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  • Writing 101: Visual or Verbal?

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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 essays.

    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 e-book on 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 Style (Maira 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.

    Additional reading

    Writing 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 Writing,” in Teaching Composition: Background Readings, ed. T. R. Johnson.

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