Critical positions in a graduate context... seminar: thinking things through critically and independently with different audiences is essential

schools of thought- III-
Is there a question here? Developing critical positions in New Meda and the role of graduate seminar

presented at
Schools of Thought III, March 10, 2007
Scott Townsend
Associate Professor, Department of Graphic Design, NC State University
Box 7701, Raleigh, NC 27695-7701, 919-828-8303

(This is a kind of orientation to the last two Graduate seminars I have taught. Please check out some of the student papers at

some of which have gone on to revision for presentations at conferences, or have helped craft ideas leading into thesis).


I. Introduction
Many theorists vie for the supposed key to understanding "new media,” and most are to be found outside of graphic design. Not surprisingly, each author speaks from his or her own disciplinary bias. Critical writing either becomes reductive and ideologically trapped within that bias, or so personalized that the ideas are hard to interrogate. Writers run the gamut, from generalized theories (Bolter and “remediation”), to historical precedent (Manovich) to politics of identity (Haraway). Besides these particular well-known writers, other theorists and researchers are even more embedded in their particular specialization and language. Within a graduate educational context, how do we create a broad, yet critical framework for students to develop a foundation for their research in studio? One method is to disengage these ideologies, and reconnect them critically looking at their effect on the users/readers/participants as narrative, and the particular historical or disciplinary contexts that they find expression in. New Information Environments: Narrative is a seminar within the Master's of Graphic Design at NC State. This course was revised to provide a conceptual framework for inquiry in the studio, potentially leading to thesis investigation. It connects several different threads critically by using thematic comparisons across multiple disciplines.
Non-linear narrative and vision
The development of ideas and technologies that augment perception are contrasted to visual systems that underscore narrative construction. For example, in Western Europe, the invention of perspective tended to usurp the role of visual narrative in painting. A character in an allegorical painting could be in simultaneous positions as a way to help the viewer recall the primary narrative sequence. This defied the logic of perspective, which tended to show forth an objective optical reality.

Specialized historical narratives and general histories
This thread can be traced through the 19th century invention of photography and the claims made for it as unmediated representation (and therefore more truthful), through the early 20th century in modernist design avant-gardes (Lazlo Moholy-Nagy and the "hygiene of the optical," or the ideas of Alexander Rodchenko who, with others, suggested that photography could defamiliarize cliché ridden conventions). This is still present in the rhetoric of New Media (the learned and symbol-laden language of programming, versus the more innate or "natural" responses through our [scientifically understood] biology interacting with technology such as Virtual Reality and other hyper-perceptual systems of visualization). We also examine critical practices that are borrowed in part from older media criticism. Media criticism often works very hard at describing: nothing can be taken for granted in time-based media that do not sit still long enough for a formalist critique. These theorizations often deal with audience reception through broadcast or narrowcast, describe models for narrative, and re-deploy theories of language developed for literary criticism to expand what can broadly be construed as "the text."
Narrative versus "database" [or syntagmatic vs. paradigmatic functions in language]
Narrative is an overused buzzword. It does not describe all aspects of New Media, nor is it a final kind of rubric to deal with writing and research. Lev Manovich makes a distinction between narrative and database, where the act of retrieval by the user suggests the construction of a kind of narrative experience. A comparison can be made between this and the concept of paradigmatic versus syntagmatic constructions of language. In the context of a design project, we can develop and describe the relationship between paradigm and syntagm as an act of design and use.

We examine how different forms of interactive media play out as a scenario. Often the examples are from thesis students who can reflect back and present projects from this semester, giving them practice in presenting their research in a cogent manner.

For example, Jon Harris and Amber Howard, thesis candidates (07) experimented with the design context of a particular hypothetical subculture group in a Graduate studio taught by Denise Gonzalez Crisp in 2006. The basis of the project was the use of cell phones as ubiquitous media.

In Jon's project response, a hypothetical community of hackers reprogrammed the cell phone to display a series of translations of key messages between members of the group. The dynamic of the group was considered competitive.
In the project, the ASCII table played the core role of a kind of vocabulary. The group negotiated different levels of expertise with translating ASCII into image and/or English and/or binary as a way of communicating simple things such as "be here in this space," or consequently a hidden message of "avoid this space," depending on the ability of the individual to decode the message.

(Image one) ASCII has 127 characters that can be shown in ones and zeros, or as letter/symbol, or as a simple number. (Image two and three) Jon's translation application for the hypothetical group created a patterned glyph-based display that would parallel the basic message and could be "read" in place of the original text message.
In Amber's project response, communication between alternative medicine "teachers' and "students" was postulated through the exchange of visual hand gestures (acupressure points) displayed over cell phones, contrasting differences in language "pronunciation" between teacher and novice, or teacher-to-teacher. The database/paradigmatic aspect of this groups communication are the "symbols" contained in the hand (image four), with a larger connection to the effect that this manipulation has on the individuals body. Each subculture group had some basic identifiable set of signs that was particular to that group. How these particular symbols are expressed is dependent on the language convention of the group, and the relationships and motivations between different members (image five).

