Document Design: Lessons Learned

Writing materials[This is another guest post by Evan Snider, a doctoral fellow in Rhetoric and Writing atVirginia Tech. His research interests include visual communication, digital writing, and professional writing pedagogy. --@jbj]

First of all, I wanted to thank all the brilliant ProfHacker readers who commented on last week’s post.  More than anything else, I meant the post to spark a conversation, and it did that.  The wealth of comments and perspectives on the post, both here and on Twitter, is evidence that, despite there being nothing new about it, document design is still an important topic of conversation and debate.  In particular, I was struck by the diversity of perspectives on teaching design in conjunction with writing.  Even within any given discipline, there are bound to be a variety of different perspectives on design; those differences are only compounded across various disciplines with different genres and views on writing.

I am also reminded that no one approach to teaching document design is perfect.  For instance, commenter drnels suggests an approach grounded in real-world professional formatting requirements that, while it accomplishes different things than the approach I suggest, is no less effective.  What’s important is that we adopt an approach that is right for our particular situations, for us and our students.  The demands of different writing classes—first-year composition, professional writing, history, business, biology, etc.—some of which treat writing as the primary content of the course, some of which do not, dictate different approaches to design.

But, what I hoped to get across most clearly was that just as different classes demand different pedagogical approaches, so too do different writing situations.  Flattening design to a universal standard—which is really what I was critiquing—makes it static and, essentially, arhetorical.  Design, just like writing, is situational, and when two very different assignments both have the same formatting requirements, they eliminate the situational element of design.  This argument is precisely why I would be careful in considering assigning formatting based on citation and style guides, since those guides run the risk of flattening design to a universal standard.  Moreover, as commenters 22062114 and austinbarry observe, the universal standard we have chosen to adopt is one not particularly well suited for modern technologies.

Now, as some commenters rightly pointed out, eliminating design from the writing situation can help students focus on other considerations, such as sentence structure, citation, and so on.  I hesitate, though, to call those considerations more important than design.  Just as poor organization or syntax causes problems for an audience, so too can poor design choices (a fact made very obvious in professional writing, when the usability of a piece of writing is interrogated).  Moreover, I would argue that just because a student is having difficulty writing does not mean that the same student will not shine when it comes to design.  Writing and design require different literacies (or, if you prefer, intelligences), and visual literacy can be taught right alongside alphabetic literacy without taking away from the teaching of writing.

As drnels’ practices indicate, there is a spectrum of possibilities in terms of freedom and constraint on design.  In either case, the negotiation of freedom and constraints is crucial, and the ability to design in both open and highly constrained situations will serve students well in future classes and the workplace.  Teaching requirements is still teaching design, as long as you talk about those requirements, why they exist, what the consequences are for following or breaking them, and so on.  This discussion need not be long or involved—for instance, the conversation about LaTeX in the comments thread has me brainstorming various assignments in which students use LaTeX and discuss and analyze how the software converts commands into a typeset document.  I do not worry about heavily constrained design situations; I worry about requirements that are left unexplored and unexamined by teacher and student alike.

I continue to think, though, that the logic behind LaTeX—that document design is better left to document designers and that we can easily and neatly separate design from content—leaves us and our students with untapped opportunities.  It is in no way controversial to argue that writing is inventive, i.e., that writing produces thought as much as the other way around.  The same argument, though, applies for design: designing a document can lead to new content and new ways of thinking about the existing content.  Are your students having difficulty organizing their papers according their arguments?  Have them redesign their document—e.g., create headings and subheadings where there were none—and see if their design work helps lead them to a stronger organizational structure.  And, if design is inventive even in highly rigid and deeply linear papers, think of how inventive it can be in less rigid and linear forms of writing like those enabled by digital media.  Commenter kimon eloquently articulates this logic by suggesting that teachers ask students to step outside the boundaries of the word processor to look at the design of digital writing more generally, such as the writing that occurs in wikis.

And so we come full circle to my original point: there are many different ways of approaching design, and each of these approaches offers its own benefits and drawbacks.  Kimon’s approach makes a lot of sense for an interface design class; drnels’ makes a lot of sense for a professional writing class; the approach I suggested last week perhaps makes the most sense for a first-year writing class.  You have an opportunity to critically examine your own approach to teaching design.  Your approach, it seems to me, should depend on four primary local factors: (1) your course’s learning objectives, (2) your student population, (3) your institutional constraints, including curricular directives, such as my institution’s ViEWS directive, and technological access, and (4) your discipline’s views on and approaches to design, including disciplinary citation and style guides.  In any case, if we value design as an important part of writing—and ask that our students do the same—then half the battle is already over.  All that remains is to develop and hone pedagogical approaches that teach design effectively in addition to our other content, and, really, that’s the fun part.

Image by Flickr user mpclemens / Creative Commons licensed

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