Integrating Technology into a Problem-Solving Curriculum

by Jeffrey W. Morin
Professor of Art and Design, University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point

“The total absence of computer graphics will mean, in the future, one more gap in training, which will probably not be made good until industrial societies are unavoidably confronted with a further revolution in the forms of visual communication. Since computer graphics is, in a way, a logical development of constructive art, and this tendency has had a notable influence on modern applied graphics, it seems important to me that we should document its possibilities in the field of experimental graphic design.”1

Igildo Biesele predicted revolution in 1981 and it has come to pass. The invasion of technology into the classroom has afforded great advances in student productivity and serves as a tool that emulates the work environment. It is assumed that by technology we are discussing the computer and its ancillaries such as software. The computer’s incursion into the classroom has also caused several basic dilemmas that educators and college departments must address. The effect of remaining current is obvious on a department’s budget but is more subtle on the department’s philosophy and on its course content.

Though some assume that new technology places the printed word in jeopardy, it has not stifled prose or poetry.2 The computer is perhaps affecting culture in the same way that the printing press did by precipitating an explosion of writing, much of dubious quality and accuracy. This explosion has brought many people into the design field. They are constructing web pages using their technical ability but without a design education. How can an academic department remain current without becoming philosophically and pedagogically bankrupt in such an environment?

Content must not be slighted to make room for computer instruction. A collective reassessment of a department’s approach to education may be necessary because the departmental collective best applies the integration of technology throughout a curriculum. It can be a rewarding and rejuvenating process to re-examine how one’s department approaches education. This exchange may understandably be a fearful one because it will inevitably lead to change. Departments must try to avoid conflict that will cause some colleagues to entrench behind the barricade of academic freedom. Though a valid concern when faced with change for the sake of politics or caprice, academic freedom should not be invoked to avoid the evolution of one’s discipline.

The pertinent methodology of a graphic design curriculum is the problem-solving process, which can be seen as a chain of events which are sequenced as follows: (1) defining the problem, (2) gathering information or researching, (3) developing ideas, (4) finding solutions, and (5) implementing one or more solutions.3 The computer functions as an appropriate tool for the student in two links of the problem-solving chain: gathering information or researching, and implementing a solution. Web-based research is becoming an increasingly efficient way to retrieve information but it has not eclipsed the printed word. Training designers to implement solutions via the computer has become expected by the graphic design industry, which has been radically modified in the past five years. Also, some solutions are no longer envisioned as printed work but as time-based or web-based vehicles.

If possible, colleagues teaching within a shared curriculum, e.g. graphic design, should discover what computer skills a graduating professional must possess. If academicians remain active practitioners, identifying relevant technology is simple. A continuing dialogue with professionals and recent graduates also adds to the identification of germane computer skills. This finite list of technology should be divided amongst the appropriate courses and introduced in an organized manner with no more than one complex software application taught per course. This process offers students a matrix of sequential classes, reminds the faculty of what skills come at what time, and eliminates the need for an introductory computer course within the department. Why is this elimination important?

Departments are obliged to ensure that students can graduate within a specific length of time. Many departments offer programs of study tailored to allow students to obtain an undergraduate degree in four years. Though some colleges are developing five-year models, these are being discouraged by accrediting agencies and decried by students. This being the case, departments can only offer a limited palette of course requirements for their students. In this limited environment, a broad and rather general introduction to the computer takes away from discipline-specific offerings. Agreement may even be difficult as to the computer platform from which to teach such a shallow overview. It is difficult, if not impossible, to find software that could be taught in one semester that is topical to all disciplines represented in an art and design program.

Because the computer has offered “new processes and capabilities”4 to the graphic designer, the varied job offerings within the field have merged into the position of omnipotent art director. To train this person requires clarity of mission that is reflected in the series of problems assigned students to be solved. These problems should be structured to address the areas of design such as typography or letterform, which are no longer assigned to a specialist by an art director. As such, the graphic designer/art director must become more technologically literate, and to a much broader degree. This literacy can only be achieved through a sequential problem-solving process.

Let’s explore how problem solving is applied to a specific situation. The letterform class to be examined introduces a new discipline and its relevant applications in graphic design. By now, students have learned one computer application in typography, have had a common art foundation of five classes, and a graphic design foundation of two classes. Concurrent with the study of letterform, the typical student is also studying photography or illustration, and intermediate graphic design.

