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Liz Losh is an English teacher. But put aside your image of a
frumpy schoolmarm with faded gravy stains on her blazer. This hip,
forty-something ex-punk rocker teaches at the University of
California Irvine, where she oversees an introductory writing
course that enrolls over 1,100 students. She
also teaches advanced seminars on digital rhetoric, where
projects include editing a blog, producing
a YouTube video and crafting a virtual persona on Second Life.
Likewise, Cheryl E. Ball, assistant professor of new media at
Illinois State University, teaches
“multimodal” writing courses, in which students assemble images
and texts using video, photography, web design and page layout.
Ball says, “We are looking at the idea of 'composition' in the
broadest sense, going way beyond the old model of grammar-based
freshman comp courses.”
Prose painting by Ellen Lupton.
A spate of new writing textbooks suggests that a visual
revolution is underway in college writing curricula. The sleek,
sophisticated Seeing &
Writing series, designed by 2x4 and launched in 1999, shook
up the field of English composition by inviting students to analyze
visual artifacts, from works of photojournalism to contemporary art
installations. A bigger change came with Picturing Texts (2004),
which not only uses visuals as prompts for writing but addresses
design as an active, generative tool. The book's designer, Anna
Palchik, helped infuse the project with credible instruction on
basic visual principles as well as selecting readings by Tibor
Kalman, Jessica Helfand, Richard Wilde and other graphic designers.
(Disclosure: Picturing Texts includes a piece co-authored by
Abbott Miller and me.) Assignments include creating book covers,
postcards, scrapbooks and brochures as well as traditional
Meanwhile, many young designers are wondering if their own
college English courses were tough enough to prepare them for
real-world writing tasks such as bidding for jobs, justifying
design solutions, delivering presentations and marketing their
work. Even routine email communication requires command of the
written language. (Some of my students seem to believe that just
because they can't spell, their employers won't be able to,
either.) Designer Scott Stowell, speaking at AIGA's recent “Social Studies”
conference, talked about the seamless integration of text and
graphics in his work for GOOD
magazine and other clients. “I can't imagine being a designer
who can't write,” said Stowell. And it's not just about business.
The glorious, sloppy, over-populated blogosphere beckons everyone
to participate, but you can only play if you have something to say
and you know how to say it.
How are graphic designers learning to write? Since the late
1970s, a movement known as Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC)
has argued that writing should be taught in every course on campus,
not just in specialized composition courses. Because each
discipline—from art to engineering—has its own standards and
conventions, faculty in each field should be teaching its own
practitioners how to write. Yet few design educators have the time
or confidence to load this duty on to their studio courses.
Some are giving it a try. Andrea Marks has authored a new
writing for visual thinkers, which emphasizes brainstorming
techniques rather than grammar and composition. As for me, I'm teaching a stand-alone
writing course for graphic design MFA students at MICA this spring.
I won't be using any of the sexy new composition textbooks,
however. Instead, I'm focusing on basic style, starting with how to
craft a seaworthy sentence and how to pare down over-upholstered
prose. Our textbook? Strunk and White's classic Elements of
Kalman's illustrated edition, of course).
Even Liz Losh agrees that most young writers still need to work
on the basics, especially on college campuses like hers, where over
half the students speak a home language other than English. As foot
soldiers in the visual revolution, students have more to learn, and
faculty have more to teach. Introducing the principles of web
design and typography shouldn't replace teaching writing as a
precise, rule-based medium of communication. In the digital age,
people are writing more, not less. The alphabet isn't dead; it just
has a lot more company.
in a Visual Age, by Lee Odell and Susan M. Katz.
On the history of visual literacy instruction, see Diana George,
“From Analysis to Design: Visual Communication in the Teaching of
Teaching Composition: Background Readings, ed. T. R.
Students don’t like to write, you say? Maybe it’s the assignments that are the problem. Barringer proposes 21 ways to inspire student writing.
Section: Inspiration -
Voice, teaching, craft, writing
Do visual communicators need writing skills? Yes, according to a recent survey of hiring managers. Recruiter and author Roz Goldfarb counts the reasons why.
Section: Tools and Resources -
A winner is chosen! The contestants present
their solutions to the toughest challenge yet: to communicate the
danger of texting while driving.
Section: Inspiration -
Conference , mentoring
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