AIB Design: Visual Research

Applying visual communication…inspired by Fenway High School, ” work hard, be yourself, do the right thing.”

September 30, 2009

Final Stages of Part 2 : What is graphic design-based qualitative research?








Students begin critique by placing their collections on display. They discovered today that there was a greater level of “looseness” exhibited in their choices, as more personally relative connections were developed. Professor Sansone assures the students that “visual communication is a language that takes some time to understand,” and that they would begin to learn even more how to appropriately connect to their work while speaking the language that is required to communicate to the public.

Their next assignment was to put together structured content that includes 5 common elements as well a mood board. The mood board is a tool that helps one to edit, and should represent each of the five elements. Professor Sansone urged them to get inside the things they liked about the five elements  and pull out the essence, it should essentially “tell the story” of green technology and should communicate clearly yet not be predictable(cliche’), it needs to work.

Fenway High School brochure cover

Fenway High School brochure cover

Studio Time

For today’s studio time the class went over to Fenway High School for a field visit to observe their educational space and get ideas. Two Fenway High School students took groups of AIB design students on a tour of the school where they were able to get a deeper perspective of what it’s like going to a pilot school in Boston Public Schools. Since Professor Kristina Sansone had done design initiatives with the school in the past, they were perfect candidates for the students to see how design can be impactful in the lives of young people.

In visiting Fenway High School we learned that it was not a typical public school, it was indeed a pilot school with a customized core curriculm built by the faculty versus the standard core curriculm seen in other Boston Public School models. The teaching technique at Fenway is inspired by the Ten Common Principles of the Coalition of Essential Schools:

1.  Learning to use one’s mind well

2.  Less is more, depth over coverage

3.  Goals apply to all students

4. Personalization

5. Student-as-worker, teacher-as-coach

6.  Demonstration of mastery

7.  A tone of decency and trust

8. Commitment to the entire school

9. Resources dedicated to teaching and learning

10.  Democracy and equity

Fenway High School resides in a building that’s shared with Boston Arts Academy, and unlike the Boston Arts Academy they’re no existing art programs or  gym in the school. It’s not that they don’t wish to have one, it’s that the entire school consists of a total of 300 students on one floor,therefore, there just isn’t enough space. The classes are structured in “houses” where teachers are able to know the students, and have them for about 3 years in a row. Another central component to the curriculm at Fenway are their implementation of Habits of Mind, to encourage the students to develop the habit of asking questions.These Habits of Mind were posted on the walls throughout the school:

Perspective.  Whose viewpoint are we hearing, seeing, reading? Are there other ways to interpret this information?

Evidence. How do we know this is true? What is the source and is it credible?

Connection.  Where have I seen this before? Is it related to other ideas or things I have studied?

Relevance.  Why does that matter ? Who cares about this idea ?

Supposition.  What if …? Are there alternatives ? Suppose that…..

Another key to the Habits of Mind, is that these principles were then applied  for each subject area, such as “Why did you say you love/hate math?” or “What can you do with a degree in math?” During the tour AIB design students were inspired by the dynamics of the school, where they recycle, or the fact that students are allowed to go off campus to eat, therefore the cafeteria is not often used. In the closing meeting they discussed the the elements they were compelled to consider after the tour. These are some of the words that they used to describe the experience:

Text expressing FHS

The AIB design students also had some comments about the physical appearance of the school, one student described the space as “dead” and another “like a jail cell” due to the lack of color  and white walls. Though the school did have a colorful mural on one of the hallways, they felt it lacked the visual stimulation in the educational experience. Professor Kristina Sansone informed them of the resentment that Fenway High School Students have expressed towards the Boston Arts Academy due to the aesthetic lens that they are allowed, being an art school. Another thing to consider were the cultural differences in students as  there is a large Hispanic population in Boston Public Schools. The major question arised amongst AIB students after this field visit, as they contemplated how to approach their project for the proposed Boston Green Academy, they questioned, “How does one make a design that would make students(middle and high school) interested in green technology?”


In observing today’s class, I was caught with an element of conviction in some of the students’ frustrations. As a student myself, I can completely empathize with the feelings that  many of the students have about not understanding the balance between the personal and the viewer in design. Yet, as an educator I also understand the value of investigating these problems, so that you can come up with constructive solutions.

There was a significant shift from frustration to inspiration after the students went to see Fenway High School. I think while initially they were unsure about how to connect their perspectives to the needs of high school students, it was obvious that by viewing FHS they were stimulated to think about their own secondary education and how this new program at Boston Green Academy would be similar or different. They were able to view the classrooms and get a feel for the vast opportunities to explore the aesthetics of the educational space.