The study of letterform is the examination of the structure of individual characters from the alphabet. This course offers both educational and design objectives focusing on the precision needed to create a sense of unity and its application to logos and trademarks.5 Historically, it has been taught as a calligraphy and drafting course that heightens the awareness of letter proportion and the craft of rendering these forms. The traditional tools are the pencil, broad-nibbed pen, and ruling pen. What of this traditional approach should remain as students are introduced to a new drafting application such as Adobe Illustrator?

Ideally, one would retain all of the traditional skills and simply add the computer training. This is impossible to execute because the traditional content has always filled the sixteen-week semester of instruction. As the letterform course is re-envisioned, it is important to recognize and maintain the objectives that have enriched students and allowed these emerging designers to solve new problems. Because of ever-evolving software, designers must come away from this semester with an ability to understand letterform and also an increased ability to “self-teach” new software. This is important as students become designers, enter the profession, and remain technologically current.

During the first day of a letterform class, students are assigned a ten-week software tutorial that will be completed independently. The tutorial can come in several forms. The instructor may have been afforded time to create a discipline-specific sequence or may have opted for a tutorial supplied by the software manufacturer (because of the rarity of planning time, this is the most frequently taken path). There is a new option, which is that of web-directed tutorial programs offered through numerous Internet “universities” such as ZDU. These inexpensive courses make no pretext of teaching aesthetics, which is to their credit. They fill the mundane need of teaching the software while freeing the letterform instructor to teach the sublime aspects of design.

With the understanding that the tutorials are to be done independently, students can use class time to study and produce letterforms on paper with traditional tools. They are learning the course content in a paced and monitored environment. Let us not delude ourselves. These students will not use most traditional tools in the work environment. They are learning these instruments because this experience binds them to other designers, to history, and to the larger creative community. This tradition forms the bedrock of the design community.

During the first week, students also select one typeface to be used throughout the semester for all projects. Again, this parochial restriction my seem to curb creativity but the very nature of graphic design deals with expression in the face of budget limitations, deadlines, target audience, et cetera. During the second class meeting, students are asked to grid off a large sheet of paper and produce as many letterform relationships as possible. The only structure provided is that the composition must use the selected typeface and that the compositions are comprised of one black letter and one white numeral. The goal is for the student to produce roughly forty marker sketches in a two and one half-hour meeting. This introduces them to the problem-solving concept and to the comprehensive sketching process. Three of these compositions will be scaled up and drafted in gouache on illustration board. Students follow a half-semester sequence of generating and expanding letterform compositions concurrent with learning the basics of a drafting software package.

letterform letterform letterform

In the first few weeks, students are creating letterform combinations with one black letter and one white numeral (X and 7, T and 7, Y and 9 respectively).

During the letterform course, students learn a limitation of the computer that will seem counterintuitive. Because the computer provides pre-drawn letterforms through its type menu, the student can create new letter combinations at amazing speed. This increased speed slows or retards the ability to learn because it seduces students into random selection rather than the informed combination of appropriate letterforms. This occurs because nothing in the menu selection of type guides or educates students about the unity of masterfully combined forms. In the pre-computer past, when students had envisioned a letterform solution, they committed to hours of work executing this solution. Now, with a few clicks, the design is on screen. This speed of design realization makes the commitment to an idea a rather tenuous thing. The time it would have taken to execute the design solution manually would have provided hours in which to cogitate its merits. Students are suspicious of this idea that the computer slows the ability to learn. They must be convinced of the merits of sketching and planning through sensitive course objectives.

For this reason, three of the five links in the problem-solving chain remain traditional and non-computer oriented. First, the problem is defined. The instructor who supplies a problem statement to the students may have partially done this. Later, the client will define the problem when describing design requirements. The students can add to the definition through questions and quick sketches that test the parameters of the problem. In the idea finding stage, written lists of previous solutions, perhaps from design history or popular culture, help the students to avoid what has come before and consequently what has become a cliché.6 Lists of words related to the problem also help exhaust the obvious and lead students to the unexpected.

