AIB Design: Visual Research

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.

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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