The New Media Programme: Computational thinking in Graphic Design Practice and Pedagogy

SPRING 2012: V.08 N.01: CAA Conference Edition 2012

 
Keon Pettiway
East Carolina University, Greenville.

“Code as Craft” Panel Presentation, Keon Pettiway, speaking. (Used with permission.)

“Code as Craft” Panel Presentation, Keon Pettiway, speaking. (Used with permission.)

The graphic design profession is facing an identity crisis regarding the role of technology in education. The impact on professional practice is undeniable, but design education is perplexed, misguided and constantly challenged when it comes to maneuvering ever-changing technologies into a curriculum that balances a “proportion of technology instruction to problem-solving, visual studies, and theoretical issues.” [1] John Maeda equates the process to the mixing of oil and water as the profession experiences dramatic changes to traditional graphic design education. [2] Some design programs are severely challenged by the rapid advances in technology that demand a response to “incorporate these new dimensions into graphic design curricula.”[3] Resistance is exacerbated by misconceptions of technology as a detrimental additive to graphic design practice and education. As Maeda states “most of the parties involved do not realize that computers, as they are used today, have nothing to do with design skill, or design education, for that matter, but the computer industry strives to convince us otherwise.” [4]

I’m New Here, 2011, Keon Pettiway, programming and inject print based on utilizing  the automation computing principle, © Keon Pettiway.

I’m New Here, 2011, Keon Pettiway, programming and inject print based on utilizing the automation computing principle, © Keon Pettiway.

We must shift our mindset about the role of technology in graphic design pedagogy. Educators should focus on competencies that equip students with an understanding of how to critique, choose and learn the most effective and efficient technologies according to the need. A balanced pedagogical model can empower designers to extend experimentation, problem-finding and solution-finding beyond the limitations of hardware and pre-packaged software. How is/can computer programming transform the role of technology in design education and practice? Graphic design has a timely opportunity to further include programming as a major component of design education and practice. However, barriers that prevent the cultivation of inquisitive design students capable of applying programming to various situations should be interrogated. Moreover, a principles-oriented and practice-oriented model of computer programming uniquely tailored for graphic design should be explored.

TEACHING TECHNOLOGY IN GRAPHIC DESIGN EDUCATION

There is a trichotomy of thoughts regarding teaching technology in design education, which results in a loosely defined consensus about the importance of programming in graphic design. Educators teach technology as a sole practice, within a larger scope of other graphic design methods and issues, or disregard it altogether. Al Wasco, a faculty member at Cuyahoga Community College, challenges the notion of teaching “design, not software” and problematic advice suggesting that students attend a community college if they want to learn software for graphic design production. [5] As Wasco states, design educators should be “exploring ways to integrate learning technology with exploring the design possibilities it presents, not continuing to deny the need for such integration.” [6] According to Meredith Davis, educators should develop a model that “keeps technological resources current with the demands of the curriculum, responsive to the profession, and consistent with student needs.” [7]

Making the Case for Programming in Graphic Design

Full dependency on pre-packaged software sterilizes graphic design’s pre-digital computer skills [8] and creates a knowledge acquisition bottleneck when computer systems are relied upon to represent expert knowledge and craft. [9] Programming may be a solution to relinquish more control over computer systems for graphic design practice. Programming enables designers to “conceive new categories of solutions” and provide the “technical ability to realize them.”[10] However, the current relationship between programming and graphic design must be reexamined.

Graphic design is misinterpreted as a “visual and creative activity, while programming is a technical and mechanical exercise in simply getting the computer to do something (and with some archaic tech-language).”[11] Programming is debased to a tool rather than a creative activity, process, problem-solving mechanism or experimentation with endless possibilities. Graphic design and computer science are commonly treated as separate entities, but they have more similarities than are credited. Graphic design and computer science use disciplinary knowledge to communicate information, problem-solve by using more than a single method or process, and measure a successful solution by how it is accomplished with creativity, efficiency and innovation given any limitations.

