Design Journal 1: Photography and Visual Design

*Photo courtesy of Dan Cook, used with permission

My father was an outdoors writer for a newspaper in Chattanooga, and for most of his career he took all the photos for his stories. Many of his best shots, like the one above, still cover the den walls in the house I grew up in. I never got into photography, but my dad did teach me a few points about his process:

  1. Look for “natural frames” — ways to border the subject using the environment.
  2. Look for triangles — places where three points will guide the viewer’s eye around.
  3. Tell a story in a moment. I’m not sure if he told me this directly, or I just picked it up from watching him take photos over the years. Essentially, it means you always want both the subject and the verb — the thing and what it’s doing — so that the viewer will understand the “story” of what’s happening.

As I read through the first part of the Design Basics Index by Jim Krause, I couldn’t help but go back to those photography lessons my dad taught me. Although designers have free reign over the page, while photographers have to work with what’s in front of them, many of the artistic concerns are the same. Krause’s examples show how the placement and size of different elements can dramatically change the way a viewer interprets a piece, and whether he/she is engaged while looking at it.

Engagement is something instructors often overlook. We’re quick to focus on the quality of our explanations, while forgetting that our content only lands if the viewer is connected to it. That idea ties in well to constructionism, I think. When students are creating something, especially something they have a personal connection to, they’re more likely to stay engaged with what they’re learning.

All this thinking about how design interacts with student experience reminded me of a simple, yet effective bit of instruction I saw recently. At a nature center in Athens, there’s a display made up of a hand crank generator that can be flipped between a regular incandescent light bulb and an LED bulb. On the regular bulb, it takes lots of effort to produce even a slight, fluttering glow. But the LED bulb springs to life as soon as you being to turn the crank. It’s a wonderful demonstration of how efficient LED bulbs are.

So for my project, I’m thinking of doing a site about LED bulbs. They are now cheap enough that they pay for themselves within a year in energy savings, but the higher initial cost means that many people aren’t using them yet. LED bulbs also have some extra considerations, like color temperature (basically how blue-ish or white-ish the light is), that may deter buyers. So the site will explain the benefits of switching to LED, with some interactive elements that let users “see” the efficiency and cost savings.