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

Our core visual research project

The City of Boston has a call out for graphic design students to create a design campaign proposal. The goal of the campaign is to inform and excite Boston’s public middle and high school students about green technologies. The city hopes to encourage students to learn about this emerging field and its related job opportunities.

In this semester long project you will use this design brief to develop your own visual research methodologies leading to the design of a campaign. The quality of your research and ability to make your work visible through this process will be the focus of your learning and evaluation.

And the journey begins…
AIB Students posting images with successful strategies

AIB Students posting images with successful strategies

Part 1: Using graphic design strategies to enter content

Using only the texts provided by the city of Boston, students were instructed to develop at least 3 unique low and high tech strategies for entering this content. Some strategies to consider include list generation, highlighting, text collage, computer coding, color coding and picture souring. Each student challenged to present their strategies clearly to the class.


The critique begins as students present their low tech strategies. After careful observation, Professor Sansone as well as students begin to discuss the different variations of work displayed. The works are then categorized in two groups on seperate walls: 1. Successful strategies and 2. Unsuccessful strategies. It is here where students begin to think critically about their work, why or why isn’t the work a successful strategy? As the successful works are shifted to the next wall, the remaining strategies are discussed in detail. After seeing the works that have made the “success wall” the remaining students are able to evaluate for themselves what may be missing from their work, in comparision to others and vice verse. Looking at the wall of compelled successful strategies, individual students were able to speak freely about why the strategies felt more compelling to them, and the makers of these works were able to comment on their approach.

After the low tech strategies were presented, the class re-grouped into the computer lab for the presentation of high tech strategies. Here students were able to explore works constructed through video to design constructed on the computer. The high tech strategies also allowed students with a high comfort level in the use of technology to engage in a language more personal for them.

Studio Time

After discussing the work, students are instructed to put together Visual Research Assessments, which outline their creative process of developing visual strategies and their reflections of the outcomes.

It is at this time that students continue collection research and investigating other strategies that will help them to become more open and personal with the work.


The students of the IDESN 2360 Visual Research course have a task on their hands. They have been asked to create a design campaign that could effectively be used by the City of Boston as a strategy to encourage and motivate young people( middle and high school) to learn about green technology. Anyone who has ever spent time attempting to gain the attention of younger people would know that it takes a great deal of effort to capture their interest. I’m sure we could think of our on experiences during that time in our lives, and note all of the exciting things we were interested in. The challenge for these students will be to find out what exactly interests these kids(Boston Public Schools), and to design with them in mind.

Professor Sansone recording the strategies of the students.

Professor Sansone recording the strategies of the students.

Perhaps throughout the course of their training as world’s emerging designers, the students have learned how to create images that could be both striking and command attention. However, this course will require that they attempt  to not only create “pretty” images,but to learn the process in which they can develop successful strategies of design. Learning how to define these strategies  will eventually lead them into the direction they desire to go, to design with meaning.

Last week, Part 1 of the project was assigned: to use graphic design strategies to enter content.  In response, today proved to be a fairly hesitant unveiling for the students, as there were no specific rules given. No one mode of expression to choose from. No requirements to follow. The assignment challenged them to engage their own pure interests with the subject, to ensure that they were personally committed to the design.

These were some of the questions they were challenged to ask last week:

1. How can you take static text and make it more interesting?

2. What designs are more “decorative” in nature?( Note: This is not a particular goal you’d want to aim for, though having an visual appeal can help the design)

3. Is the design visually appealing? Why so?

4. What are my tools?

5. Am I using a range of tools or one tool to put it together?

6. Am I working outside of my normal modes of expression?

7. Does my image engage the viewer in unexpected ways?

8. How can I use design to make the subject interesting to me?

Students making their initial examinations of the posted projects.

Students making their initial examinations of the posted projects.

All discomfort aside, the time has now come. It’s time to put up the images, to see how far the concept has come from idea to conception. I observed a pause before many of the students put up their work, it was obvious that they were unsure of what was about to take place.

And then after that initial discomfort was over, they began to place their work around the critique space, while other classmates looked on and observed. Some were amazed at the strategies and others seemed slightly outwitted. Expressions that almost cry “I should have thought of that” are presented on many faces.

There is one particular students’ work, that I notice many eyes gazing upon. It was a piece that undoubtably was appealing, made in a manner that looked like it was made digitally though perhaps not. Nevertheless it seemed to have a lot of great potential. Though I sensed that some of the students may have felt they should have designed their piece on the computer as well.

Professor Kristina Sansone quickly initiates the discussion by asking, “which pieces seem more “decorative?” and which ones are helpful to “comprehend” the information? Remember, it’s not just about creating a particular design” she suggests that a proper strategy is more “useful.” Sansone encourages them to determine whether their images show visual evidence that will “prove” an engagement with the content.