Seminar students are encouraged to discuss and describe the particular scenario that the thesis students design for, rather than looking at a static design "solution." Identifying context-dependent language as a kind of "database versus narrative polarity" allows students to look at the operations of communication differently than a traditional critique based approach; we often take as a given a critical interpretation "extracted" out of the "hidden meaning" of a design artifact. In contrast to this, critically understanding the project, in a sense, is very close to actually designing the project, as a series of experiences.

By examining New Media as a kind of performative, contingent, and scenario-based activity, design, research, and dissemination begin to be seen as allied tasks. While seminar occupies the traditional role of discussion and clarification, providing conceptual tools for studio, it also includes a writing component, which supports developing different kinds of writing strategies for research dissemination. It includes two unofficial writing tracks.

In one, academic journal style issues and methods are utilized by the student in writings that could be presented in MA/PhD level symposiums- we discuss the use and limits of citations, the crafting of description tied to hypothesis, and try to develop a critical appreciation of various kinds of research practices through backtracking into the primary sources of a citation.

The other "track" examines and experiments with alternative writing structures and language, drawing from actual seminar readings as examples. Final discussions in seminar focus on individual and group identity through writing and narrative. The position of the authors are discussed; how the writing was intended for a specific community, the context and time period of the original writing, and also how particular writings may diverge from an established academic model for specific reasons. These last seminar discussions move back and forth across the category of new media, using comparative methods developed earlier in the seminar (narrative structures, interpretive community, "remediation," expanded ideas of semiotic interpretation, time-based analysis methods, etc.).

II. Application and dissemination
There is a welter of options for dissemination and writing within and outside of Graphic Design. Graduate students who are research-driven must negotiate different territories, from professional writings to academic peer-reviewed presentations and articles.

Within an academic context, Masters students in Graphic Design must overcome the stigma of being defined as, quote: "only a professional degree" without research methods and ideas. To date, students and recent graduates are successful in disseminating research and writing through a number of venues. It is my hope that this trend will continue and accelerate. As one example, in the summer of 2006, two recent graduates, Jamie Gray and Tyler Galloway, had papers accepted for presentation at Thinking Through New Media, an international PhD student conference hosted by Duke University. Tyler's paper was originally developed for seminar as a critical appraisal of the phenomena of Itunes and the restructuring of commodity and reception in the audience. (image six, seven and eight) Jamie's presentation centered on thesis work and proof of concept for "Digital Collecting." These presentations were well received based not only on original ideas and research, but also because each student had the necessary practice with writing and presentation for an academic venue. Indeed, the Master's student research was provocative; both presenters could point to actual projects as a demonstration of their research. This venue not only validated their particular take on research, but pointed to something unique that design can contribute to: the role of designer as researcher, transforming research into a tangible yet speculative product.

Graduates who wish to take critical or research-oriented positions and apply them to a less specific academic audience are equally as important. For example, Jessica Gladstone (MGD 2006) as a professional designer continues her interests in design as a larger critical social phenomenon. She, on the other hand, has tailored her writing and dissemination into articles for Design Observer, (image nine and ten) which intersects Graphic Design as a professional practice with history/theory/criticism. The crafting and strategy of writing must connect to a wider audience and viewpoint, no less sophisticated, but working with a particular language and style.

Finally, how thesis projects and writing can be leveraged as learning tools for undergraduates is something that I am currently exploring. In my advanced studio, students are working with and applying ideas and concepts from particular MGD theses to design solutions that narrate and visualize that research. This will find dissemination through an exhibition on graduate research from the MGD program at NC State to be held at the Gallery of Art and Design (NC State) in the summer of 2007. The dissemination of the research is for a local mixed audience of academics, professional designers and the general public, while the online component of the exhibition is potentially international in scope and more in depth; including publishing the original theses and research.
III. Conclusion
As we look at the development of research in graphic design from Masters to PhD, we should also consider the opportunities presented through multiple paths of dissemination. We play a unique role that has a particular strength in literally being the go-between in interdisciplinary research. Through multiple paths of dissemination, we can articulate a position that can be equal to, rather than subordinate to, other research-based disciplines. To do this we must construct a conceptual framework for design that becomes both subject and object: by looking at the effects on users/readers/participants as narrative, and disciplinary contexts, we will design and research within and still move between these groups.
go "experiences" then "student papers new information-" pdfs