WEB DESIGN AS A BRIDGE BETWEEN GRAPHIC DESIGN AND PROGRAMMING

Web design is perhaps the most closely aligned programming activity in current graphic design education and practice. As David Reid and John Davies note, the separate function of computer science and graphic design is blurred with the “emergence of the World Wide Web as a publishing and programming medium.” [12] But designers with a non-programming background face challenges in web design due to HTML, CSS, PHP, JavaScript and other programming activities that are not commonly addressed in traditional design education. As a result, designers focus on their inadequacy of programming rather than understanding the salient issues that govern how and why programming interfaces with graphic design.

17, 2011, Keon Pettiway, RSS feed, programming and inject print based on utilizing the automation computing principle, © Keon Pettiway.

17, 2011, Keon Pettiway, RSS feed, programming and inject print based on utilizing the automation computing principle, © Keon Pettiway.

BARRIERS IN GRAPHIC DESIGN EDUCATION

Programming syntax seems to be a major barrier in graphic design education, but the principle-oriented and practice-oriented offerings of computer science could benefit graphic design pedagogy. Many institutions offer introductory computer science courses that teach concepts germane to programming, and graphic design students may be encouraged by faculty, mandated by curriculum requirements or self-motivated to partake. However, preconceived ideas about computer science may enforce misguided notions of learning outcomes or discourage students from taking introductory courses. In a study about the computing perspectives of web designers, researchers found that the participants commonly refrained from taking computer science courses because they perceived the discipline as focused on learning programming languages and developing code rather than the total front-end experience. [13] Other common falsities about computer science relate computing concepts to keyboarding, being antisocial, sitting in front of a computer all day and performing an uncreative activity. [14] [15] [16] Contrarily, some of the participants in the research study expressed a desire to become proficient in applying underlying principles and concepts beyond singular programming languages and their practice of “cut-and-paste” code. [17]

Equally, the main challenge for graphic design educators is not teaching new programming languages or tools – even though it can certainly be an arduous task. The greatest challenge is devising an effective curricula model that intertwines programming as a foundational component of graphic design education. A possible remedy is teaching computer science fundamentals through computational thinking methods situated within a context of graphic design.

SHIFTING PEDAGOGICAL MODELS

Technology in Graphic Design Education, 2011, Keon Pettiway, illustration of graphic design pedagogical model, © Keon Pettiway.

Technology in Graphic Design Education, 2011, Keon Pettiway, illustration of graphic design pedagogical model, © Keon Pettiway.

What should be taught as fundamental computer science concepts in graphic design curriculum? How and when should it be introduced? In what contexts should programming be used? Computer science curricula models could possibly provide a roadmap, or at least a lens. Recent efforts have been established to make introductory computer science courses more relevant to non-computer science majors. [18] [19]However, computer science educators are similarly revisiting computer science courses in lieu of a decline in student enrollment. [20] [21] Moreover, “majority of institutions continue to focus on programming in their introductory sequence.”[22] Even successful programs that have a unified introductory computer science courses fall short of meeting the needs of students with varied backgrounds and intentions. [23] These issues illustrate why educators should teach programming through computing concepts within the context of graphic design to provide a more relational and transformative approach.

TEACHING PROGRAMMING IN A GRAPHIC DESIGN CONTEXT

Contextual learning has great potential to decrease the barriers between abstract programming knowledge and practical application to address the interdependence of cognition and situation.[24] Computing concepts can be used within the contexts of social, economic, political, functional and formal aspects to map interrelated concepts to a range of situations. Contextual learning is not new in graphic design education, but applying social learning theories to new practices can engage and establish new design principles and practices.

