Better visual design in the classroom

Last week, as part of my inquiry into visual literacy and design (My Greatest Weakness), I decided to redesign the display board outside my classroom door based on the principles I learned from Garr Reynolds’ From Golden Mean to ‘Rule of Thirds’.

These ideas are not new to me, at least conceptually. The Golden Mean is well known in music composition and fiction writing as a standard to keep in mind to maximize drama, suspense, conflict and resolution, and climax.

Applying it visually is a new exploration for me.

The Display

Here is a photo of the original display board for our unit of inquiry focused on changes in science and technology:

The text on the left is simply information about the unit. The photos are from students’ formative blog posts about 3D printing, and the small, diagonal texts, are quotes from their posts.
My design concept was to line up the large text on the left and then just fill in the rest in whatever way it would fit.

Not really ‘design’

‘Fit it all in’ is not really ‘design’. In order to truly begin to design the display, and to apply my constructionist philosophy, I printed out the photo of the display and cut out each element. With this hands-on model, I began rearranging the parts. By thinking of the ‘rule of thirds’ grid, and utilizing a design strategy beyond ‘just fit it all in’, I found that different arrangements led to different impressions and understanding.
I set up a center in the classroom and invited my students to help me. Here are a few of the iterations we documented:
My favorite came from a student, the one in the lower right. I like how the layout of the large text respects the ‘rule of thirds’ and draws the viewer from top left to bottom right. It also utilizes proximity to associate each quote with a particular image, rather than grouping them together. The effect is that attention is drawn toward the most ‘important’ information, and the viewer is free to explore the rest.

Questions lead to more questions

Shouldn’t the quotes should be bigger because they are actually the most important part of the display to which the viewer should be directed? How would that alter options for the layout? Should the other text be smaller? Should I choose different images? Is it possible to arrange everything in a way that tells a story? What is the story? Should this display do more than simply present information?

Reflection

Despite being a source of some anxiety for me, this activity was fun for two primary reasons:
1 It involved a model that could be manipulated, creating a sense of ‘play’ rather than ‘work’.
2 It was collaborative. Inviting others to help created an authentic feeling of shared purpose.
These are critical considerations for instructional design, and I’m happy to have had this authentic experience for myself.

Going further

I am excited to expand this inquiry. I applied these concepts to photography this weekend, the product of which you can view in the post, Plum Blossom.
There is also a Visual Literacy unit in the planning stages for my class, a topic I never had the courage to try to teach explicitly in the past. Wish me luck!
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Bart Miller

Father, Teacher, Composer, Philosopher

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