Town Hall III ~ The Role of Design in New Media Composition

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Review by Brent Simoneaux

Cheryl Ball, Illinois State University
Keon Pettiway, East Carolina University
Marc Russo, North Carolina State University
Jennifer Sheppard, New Mexico State University

Town Hall 3 brought together diverse perspectives from new media and design studies, all focused on the following question: What is the role of design in new media composition? Offering different perspectives on this question, the participants explored the importance of critical engagement with technologies in order to enact effective new media composition.

Cheryl Ball (Illinois State University) focused on the design of scholarly new media compositions. In particular, Ball shared the Seven Deadly Design Sins according to the editors of Kairos:

  1. Don’t yell at us. Occasionally, the argument is not facilitated by the design and reviewers may ask you to revise. Don’t get angry.
  2. Don’t use templates without changing them. Think critically about what the template does that facilitates your argument. Templates can be great place to begin, but you should make the template your own.
  3. Don’t just use what you know. Although it is easier to stick with what you know, it is best to figure out what the appropriate technology and design is in order to effectively enact your argument. Microsoft Word is not always the best place to begin.
  4. Don’t assume your design is genius. Designing multimedia scholarly texts is difficult because technologies and genres are always shifting. You might not get the design right the first time.
  5. We are ok with lust. Kairos publishes sexy scholarship. It’s ok to lust after it.
    (5.2 Flash is not always the answer. Very few Kairos articles are made with Flash, so don’t have Flash envy.)
  6. Don’t assume you’re not good enough. Kairos fosters a community of learning through doing. Dream up a project and learn how to build it.
  7. Don’t over design. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Under designing is typically better than over designing when first submitting a piece for publication.

These seven deadly sins encouraged scholars of all skill-levels to break out of their comfort zones and experiment with new media. Humorous and provocative, Ball embodied a culture of support and encouragement necessary to foster innovation and experimentation.

Keon Pettiway (NC State University) focused on the importance of computational and design thinking in new media composition. When we talk about design, it is important to understand what design is: regardless of the form of design (i.e. graphic, fashion), what is the body of knowledge and mode of practice that can be applied across new media composition? Pettiway argued that the commonality between design and new media composition is the rhetorical strategies that account for the designer, reader, and contributing factors. Design is about making, yes. But it is also about thinking. By employing computational thinking, for example, we open up a space where we can think about computing concepts beyond syntax. Computing concepts such as fault tolerance and automation open up new ways of thinking—ways of thinking with and through code.

Drawing on his experiences as a designer and animator, Marc Russo (NC State University) offered a critical reflection on his transition from analog to digital tools. For activities such as photo editing and page layout, Russo found the transition to digital tools rather easy as they often made the activities more efficient. In contrast, activities such as painting and sketching presented Russo with difficulties, often requiring him to work with up to four different programs for one project. What was it that made some of these digital tools more useful than others? To engage this question, Russo explored key lessons about desiging digital environments through his work on two educational games: Narrative Theatre, a program designed to take students through the writing process, and Crystal Island, a program designed to help students learn about land forms. Through the design process, Russo learned that digital tools need to be as flexible as possible and they need to enable users to easily share what they created.

Examining a wide variety of web-based adoption profiles, Jennifer Sheppard (New Mexico State University) explored the tension that can potentially emerge between designing for aesthetics and designing for communication. Some adoption profiles, for example, have a homemade aesthetic that does not necessarily conform to contemporary design aesthetics. However, we should be careful to not dismiss these designs as ineffective based solely on their aesthetic qualities. For some audiences, the homemade aesthetic of the profile embodies a do-it-yourself ethos that is potentially desirable in adoption parents. Balancing aesthetics and communication therefore requires that we root our designs—and critiques—in rhetoric. In doing so, we are better able to effectively communicate, even when using templates and social media, which often limit creative control over designs.

During the question and answer time, there was a lively discussion focused on how we should assess new media texts in the classroom. While some panelists argued that new media texts should stand on their own, others argued for the importance of student reflection on their design process. Ball, for example, argued that web-texts must communicate on its own without the help of a design justification. This does not mean that the design needs to be perfect, but it must stand on its own. We might even begin to think of “revise and resubmit” as the new standard for an “A.” For Sheppard, however, critical reflection is an important component of learning. Because most students come into the classroom with very little, if any, design experience, we must create opportunities for students to process any difficulties that they may encounter while designing and composing in new media.

Brent Simoneaux is a Ph.D. student in Communication, Rhetoric, and Digital Media at NC State University.

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