Students observing their classmates projects

Students observing their classmates projects

Then, after careful consideration of all the works Professor Sansone instructs the students to place all of the images that they feel have been most successful on one wall, and the less effective to remain. I must admit that this was an uncomfortable moment ,as one could imagine, it was a time for complete honesty. You could sense the tension as some students projects realised that their work would not be moved. When asked if they felt their work was perhaps misunderstood, no one responded. A dead silence. Someone eventually stated her hesitations with the project, and the discussion moved on. They discussed the reasons why these works were less successful, and after much dialogue the class turned to the opposite wall.

Student observes an image that was placed on the wall with more visually appealing strategies

Student observes an image that was placed on the wall with more visually appealing strategies

One may have thought that  whomever was on the opposite wall was home free, but it was not without it’s biases as well. There were some students who felt that  there were some images that could only be “useful” within a certain purpose. One student suggested print magazines, another referenced billboards and posters. It is clear from this discussion that a design is not truly as valuable unless it’s applied in the correct context.

It seems that all of the students have been inspired at this point. Many thoughts seem to be floating in the air while creative energy is bubbling. They all seem to understand that purpose has just as an valid place at the table as the principles of design.

This critique definitely spurs conversation and many students express their initial anxiety with interpreting their own relationship with the reference text. Some students admit that they really didn’t get much from the articles at all, and had to dig deeper for more information to truly come up with some ideas.

Professor Kristina Sansone explaining the "white paper exercise" as a tool to help describe how to dissect a given subject.

Professor Kristina Sansone explaining the "white paper exercise" as a tool to help describe how to dissect a given subject.

As the discussions proceeded, Professor Sansone explains the concept behind the “white paper exercise,” which serves a way in which to look at a subject. She explains, “by disecting the properties” of whatever context you have, you’ll find that you’ll end up as many more options to choose from. Like the white paper we can focus on the surface, the structure, and the many ways it can be arranged. By looking at this example she suggests that students open up additional ideas such as”material.” Something basic or simple can in turn be transformed into something that you won’t feel the impulse to “add” things too.

Students watching the presentations of projects done with "higher" technology systems.

Students watching the presentations of projects done with "higher" technology systems.

The second half of the class brings up an even interesting question. The question of technology. Does the use of technology make the process of designing easier? Many students answered yes, perhaps because they’ve been trained to use these programs and to think of design as a more digital process. While students who have more an affinitity to a more tactile practice might think otherwise. Though I couldn’t help but wonder how this might be hindering the variances of their strategies. If we rely solely on technology to create designs, it’s places a level of expectation where we can only think of design in digital terms. It made me wonder how the students would respond to traditional modes of design that don’t require the use of a computer. Design before the computer was certainly a different world in those days, but it makes a interesting statement about our comfort level with digital technology. If design has become “comfortable” on certain technology what expressions outside of that might push the reigns higher? One might never know, but it would be an idea to explore.

One student used one of his personal strengths, video, to express his understanding of the “Green environment” in a piece that had a more “intimate” and personal feel to it. It was clear that with video, he had begun to dive into the subject in a strategy that felt most fitting to him. It drew the question of having an emotional sensibility in your work, a positive connection that in his case showed us a piece of the artist himself.

Student presentation showcasing a strategy that uses an unraveling affect.

Student presentation showcasing a strategy that uses an unraveling affect.

It become evident while watching the high tech presentations that the technical capabilities available to the students had a tremendous affect on the success of their strategies. One student used digital media to unravel a whole new understanding that he “uncovered” from the text. His feeling of “successfully” understanding the topic was shown in the exploration he investigated through typography. Though whether his design would be “valuable” to the context of the project could be present a different solution. Another student admitted his frustrations with using programs like Adobe Flash, which due to certain limitations can be more challenging to express more freedom. As Professor Sansone affirms this is a “reality” that we all have to face even when working with clients. She goes on to explain this through the “functionality” of programs like Powerpoint,which have such a popularity in it’s use by students and adults of all ages. In the end, she suggests that it may be most important to use the specific tools for learning that you naturally lean towards, for some that might be video while for another it might be wikipedia’s design.


In the upcoming Wednesday’s class, the students will be preparing a Visual Assessment that will give them the chance to reflect on their process, to see the lack or presence of evidence,  and to understand the strategies they presented. The goal is perhaps to determine what happened?Was I trying to impress the teacher or my classmates? How can I take this further?and How can I perfect my strategy? As the journey continues, the hope is that each student will discover new ways of working that will increase their productivity.

—Lauren Cross, Graduate Assistant