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Journal of Business and Technical Communication

Book Review: Designing Texts: Teaching Visual Communication

Aimée Knight Journal of Business and Technical Communication 2014 28: 249 DOI: 10.1177/1050651913513876

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Book Review

Book Review

Journal of Business and Technical Communication 2014, Vol. 28(2) 249-253 ª The Author(s) 2013 Reprints and permission:

sagepub.com/journalsPermissions.nav jbtc.sagepub.com Book Review Editor: Christa Teston, Ohio State University

Book Review Editor: Christa Teston, Ohio State University Brumberger, Eva R., & Northcut, Kathryn M. (Eds.). (2013). Designing Texts: Teaching Visual Communication . Amityville, NY: Baywood, 332 pp. $69.95. ISBN: 978-0-89503-


Reviewed by: Aime´ e Knight, Saint Joseph’s University, Philadelphia, PA, USA DOI: 10.1177/1050651913513876

Stephen Bernhardt first argued for the importance of helping students to ‘‘see’’ texts in his 1986 landmark article, ‘‘Seeing the Text,’’ published in College Composition and Communication . While his article was quickly accepted for publication, it took over 5 years to bring it to print due to a lack of companion pieces. Bernhardt recalled that ‘‘as a field, we were not quite ready to map visual rhetoric to our practice’’ (p. 303). Almost 30 years later, visual rhetoric is increasingly part of the teaching practice for instructors of technical and professional communication. Multimedia and multimodal platforms are transforming modes of writing; word-based communication increasingly shares space with image, sound, video, interaction, and various other means of representation. Teaching designed communication now encompasses an array of possibilities that include visual rhetoric, graphic design, multimodal composition, Web design, presentation design, sound design, video production, animation, 3-D rendering, and information visualization. To prepare students for this changing landscape of communication, instructors are challenged to engage with a wide variety of writing situations and experiment with a range of available technologies in order to help stu- dents read, write, view, interact, and otherwise make meaning through visual texts. The edited collection Designing Texts: Teaching Visual Communica- tion brings together a diversity of theoretical and practical approaches to teaching visual communication. Editors Brumberger and Northcut claim that ‘‘until now, professional communication and composition have not had a

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Journal of Business and Technical Communication 28(2)

book aimed at instructors and focused exclusively on the challenges of teach- ing visual communication in postsecondary classrooms’’ (p. 6). Organized into five sections, this book is pragmatic at heart—chock-full of sample assignments, heuristics, and rubrics for the visual communication instructor. The interested reader will also find a timely survey of the rich and varied state of the field, featuring theorists, pedagogies, and practices that are currently employed in visual communication classrooms. Part 1, ‘‘Visual Thinking and Problem Solving,’’ brings together the voices of practitioners who emphasize visual thinking in their teaching. Seen together, these introductory chapters highlight the move toward more informed practice, using theory to inform teaching. In the first chapter, Lisa Meloncon speaks to the challenge of teaching visual texts, attesting that ‘‘what is missing from the field are best practices and specific pedagogical strategies to integrate visual communication into the classroom’’ (p. 13). To extend ‘‘ways of seeing’’ in the teaching of visual communication, Melon- con introduces students to landscape theory, particularly the work of cul- tural geographer Pierce Lewis. Meloncon claims that it is important to help students acquire a shared vocabulary ‘‘as a way to order and explain the world they see’’ (p. 20). In the next chapter, Teena Carnegie approaches the teaching of visual design through problem solving. ‘‘When we teach the grammar and vocabulary of design,’’ she suggests, ‘‘we emphasize that design is rhetorical . We teach students about the rhetoric of design, asking

them to consider audience, purpose, and context

although we recognize

design as a problem solving activity, we often do not explicitly teach prob- lem solving’’ (p. 47). Carnegie discusses four theories of problem solving— traditional, associationist, information processing, and Gestalt. According to Carnegie, ‘‘as design is a problem to be solved, a means for providing enabling solutions, and a problem solving process, it cannot be readily explained through any one theory or approach’’ (p. 47). Seen together, these approaches represent a pedagogical turn to design thinking, the act of apply- ing a designer’s sensibility and methods to creative problem solving. The final two chapters in this section further emphasize the pedagogical trend toward empirical observation and experience. In her teaching, Linda Driskill turns to argumentation theory in order to help students understand how conclusions can be reached through logic. She helps students put the- ory into practice by analyzing flyers, slides, and commercial advertise- ments—kinds of designed communication that students encounter in their everyday lives. She explains that ‘‘sometimes students don’t recognize these commercials as arguments, as persuasive claims that should stand up to tests for logic, evidence, and assumptions’’ (p. 49). In the last chapter