Finding the solution is the third link for which the computer is an impediment. This is so because students are more likely to propose designs that they already know how to create on screen. If students have presented solutions through the “comprehensive” process, they have committed to ideas that they can then learn how to execute with the computer. In the comprehensive process, students produce a large number of tiny thumbnail sketches (forty or more). They take the more interesting or challenging of these and enlarge them to the markup stage (roughly six), and cull from the markups to produce three comprehensive or refined sketches which predict the final solution to a precise degree. The computer has helped in research and will be invaluable in the final link of the problem-solving chain. This is when students produce the one final solution, selected from their comprehensives.

I have observed that when students are allowed to initiate the problem-solving process on screen, they spend unrewarding hours dragging forms around the screen and not evolving an idea. They are simply rearranging it. Rearranging is not evolution, metamorphosis is. There is also a practical concern. With these students “thinking out” their ideas on screen, they are occupying a workstation that is a precious commodity of more use to other students who already have mature design solutions in hand. If student designers come to the computer with a comprehensive sketch or plan, they use less time and are working with the computer truly as a tool. They can ask more intelligent questions and so better avail themselves of their instructor, making the educational vocation more rewarding.

Shortly after midterm, the students should have completed the computer tutorials and be ready to execute a more complex letterform project. At this point the design process is stressed because the students first design on paper and then move to the computer for execution. A variety of problems can be used, from designing a poster about their hometowns to designing a website that introduces a new political party. The only restriction is that the image created is made exclusively of letterforms with accompanying text that educates or informs. After the initial shock of not being able to use photos or illustrations, students plunge into the problem-solving process and devise some of the most creative work that I see during the academic year.

In the last part of the semester, each student adopts two roles, that of art director and that of production artist. As art directors, the students will actualize their own best designs on screen and produce printed works which closely match the original comprehensive sketches. These same students will also swap comprehensives with others in class. As production artists, they will execute the other students’ designs as a test of two objectives: has the student produced a clear comprehensive sketch that communicates effectively to a colleague, and can the student work from another’s design? These two issues are important because they echo the professional studio environment where successful designs are rarely the product of an individual effort.

Marbella AIM

The first student’s poster promotes her hometown of Marbella while the second student’s poster introduces us to AIM, a new political party where aggressive issues merge.

In conclusion, students entering the field of graphic design must be provided an education that teaches them not only discipline-specific content, but also teaches them how to continue the learning process as a problem-solving event. The well-trained designer can provide the client with sound, sophisticated solutions that match the client’s needs. This same designer has also been taught how to approach new technology with an inquisitive mind. Neither pedagogical extreme is appropriate in our current technological environment. The purist who wants to teach only theory without vocation prepares students for an evaporating pool of jobs. The technology hound who wants to discard all tradition throws away relevant content and replaces it with a potpourri of gadgets and gimmicks which become dated quickly, lack sophistication, and have no sustaining value. Such educators will never be satisfied because no institution can afford the continual acquisition and upheaval they require.

  1. Igildo G. Biesele, ed., Graphic Design Education (New York: Hastings House Publishers, 1981), p. 7.
  2. Michael Worthington, “Computers Don’t Speak, Type Does,” in The Education of a Graphic Designer, ed. by Stephen Heller (New York: Allworth Press, 1998), p. 114.
  3. Phillip B. Meggs, Type and Image (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1992), p. 153.
  4. Phillip B. Meggs, A History of Graphic Design Education, 2nd ed. (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1992), p. 469.
  5. Andre Gurtler, “Letterform design,” in Graphic Design Education, ed. by Igildo G. Biesele (New York: Hastings House Publishers, 1981), p. 134.
  6. Phillip B. Meggs, Type and Image (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1992), p. 155.

Professor Jeffrey Morin teaches graphic design at the University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point. He has been an active developer of curricula at several colleges and has directed revisions to incorporate the changing technology of graphic design. His goal is to produce inquisitive, confident, and inventive designers. He received his Master of Art and Master of Fine Arts degrees from the University of Wisconsin at Madison and his Bachelor of Fine Arts from Tyler School of Art at Temple University, Philadelphia. He has worked in the design field for twenty-two years as both an art director and photographer and has spoken internationally on design education. His studio, sailorBOYpress, has produced several limited-edition works with the most recent being The Sacred Abecedarium, a collaborative book based on an analysis of sacred geometry as applied to the Roman alphabet, executed by Steven Ferlauto. Professor Morin’s creative work is found in roughly fifty public collections including the Cooper-Hewitt and Getty Museums. His work has been included in approximately one hundred exhibitions both in the United States and abroad.