I became excited for their progress as I knew this would be a great challenge that would bring interesting results. These were my main concerns or areas where the students should think deeper as they approach their projects:

1. Demographics of the Boston Design Academy: who and where are the students from and what is their history, as students but also as members of culture.

2. Green Technology education: finding out what level of education students at that age level receive about green technology. It could also be worth while to investigate how this information has impacted their lives[i.e Are there students(not just in Boston) how have made strides towards promoting green technology or green living, how was this motivated?].

3. Researching the Boston Green Academy core curriculm: Just as Fenway High School had core components that were important to their curriculm, it’s important that the curriculm for the Boston Design Academy be looked at to see what methods of learning or teaching techniques are most important. At Fenway High School it was rooted in the mindset of critical thinking, check out Fenway’s curriculm page for more details. I’ve also included a link to the Boston Public School’s Pilot School page.

4. Why are pilot schools created?: An interesting thing about the Fenway High School is the history of their founding vision provided on their website:

“Fenway was founded in 1983 as a separate academic program for 90 students who were disengaged from high school. Its first location was on the top floor of English High, a traditional district school in the Fenway neighborhood. The founding principle of the program was that all students can learnѕif they feel safe, are supported by close personal relationships with their teachers, and study relevant, in-depth curriculum that stays in tune with research on human learning and development. Fenway set out to provide a school environment where student needs were at the center of educational practice, and where new programs might be developed to better serve their intellectual and social growth.”

So, pilot schools are formed essentially to fulfill a need, to “serve as research and development sites for effective urban public schools.” I think this is important to consider, in determining the “needs” of the students of the Boston Design Academy. In do that it one can find an avenue through visual research and design to reach the students.

—Lauren Cross, Graduate Assistant

Gerald Hastings’ High Tech Visual Strategy on Vimeo

During week one of the AIB Design: Visual Research Course, students were asked to submit three low and high tech strategies for digging into green technology. This video is Gerald’s high tech video strategy.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “Gerald’s High Tech Visual Strategy on…“, posted with vodpod

Determining quality…
October 5, 2009, 9:34 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Part 2: What is graphic design-based qualitative research? W, September 23

Explore at least 5 ways to use and show qualitative research photography, drawing, a literature review, research of other campaigns, collections, field notes, observation and library research. Your research must include both pictures and text research.



As the critique begins, there is a sense of confidence in the air as students begin to present their revised explorations of qualitative research. The range of methods used were widespread depending on each student from photography to doodling. Each student explored their works in more personal ways to engage with the perspective target market of students of the proposed client, Boston Green Academy. It was determined in critique that the works presented were indeed much more personal in nature, and the sensitive of the works connected  much more apparent than the week before. Professor Kristina Sansone felt that this feeling of intimacy in the works was consistent within each student and determined that there was no need to establish a successful wall. It seemed that each student had a level of breakthrough in this assignment, where each seemed to be extending a piece of themselves.



There were specific works that stuck out among the pack. Not merely because they were good designs, but because the threads within the work were cleverly thought of and executed. One student created a color palette based on the most popular music videos on viewed by teenagers, and another student brought in both brown paper bag material and it’s scanned reflection.

Student work, palette formed from the most popularly viewed music videos by teens.

Student work, palette formed from the most popularly viewed music videos by teens.


Student work, brown paper bag material compared against scanned brown paper bag.

Though there is also a level of openness that Professor Sansone feels needs to be explored for some other students, whose works were more composed and tight. She suggested that they explore qualitative research in a more tactile way such as in a the designer’s studio inspirations below featured in Martha Stewart’s magazine.



This idea of producing qualitative research that is “looser” would in the end allow less room for cliche,’ and give you much more valuable information to choose from.

Another student with drawings has work that feels more open yet Professor Sansone suggested that he expand the visual language within his works into a more sophisticated language. A language that could allow him to draw from students or expand his materials, such as scanning and photographing.



All students in the end are encouraged to stay in the loose, “poetic state,” and to ensure that they have a space where they can pin up ideas and objects in their personal studios or workspace that could inform what they are doing.


Studio Time

After the critique students investigated additional qualitative research methods that would keep their studies loose. Depending on each student they engaged their studio practice differently, some students  took the time to go out and take photographs for inspiration while others did literature research.

This is an intense time to grab and collect relevant information that will be beneficial to their study. Some students took  this time to get a better understanding of the goal at hand. In there eyes it’s better to consult advisement from Professor Sansone to find out where they are specifically missing the boat, in hopes that it will ease the anxiety of searching for new ideas when “they know what to look for.”



As I’ve observed in previous sessions, many of the students began to show signs of confusion and frustrations with the response to their work. More specifically, the students who are used to receiving “praise” for the strong aesthetic qualities behind their work. It seems that the disapproval of work that lacks the quality of content becomes alarming when perhaps in previous courses they’ve had the opportunity to shine based on visual appeal alone.

