Photo by Alex Shutin on Unsplash

Layers of Meaning

Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man

I teach a course called GD157 Digital Design Media I at the University of the Fraser Valley.

Given the events of recent days, the media messages that we have been receiving, sharing and discussing are alarming. The challenge of our times is to avoid being overwhelmed by these messages and the implications that they have for the future of humanity and of the planet.

I have been wondering how to teach today’s class. We are focusing on the design concepts that we are borrowing from the work of Ellen Lupton and Jennifer Cole Phillips, as they explore the basics of design, finding inspiration from the preliminary course taught at the Bauhaus by Johannes Itten and Josef Albers.

The following design elements have been drawn from the Lupton and Phillips book, Graphic Design: The New Basics.

  1. Point, Line + Plane
  2. Rhythm + Balance
  3. Scale
  4. Texture
  5. Colour
  6. Figure/Ground
  7. Framing
  8. Hierarchy
  9. Layers
  10. Transparency
  11. Grid
  12. Pattern
  13. Diagram

Our schedule covers 13 weeks, and the last two topics from the book were outside of the scope of the course.

Graphic Design: The New Basics — Layers


Design involves a process of learning the basic principles of design and putting them into practice. These exercises are intended to help build an understanding of these principles by introducing a different concept each week that can be put into practice using professional design tools, such as Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop. We will engage in a process of group critique to become more familiar with each concept by discussing the merits of the work that we produce.


Each week, we will take 30 minutes to work on an 8" × 8" square Illustrator artboard or Photoshop canvas that represents one of thirteen elements of design. The following definitions are quoted from the Lupton and Phillips book, Graphic Design: The New Basics. We will start simply and build up our skills one week at a time.


Layers are simultaneous, overlapping components of an image or sequence. They are at work in countless media software programs, from Photoshop and Illustrator to audio, video, and animation tools, where multiple layers of image and sound (tracks) unfold in time. Maps use overlapping layers to associate and separate different levels of data, allowing each level to contribute to the whole while maintaining its own identity. Printing techniques use multiple layers of ink to build a single image. Although the layered archeology of the printed page or digital file tends to disappear in the final piece, experimental work often uncovers visual possibilities by exposing layers.

Layers of Meaning in Literature

Works of literature always have two layers:

  1. The literal, surface layer (physical events of the story: 5 Ws and H)
  2. The figurative deeper message

A story is seldom only about the literal detail it presents as the author uses many details to convey a deeper point about society, culture or human nature.

Redshift and Blueshift

For this exercise, explore the concepts of redshift and blueshift. In physics, redshift happens when light or other electromagnetic radiation from an object is increased in wavelength, or shifted to the red end of the spectrum.

What Are Redshift and Blueshift?

Red Brain Blue Brain

The Hidden Brain podcast, Red Brain Blue Brain, was recently describing a correlation between the liberal and conservative divide and the way people tend to respond to fear.

Iterative Process

The creative process is iterative. To iterate is to repeat. In life, we learn through trial and error. Failure is not as terrible an experience as we make it out to be, depending on how we respond to it. As designers, we develop resilience by learning from our failures. Design Kit by IDEO follows this human-centred design process:

  • : Coming up with new ideas
  • : Making your idea real or tangible in some way so that people can interact with it and give you feedback
  • : Repeatedly making new versions of an idea, with the intent of making it better each time

Creative Brief

When you work for someone, you tend not to be able to express your own personal voice. You are usually working as a representative of a government, a corporation, or organization (NGO, educational institution or academy, scientific academy, mosque, temple, or church).

The educational environment is your chance to express your personal, individual voice. And when you speak in the language of design, the culture tends to pay attention. Here are some suggestions of ideas that can inspire your creativity and our group discussions:

  • What is design?
  • Why does it matter?
  • Who are you?
  • What matters to you?

Group Critique

We will take 30 minutes to explore and discuss the ideas, images and designs that inspire us as we open our eyes to the world of design and discover our own voice in the process of putting design principles into practice.

We will use these critique sessions to learn to communicate in the language of design with humility, empathy and respect for others.


How do we perceive difference?

Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference, that is, the capacity to place oneself in another’s position.

Raising the Stakes

Asking Questions

What is the greatest immediate challenge that humanity faces?

The Worst Case Scenario

How did World War II start?

A Design Challenge

  • What if there was a civil war in the USA?
  • What if the militant right won the war?
  • What would you do if the USA annexed Canada?

Rebuilding Our World

Reimagining the Design Process





Empathy and Well-Being


Redshift Blueshift



Humanitarian Crisis



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