The “Piloting Pathways for Computational Thinking in a General Education” project is among other initiatives that use computing concepts within the context of discipline-related situations. [25] For example, the “Computational Thinking and the Humanities” course orients computing concepts to the study of cultural artifacts and literary texts. In particular, one of the course objectives is to “Grasp how abstractions, algorithms, indexes and lists (arrays), models, and a range of textual analyses, methods and tools can be used to complement and further humanistic inquiry.” [26] Similarly, Liz Danzico, chair and co-founder of the MFA in Interaction Design program at the School of Visual Arts in New York, explains her approach to programming in the graduate design curriculum:
The coding class doesn’t actually touch a screen or any kind of device for three or four weeks.… So they learn about variables and loops and the logic of code programming in paper format. Among humans. That way, they learn about decision making. And so when they go to actually design for a mobile device or a website, that foundational knowledge they have about how things work gives them a much richer sense in terms of larger systems.[27]

COMPUTING CONCEPTS BEYOND SYNTAX: COMPUTATIONAL THINKING

Danzico’s and the “Piloting Pathways” pedagogical models highlight an underlying approach: Teaching computer science through computational thinking. The breadth of computer science as a field reflects the mental tools of computational thinking. [28] According to Jeanette Wing, computational thinking is about “solving problems, designing systems, and understanding human behavior, by drawing on concepts fundamental to computer science.” [29] As a result, computational thinking facilitates deep learning that endures beyond the latest technology.

It is important to note that computational thinking is not exclusive to computer science. Peter Denning attempts to historically correct the conversation about computational thinking by noting that it is a way of doing computing as a science, which stemmed from the physical and life sciences. “Computation is present in nature even when scientists are not observing it or thinking about it. Computation is more fundamental than computational thinking,” says Denning. [30] For example, the practice of computing can be seen in everyday interactions, such as prefetching and caching when you put items you need for the day in your backpack.[31] Computational thinking involves a range of approaches and skills that can be applied to many disciplines. Denning articulated the fundamentals of computing principles in “Great Principles to Computing,” in which one of his motivations is “To establish a new relationship with people from other fields by offering computing principles in a language that shows them how to map the principles into their own fields.” [32]

Programming, engineering systems, modeling and application represent the core practices shaped by the seven core computing principles. Denning suggests that computational thinking is a style of thought that can permeate the other four computing practices as a fifth element.

Responsive Web Design AND COMPUTATIOnAL THINKING

Like many other design educators, I once believed that graphic design education should not focus on teaching technology. However, I began to understand that teaching principles with little direction for practice with technologies presented missed learning opportunities. Denning warns against teaching a principles-oriented only approach: “Students need to see from the beginning how to connect abstractions to actions. There is little joy in worlds of pure abstractions devoid of action. The practices of programming and systems make this connection.” [33]

I utilized computational thinking as a framework to teach responsive web design. [34] The objective of the assignment was to apply typography principles to web design viewed on desktop monitors, mobile devices and tablet devices. One of the learning outcomes was to equip students with the ability to understand, critique and question the necessity of dynamic typography and content viewable on multiple devices. Students were introduced to the range of screen typography issues that differ from the print medium.

Fault tolerance, an algorithmic method part of the computation principle, was used to describe the phenomena of typography in responsive web design. In computing, fault tolerance is the “ability of a computer system to continue operation despite minor hardware faults.” [35] In responsive web design, typography must respond and adjust to multiple devices and maintain integrity of readability and form regardless of hardware, software and browser settings. Students were asked to address typographic issues that arise from accessing Web content on multiple devices. Questions were posed to encourage solutions that extended beyond simply resizing text. For example, should the type be a different font, color or position? Or does the actual content need to change according to the device? The computational impetus of the assignment was to engage students to examine how programming screen typography relates to formal and functional design principles to develop an abstract and practical foundation.

Conclusion

John Maeda stated that he once believed that programming was the “critical skill for any developing digital artist or designer,” but, in retrospect, he now believes that knowing the technology is not sufficient to achieve greatness.  [36] Design educators must not shun the need for teaching technology. Addressing the relation between graphic design and principles of computing is paramount to embrace integration as an opportunity for innovation. Programming custom and modified technologies allow designers to push the boundaries of practice and theory. Computational thinking is certainly not the only method to apply computing principles, but it does provide a gateway to combine practice-oriented and principle-oriented learning within the context of graphic design.