Yet, as the assignment states above, design capabilities is only a part of what’s needed to create a successful design strategy. The content within the image should communicate just as strong as the visuals. This can be a hard concept to swallow when in most undergraduate fine arts programs the “beauty” of the image can train ones mind to think only about creating images that have mass appeal instead of contextual meaning behind them. Again, a sticky slope but one that has to be traveled.

It was also evident that some students understood this concept more than others, and perhaps those who work within the realms of concept thinking on a regular basis. It may seem easier for them to open their minds to more behind the image, than one who considers themself a pure “image-maker.” This is where the true essence behind the Visual Research course takes affect.

As image-makers it’s important that we take responsibility for the message that we communicate. I once read a Computer Arts issue that was all about exploring the “unpredictable” in your work, and the only way you can achieve this is by actively engaging in what your doing. How can you create something refreshing and meaningful when you don’t realize when you’re not creating work that communicates your intent? It’s all about finding your communication weaknesses so that you are more successful at accurately meeting the needs of your audience.

From my observation, this is the area where those struggling to understand how and what needs to be done need to reposition their perspective, often when we can’t see the error when we assume there is none.

To take my observations further, I decided to speak with certain students to get their perspective about the course and their progress. Asked they a variety of questions and I received the following response:

Question: What is your perspective on the Visual Research Course so far?

Gerald’s response: He felt that the course was originally very ambigous, but as they progressed he began to get a grasp on the course and more direction on for his work.

Chris’ response: Initially, he was unaware of how much research it was going to be. Yet in the end it allowed him to step back more and keep pushing himself to research.

Question: How do you feel about critique?

Chris’ response: Feels comfortable during critique because if you don’t get good feedback you don’t know what you did wrong.

Question: How has the course been beneficial to you so far?

Chris’ response:  The course has allowed him to open and feed information in his system and be persistent. It’s also taught him to deal with problems and issues quicker. Setting a realistic process of design.

Question: How will it help in the long run?

Gerald’s response: He feels it gets you to slow down, and that using the methods will help you to have better qualitative research.

Chris’ response: Teaches you to apply yourself.

Question: What does this class make you think about professional designers  who don’t use visual research?

Chris’ response: Feels that it solely depends on the individual designer. He asserts that you can tell if the research lacks integrity and you can tell that they research. He believes that visual research enables you to talk about the work to perspective clients and talk about it profoundly.

Gerald’s response: He acknowledges that there are “rockstar designers” who are more successful for who they are rather than what they do. While it seems that lesser known designers do more research.

Question: If you became a Rockstar designer, would you continue to use research or depend on your name?

Gerald’s response: “If I were a rockstar desiger, I would keep doing visual research.”

Chris’ response: “I think it’s impossible to do design without background research. You can’t think of everything, you need all the information.”

Question: What were your initial experiences in the course?

James’ response: ” Confusion,”says James, who has had Professor Sansone as a instructor last year and likes her teaching style. From his previous experience with her, she has a more laid back approach, yet she wants them to be out of their comfort zone.

He explains that he’s had some terrible teachers in the past and likes Professor Sansone’s style much better. Although he often has no idea what she wants, the work gets torn down and builds back up where he can reconstruct the project.

Sam’s response: Has had Professor Sansone for Language of Form, and enjoys going out on your own to find materials to put into the work. She feels it’s alot of work but you have to do it to get what you want to accomplish.

For this session she went out, took pictures, and studied of all of the people throwing trash away(adults and children). She feel that it helped her to find things out about the environment and didn’t realize initially that they task would be so investing.

Kristine’s response: She admits that it’s “alot of work” and that she doesn’t really know where she’s going yet, however the “openness” is really nice. She suspects that overtime she’ll feel things coming together.

Question: How has the course changed you?
James’ response: He has realized that a lot of research goes into design, while he used to jump into it. He feels that learning this new approach will really “pay off” in the end. Now when he approaches his design practices he assumes that he “knows nothing.”

Sam’s response: Feels that visual research gives you a more personal level of experience then just going on Google. It enables you to research yourself, talk to people, go to the library. She feels that the course has taught her a more conceptual based practice that takes you through the steps to get a higher quality of work compared to just whipping it out in one weekend. It allows her to explore more options.

Question: What do you think about the recent critique?

James’ response: He feels that it’s “not a big deal.” He knows that your judged for the effort that you put into it.

Conclusions: After speaking with the students it was refreshing to see that their perspectives about the process were positive. It seems that they are in expectation that the course will give them a richer design practice, and I’m very interested to see how their ideas mature throughout the course of the semester.