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Book Reviews


in this section, Nicole Amare and Alan Manning also call for instructors to produce empirically sound approaches to the teaching of designed commu- nication based on real-world evidence and observation. The authors present their own research on color and emotional response, which, they claim, pro- vide a framework for teaching color with the end goal of providing an ‘‘evidence-based approach to pedagogy that moves beyond prescriptions and lore’’ (p. 94). By Part 2, ‘‘Contexts for Teaching and Learning,’’ some consensus is apparent about the process of teaching visual communication as a contex- tually situated activity. This section features three different methods for context-focused instruction. To begin, Eva Brumberger discusses partner- ing with community-based organizations in a service-learning course in order for students to gain a real-world audience for their work. She notes that ‘‘for too many of our students, design experience is slim, and a community-based project may be their only opportunity for professional development in a given semester’’ (p. 114). Working with a community partner provides the student not only with a working knowledge of visual design principles but also with a more complex understanding of situated practice that extends beyond the classroom. Next, Claire Lauer also moves the conversation beyond the classroom walls and into an asynchronous online class setting. According to Lauer, teaching visual communication in digital environments presents unique chal- lenges. In an online setting, for example, access to design software such as Adobe Creative Suite presents a real obstacle for some students, which (along with the more learner-centered environment) may compel instructors to experiment with different tools and techniques to deliver their lessons. Teach- ing visual communication in an online setting forces Lauer ‘‘to assess what learning outcomes are important’’ and how she is going to facilitate those out- comes in ways that she may not consider in a traditional face-to-face class- room (p. 120). Finally, Lee Odell also calls for new strategies to teach the critique and creation of texts. He develops a versatile heuristic that can aid students working in a variety of mediums and contexts, from print to video. The heuristic features four processes: moving from given to new, selecting and encoding information, creating and fulfilling reader–viewer expectations, and establishing logical and perceptual relationships. Guiding the reader through an analysis of technical instructions and then applying the heuristic to a student’s video project, Odell demonstrates the flexibility of such a framework in teaching designed communication. Part 3, ‘‘Evaluation and Assessment,’’ focuses on outcomes, goals, and objectives for teaching visual communication. This section discusses

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Journal of Business and Technical Communication 28(2)

assessment in relation to course projects as well as how this assessment could inform the broader course curriculum. The editors note that ‘‘as visual communication assumes a more prominent role in pedagogy, it must also become more central to evaluation and assessment’’ (p. 177). Kathryn Northcut’s chapter leads this section by reporting on three studies of visual communication practices featuring a focus group, a survey, and a roundta- ble discussion. As Northcut reports, ‘‘published scholarship suggests that the teaching and evaluation of visual communication are characterized by a broad spectrum of practices—too varied, ill-defined, and nontransferable to be sustainable’’ (p. 183). Her findings indicate that assessments in visual communication courses should not only highlight the formal and technical aspects of student work (such as Gestalt principles of contrast, repetition, alignment, and proximity) but also pay attention to issues of aesthetics and creativity. Suguru Ishizaki’s chapter offers pragmatic advice for identifying and developing learning outcomes for a course. Ishizaki provides concrete examples of course objectives and a variety of assessment activities, includ- ing the use of critiques and portfolio-based assessment. He stresses the development of learning objectives within the cognitive domain (under- standing and thinking), the affective domain (feelings and attitudes), and the psychomotor domain (physical skills). He invites instructors of visual communication to embrace the value of assessments as a way to help our students ‘‘develop a high level of competency in visual communication design’’ (p. 216). In the next chapter, Da`nielle Nicole DeVoss extends the argument for assessment by demonstrating the value of working from a framework of alignment. She establishes the importance of mapping the goals and objectives of an individual course assignment onto a large- scale course project and then finally onto the larger curricular framework within the writing program at her university. In Part 4, ‘‘Tools and Technologies ,’’ authors find common ground in their call for rhetorical, audience-centered approaches to technology. Jennifer Sheppard discusses the need to balance the technical, ‘‘how- to’’ instruction of tools and software with more rhetorical approaches to visual communication, including a focus on intended audience, pur- pose, and context. In the next chapter, Charles Kostelnick warns that technology can sometimes impede ‘‘the student’s inclination to think creatively and flexibly about desig n solutions’’ (p. 266). He offers ‘‘low-tech’’ strategies and project ideas, such as the hand-drawn produc- tion of logos and comics to develop students’ awareness of the rhetori- cal situation as well as to enhance stu dents’ aptitude for creativity and

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Book Reviews


invention. Finally, Mike Markel examines the strengths and weaknesses of Microsoft’s SmartArt. Markel no tes that while SmartArt software might be technically easy for students to use, thinking through rhetori- cal issues of audience and purpose presents a challenge for students. He argues that visual communication instructors must help students under- stand not only how to use software b ut how to ‘‘achieve particular rhetorical effects that will further their communicative intentions’’ (p. 296). Through their rhetorical instru ction, then, teachers of visual com- munication play important roles in h elping students become more crea- tive with and critical of the technology that they use. Stephen Bernhardt ends this collection by reflecting on the book as a whole. He concludes that ‘‘this collection offers rich insight into how instructors in a variety of settings pursue the task of teaching a visual rheto- ric’’ (p. 303). Indeed, throughout the collection, authors often reach for the- ories and practices outside the discipline in order to achieve their intended pedagogical goals and outcomes. Thus, it is not surprising that Northcut generalizes that ‘‘teachers of visual communication do not have a shared understanding of terminology and concepts, and further have difficulty evaluating visual artifacts consistently’’ (p. 185). One reason for this frag- mentation in the field comes from the simple fact that many instructors have not received formal training in visual communication and design. In the years to come, tendencies to stray outside the discipline may contribute to further diversification of approaches and methods to teaching visual communication. Nonetheless, Designing Texts reveals many common practices and shared calls to action. While there is no single approach to teaching designed communication, the authors appear to agree on some strategies. Mainly, these shared strategies include (a) joining theory with practice, (b) using heuristics, (c) developing a shared vocabulary, (d) emphasizing Gestalt design principles, and (e) teaching design as a problem-solving activity. Perhaps most important, the authors continuously turn to rhetoric in teaching designed communication in order to accommodate the needs of students who work within a variety of modes, media, and contexts. In fact, recognizing the changing landscape of communication, many authors in the collection extend their purview beyond visual communication to dis- cuss sound, user interaction, and more cinematic means of communication. These shared strategies create an opportunity to develop a common vocabu- lary for students and instructors who come from diverse backgrounds so that they can communicate meaningfully about the role of designed communi- cation in today’s teaching and learning.

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