References

1. American Institute of Graphic Arts and National Association of Schools of Art and Design (n.d.). Technology thresholds in graphic design programs. Retrieved December 15, 2011, from http://www.aiga.org/resources/content/3/7/4/2/documents/technology.pdf.
2. Maeda, John. Design by Numbers. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.
3. McCoy, Katerine, “Education in an adolescent profession,” in The Education of a Graphic Designer, ed. Steven Heller (New York: Allworth Press, 2005), p. 11.
4. Maeda, John. Design by Numbers. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, p. 19.
5. “Massaging Media 2: Graphic design education in the age of dynamic media,” retrieved December 2, 2011 from http://www.massagingmedia2.org/teaching-design-teaching-technology-time-rethink-our-approach.
6. Ibid.
7. American Institute of Graphic Arts and National Association of Schools of Art and Design (n.d.). Technology Thresholds in Graphic Design Programs. Retrieved December 15, 2011, from http://www.aiga.org/resources/content/3/7/4/2/documents/technology.pdf, p. 3.
8. Maeda, John. Design by Numbers. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.
9. Lieberman, Henry, “The visual language of experts in graphic design.” In Visual Languages, Proceedings., 11th IEEE International Symposium on, pp. 5­–12, 5– 9 Sep 1995.
10. Yound, David, “Why designers need to learn programming,” in Education of an E-designer, ed. Steven Heller (New York: Allworth Press, 2001), p. 64.
11. Ibid., p. 65.
12. Davies, Joel, and Reed, David. “The convergence of computer programming and graphic design.” Journal of Computing Sciences in Colleges 21, no. 3 (2006): 179.
13. Dorn, Brian, and Guzdial, Mark, “Discovering computing: perspectives of web designers”, Proceedings of the Sixth international workshop on Computing education research, 9–10 August 2010. Accessed January 5, 2012. doi:10.1145/1839594.1839600.
14. Association for Computing Machinery IEEE Computer Society. Computer Science Curriculum 2008:An Interim Revision of CS 2001. Retrieved January 7, 2012 from http://www.acm.org//education/curricula/ComputerScience2008.pdf.
15. Foster, Andrea. 2005. “Student interest in computer science plummets.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 27, 2005. Accessed December 20, 2011.  http://chronicle.com/article/Student-Interest-in-Computer/10912.
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21. Bruckman, Amy, and Yardi, Sarita, “What is computing?: bridging the gap between teenagers’ perceptions and graduate students’ experiences,” Proceedings of the third international workshop on Computing education research, 15–16 September 2007. Accessed December 20, 2012. doi:10.1145/1539024.1508899.
22. Association for Computing Machinery IEEE Computer Society. Curriculum Guidelines for Undergraduate Degree Programs in Computer Science, p.24. Accessed January 3, 2012 from http://www.acm.org/education/education/education/curric_vols/cc2001.pdf.
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29. Ibid., p. 33.
30. Denning, Peter. “Great principles of computing.” Communications of the ACM 46 no. 11 (2003). [doi:10.1145/948383.948400].
31. Wing, Jeannette. “Computational thinking.” Communications of the ACM 49 no. 3 (2006): 33–36. Accessed August 1, 2011. [doi:10.1145/1118178.1118215].
32. Denning, Peter. “The profession of IT: Beyond computational thinking.” Communications of the ACM 52 no. 6 (2009). Accessed September 22, 2011. [doi:10.1145/1516046.1516054].
33. Ibid.
34. Marcotte, Ethan. “Responsive Web Design.” A List Apart, May 25, 2010. Accessed December 23, 2011. http://www.alistapart.com/articles/responsive-web-design.
35. Collins Dictionary of Computing. London: Collins, 2000. s.v. “fault tolerance,” accessed January 9, 2012. http://www.credoreference.com/entry/hcdcomp/fault_tolerance.
36. Maeda, John, and Burns, Red. Creative Code. London: Thames & Hudson, p. vi.