Design Matters 1: Visual Literacy & the 21st Century

It's the big day. Your students have been working on these projects for weeks. Some groups, going the traditional route have prepared a Power Point presentation. Some have made a VoiceThread or Animoto. A few brave groups have used Weebly, Blogger, or Wix to create a whole web site. Rubrics in hand, the day begins. Your hard work has paid off... mostly. Your students are proud of their work. The content has unusual depth. The students have met the expectations outlined on your rubric.

Still... something is wrong. The projects are... well... they're ugly. You have this sick feeling knowing that they're out there on the web, pointing back at your class. This feeling makes you feel a little guilty. After all, "ugly" is very subjective, and they're only kids, kids who have worked very hard. What a shallow and superficial person you must be! Maybe you're just out of touch. Maybe cobalt blue text (in Jokerman font) on a black background with red and neon green highlights is all the rage right now. Maybe it is no longer considered distracting to put 12 flaming and exploding animated GIFs on a single Power Point slide.

It's okay... You are not being superficial. The projects probably aren't as visually appealing (professional looking) as they could be, and it's not because they're just kids. Kids are creative and they take pride in what they do. It's also not superficial and merely subjective. What it is, is a lack of Visual Literacy.

Design matters... It really does. Here's why I believe it's an important 21st century skill and why we need to teach it and expect it.

Literacy in the Digital Age 

This is a topic I've been thinking about for some time, but my disparate musings coalesced recently, when I saw Kathy Schrock at, a local education and technology conference. There, she talked about Literacy in the Digital Age being comprised of 13 distinct categories. One of those was Visual Literacy. According to ACRL,
The importance of images and visual media in contemporary culture is changing what it means to be literate in the 21st century. Today's society is highly visual, and visual imagery is no longer supplemental to other forms of information. New digital technologies have made it possible for almost anyone to create and share visual media.  (ACRL's standards for visual literacy)
Kathy gave those of us in the room a brief survey on the literacies covered in her address. Only 4.35% of the teachers felt they covered Visual Literacy well in the classroom. In my experience, this is about right. Further, Those that do, typically deal with the consumption of visuals, like reading pictures as text. After all, much of the the skills related to producing visually appealing (well designed) work seems to be a matter of taste or totally subjective. Still, if "Visual literacy is a set of abilities that enables an individual to effectively find, interpret, evaluate, use, and create images and visual media" (ACRL's standards for visual literacy), then it can be learned.

It can and should be learned. It is important, and it goes way beyond the idea of "taste". Design matters... It's a skill that is in demand for everyone.

Making attractive Digital Footprints

If you are a teacher or a parent, and you have not yet read Will Richardson's article, Footprints in the Digital Age, you should. It still gives me so much to think about as a parent and teacher. As Richardson says, "It's a consequence of the new Web 2.0 world that these digital footprints—the online portfolios of who we are, what we do, and by association, what we know—are becoming increasingly woven into the fabric of almost every aspect of our lives" (Richardson, 2008).

Karen Kavett
In his recent Forbes article, 5 Reasons Why Your Online Presence Will Replace Your Resume in 10 years, Dan Schawbel argues that "In order to get a job, you have to be creative, attract jobs to your website, and network constantly. Applying to job postings, in newspapers and online, won’t get you anywhere and is becoming completely ineffective."

A prime example of this is Rhode Island School of Design student, Karen Kavett, who began posting videos on what she was learning in her Graphic Design classes on YouTube. She used what she was learning to brand herself and gain followers. She became a huge sensation in the design community, with over 16,000 subscribers and over 1,000,000 views. When she graduated, in May of 2011, YouTube immediately hired her. Would she have had this opportunity had she not promoted herself as a content creator online?

...and what if she had promoted herself online in an extremely gaudy, tasteless, and tacky way? Okay, not all of us are attending RISD for Graphic Design, but most of us have now developed a sense of the aesthetic from our constant modern exposure to great design. As noted in Higher Education Monthly, "Just wander round the local shopping centre, jump online or simply sit down in your living room and look around — good design is never very far away from you!"
Perhaps Apple’s global dominance has elevated our design expectations, or Ikea’s vision to bring great design at affordable prices to everyone on the planet has finally taken effect, or perhaps the Internet has taught us what well-designed user experiences and good design really are. Likely, it is a combination of all.  (Swann, 2012)
So, it's great to be able to produce awesome content, in whatever field you're in, but also,"it is important to give off a strong professional image that inspires confidence in the people you work with" (Young Entrepreneur). I think that Adam Swann summed it up beautifully on, when he said,
You see, expecting great design is no longer the preserve of a picky design-obsessed urban elite—that aesthetically sensitive clique who‘d never dare leave the house without their Philippe Starck eyewear and turtleneck sweaters and buy only the right kind of Scandinavian furniture. Instead, there’s a new, mass expectation of good design.
In fact, I would argue that we're reaching a societal point where most people recognize good design intuitively. The problem is, we all really struggle to transfer that recognition into what we create.In a future post, I'll share how I used what students are wearing to help them make better font and color choices on projects.

Design matters... It gets you noticed in all the right ways.


Not sold yet? Let's talk briefly about STEM and the initiative to transition to STEAM. Okay, so I'm not really going to talk about STEM extensively. If you're in education and haven't heard STEM thrown around, a quick Google search will bring some enlightenment. What I want to talk about is the missing component. Science, technology, engineering, and math can make things that function beautifully, but without the arts and a sense of the aesthetic, it's hard to design things that people are comfortable with.
STEAM represents the economic progress and breakthrough innovation that comes from adding art and design to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education and research: STEM + Art = STEAM. The value of art and design to innovation is clear: Artists and designers humanize technology, making it understandable and capable of bringing about societal change.  (
Apple is a great example of this. The great thing about all Apple products, and they reason they can charge prestige pricing for them, is their beautiful design.
RCA Lyra (40gb, $98, ugly) vs. Apple iPod Nano (16gb, $149, beautiful)
Even Apple's packaging looks better than competitors... design matters.

People often argue about the value of Steve Jobs at Apple. After all he wasn't a STEM whiz like Bill Gates. He was however a driving force behind Apple's innovative designs.
STEM is based on skills generally using the left half of the brain and thus is logic driven.  Much research and data shows that activities like Arts, which uses the right side of the brain supports and fosters creativity, which is essential to innovation.  (
Design matters... It makes the difference between a good product and a great product.

What's next? What do I do with all of this?

Look forward to my next post in this series, "You don't have to be an art teacher to teach visual literacy," where we'll address the following things you may be thinking:
  • This is not my job. Someone else covers this, right?
  • I can barely put together a great outfit, how am I supposed to include a sense of the aesthetic in my lessons / projects?
  • Isn't there a simple rubric or check list for this stuff?
Until then, pay attention to the design in the world around you. Watch some of Karen Kavett's design videos. Think about ways you can make your classroom more beautiful. Think about that one project you do with your students that you wish looked better. Most of all, remember,

Design matters... It really does.


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