematic studies of learning and teaching visual communication. As a result, design and non-design educators lack the resources they need to better understand how their students learn to communicate visually and how best to teach and evaluate such skills.

As educators in the School of Design and the Department of English, which co-direct a unique joint degree program, we will discuss how the structure of the research university encourages us to collaboratively tackle the need for systematic understanding of visual communication pedagogy. In this presentation, we will address the research questions we have begun to investigate through observations and discussions with design educators: What are the key criteria of an effective project? How should the design process be guided? How should feedback be provided to students? How should projects be evaluated and graded? How is general education different from professional education?

We will conclude our presentation by arguing that with the effort of design faculty, research universities provide opportunities to collaborate with experts in various disciplines to enhance our understanding of visual communication pedagogy. Our goal is to engage our audience in the discussion of learning theories, encouraging the design community to begin to articulate and share this knowledge in order to enhance the teaching of visual communication in professional design and general education.

Stacie Rohrbach is an Assistant Professor of Communication Design in School of Design at Carnegie Mellon University. She teaches courses in typography, web design, and dynamic information at all levels of the undergraduate and graduate curriculum.

She is interested in the way people perceive and process information and how their ability to learn may be improved by translating complex, abstract information into concrete, experiential forms. Rohrbach also studies design pedagogy in professional and general education settings. She has worked professionally as a designer and art director in both print and digital media, and continues to freelance in the Pittsburgh region. Rohrbach holds a B.F.A. in Graphic Design from Carnegie Mellon University and a Master of Graphic Design degree from North Carolina State University.

Suguru Ishizaki is an interaction/visual designer, and an Associate Professor of Rhetoric and Communication Design in the Department of English at Carnegie Mellon.

Before this appointment 2 years ago, he worked at QUALCOMM on the design of mobile user interface. Prior to that, he was on the faculty in the School of Design at Carnegie Mellon. His professional experience ranges from user interface design to information visualization to traditional print design. His current research revolves around the development of computational tools and methods for describing and analyzing communicative artifacts, including written text, dynamic visualization and print. He has recently begun to work on a project to promote visual communication design as part of general education. He earned his Ph.D. and M.S. at MIT where he studied under Muriel Cooper and William Mitchell at the Media Laboratory, after receiving his BFA in Art & Design from Tsukuba University, Japan. He is the author of Improvisational Design: Continuous Responsive Digital Communication (MIT Press, 2003), and a co-author of The Power of Words: Unveiling the Speaker and Writer’s Hidden Craft (Erlbaum 2004).



Creating Viable, Interdisciplinary Research Partnerships Between Designers and People in Universities Who Haven’t Been to Design School

Michael R Gibson
Associate Professor, Communication Design
School of Visual Arts, The University of North Texas

Too few designers working in contemporary American research universities possess enough knowledge about research processes and methodologies to effectively partner with their academic peers working in disciplines outside design. Designers in universities tend to be ill-prepared to engage in the kinds of collaborative, interdisciplinary endeavors that generate the types of knowledge that can be applied to reshape cultures, recreate ways of life, ignite and then fuel new economic systems, or instigate positive behavioral change among social or working groups. Design is not presented as an essential part of an interdisciplinary means to achieving ends like these in most American design programs because students are over-challenged to design things and under-challenged to think about the roles design can play to meet real social, cultural, economic and even political needs. This state of affairs exists despite the relatively recent inclusion of design research as either a primary curriculum component or even a well-supported degree program in over a dozen American graduate-level design programs. This presentation will commence by succinctly identifying and describing some seminal principles regarding the intents and purposes of basic, applied and original research. Designers who aspire to forge university-based research partnerships must gain a thorough, working understanding of these intelligences if they hope to pursue viable careers in modern scholarly communities. In light of this, the next portion of this presentation will cite how the graduate curriculum at the University of North Texas has been revised to incorporate the study of and immersion into fundamental research practices since early 2005, with particular emphasis on the introduction of strategies for building interdisciplinary, university-based research partnerships. This presentation will culminate with a brief discourse regarding why and how the undergraduate curriculum in this program has also been transmogrified to introduce entry-level designers to the types of fundamental research skills that could eventually allow them to forge effective working relationships with academic professionals who don’t know how to design with type or fabricate “faux-production” prototypes.



David Morgan, Professor
Industrial Design Graduate Coordinator,
Rochester Institute of Technology

Navigating Collaborative Projects

I will present a strategy for maintaining the integrity of the design process throughout the milieu of a multidisciplinary project. Increasingly, my academic and industry colleagues are coming to our industrial design program because they perceive that designers can make a positive contribution to projects. Of course, these opportunities are really great but I have found they need to be navigated with care to insure respect for the design process.

Because designers posses unique problem finding and solving skills, and frequently produce innovative results, they are viewed as valuable members of a team. Yet, many times our colleagues on such projects seek subtle and not-so-subtle ways to dictate design methods and ways of working. In the face of this pressure, we designers may be tempted to adopt more quantifiable or legitimized processes that attempt to speak the language of our collaborative partners. But often the result of such conformation is the abandonment of the very modes of working that we rely upon for good design.

I will discuss the following ideas based on my experience with multidisciplinary projects and writing multidisciplinary curriculum with my business and engineering colleagues.

1. Designers should be involved in the project at its start and insinuate ethical and environmental values.

2. Give students a project they can believe in, help them articulate design values and realize the power they have within the team.

3. Understand design epistemology and insist that designerly ways of knowing be respected by your collaborators. (Cross, Nigel Designerly Ways of Knowing)


David Morgan has taught at Rhode Island School of Design, University of Wisconsin-Stout and is currently the Industrial Design Graduate Coordinator at Rochester Institute of Technology. His work is focused on ways to encourage end users to freely alter the products he designs. He is the principle of Backflip Workshop for the Promotion of Reuse.

He has a BFA from Brigham Young University and an MID from Rhode Island School of Design.

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