Advanced graphic design course participates in Drought Symposium April 1-4

Andrue Oglesby receives suggestions on his research direction during a class review on March 4. Photo by Craig Chandler, University Communications.
Andrue Oglesby receives suggestions on his research direction during a class review on March 4. Photo by Craig Chandler, University Communications.

Assistant Professor of Art Stacy Asher is teaching an advanced graphic design course this semester that has students from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln involved in a collaborative design research project with students at San Francisco State University to investigate the systemic connections between these two regions within the framework of water for food.

Students in the course, titled “Water for Food: Visualizing the Food Industry + Mapping Systems,” will then present their work in a small exhibit and through the publication of a zine at the 40th annual Center for Great Plains Studies Symposium “Drought” April 1-4. A zine is a small-circulation, self-published work of original texts and images.

“The course is an investigation of water, food and system and using design as a language to communicate about those findings,” Asher said.

Each student is designing two spreads in the zine based on their research topics.

“We want to push the boundaries of how we can communicate to an audience that is unique,” Asher said. “Who is coming to the Drought Conference? How can we display information that is artful, more open ended and still be visually engaging and thought provoking.”

After extensive research, students selected their own area to focus on, considering such themes as graphic design and social responsibility, food and system, feeding the future, sustainability and viability, conservation and preservation, designer as witness or documentarian and designer as journalist.

“The topics of study are diverse. Some are examining food and water on the macro level, and some are micro. The emphasis is on content development and the realization of a visual language,” Asher said. “Themes of study have been determined by their own drive and interests. Design process that is driven by research is evidence of critical thinking, and the art of distilling large quantities of information down to effectively communicate a concept. It is through this authoring and research process that students evolve as makers of visual culture.”

Asher taught at San Francisco State last year prior to coming to UNL. There, her students collaborated with Arup, a large engineering and architectural firm, to design a book about the future of water.

“The trends in graphic design are providing that the practice is no longer limited to simply layout, type and discrete artifacts. In the first part of the class, they designed charts and graphs and infographics about water and really understood the concept of water footprint and how much water does it take to do things,” Asher said. “Each pair of students collaborated on a chapter in the book.”

Asher, along with Joshua Singer, the visual communication design coordinator and assistant professor at San Francisco State, published a paper, “Crafting Stories about Water and the City: Transdisciplinary Design Collaboration for Social Impact and Pedagogical Methods,” and presented their findings at an AIGA Conference in October. AIGA is the professional association for design.

Fall semester at UNL, Asher facilitated an advanced graphic design course where students focused on the topic of water and system. This course addressed the complex issues of graphic design and visual communications centered around the subject of water. Each project or problem was carefully structured to create conditions conducive to discovering systems of design.

These conditions encouraged exploration of visual communication concepts and design principles, allowing students to develop more personally expressive ways of solving communication problems. Atlas publications were designed to showcase their visual displays of information. This work will also be on display at the Drought Symposium.

“The work we collaboratively produced at San Francisco State and the advanced graphic design lass last Fall merited further research and development. There were many discoveries and realizations that were made and further questions to answer,” Asher said. “A benefit of coming to UNL was the possibility of intersecting with the Water for Food Institute and the Drought Mitigation Center. In addition, UNL’s Innovation Campus—with primary themes of study centered around food, water and fuel—is an ideal environment for designers to intersect with and participate in that kind of research.”

Design can influence what people consume and how they behave, she said.

“Transdisciplinary research allows investigators to go beyond their own discipline and inform one another’s work,” Asher said. “Professor Singer’s knowledge in the role of research in design education and a shared interest in transdisciplinary collaboration led us to do this class collaboratively.”

In addition to focusing on their own chosen research topics to create the zine spreads, the students at both schools are sharing narratives about the future on a class blog and completing comparative typologies for each other.

“A typology is a way to compare and contrast like things,” Asher said. “For example, someone could take a picture of sewer drains on campus, and by putting them all together on a grid, you can compare and contrast them in a short amount of time. You can then assess how things were designed and when and how.”

So if a student at San Francisco State, for example, is interested in the water footprint of meat production, she might want to know how many restaurants serve only vegetarian food in Lincoln, Asher said. So one of her students could make a typology of that.

“If they only have six images on their grid, that in itself tells you something,” Asher said. “But you can start to see that this one looks brand new and this one is a chain. It’s a design strategy, to study how things can be divided into different types.”

Andrue Oglesby, a Bachelor of Fine Arts junior from Long Beach, Wash., said the course has been interesting.

“It’s different from most graphic design courses because it is based mostly on research and infographics,” he said.

His research has focused on the production and consumption of alcohol in the United States.

“I’m focusing on the reasons we drink alcohol historically and psychologically,” he said. “And wondering if it is a waste of water to create alcoholic beverages?”

Nick Sharon, a Bachelor of Fine Arts senior from Lincoln, said he now appreciates the skills he is gaining from the course.

“At first I was a little skeptical about the things I could get out of a design course that’s main focus was really around water, food and drought,” Sharon said. “But the more time I took researching and figuring out everything this class is teaching me about research and design, I can use in the many years to come. It really opens my eyes to the many things I can do to prolong the time we have on this planet through design.”

His research is focused on the production of corn and what its uses are, such as feed or to make ethanol.

“I have found quite a bit on the agriculture in Nebraska and where the corn grows, but California was a little bit harder to find information on,” he said.

Sharon is looking forward to presenting his results in the zine and at the Drought Conference.

“I’m a little excited and a little nervous, just because I’m not really educated as well as some of the people that will be attending the conference, but I think that there is a lot of good information that people can really think about and even pass on,” he said.

Asher said her goal was to make the course as real world as possible for them and give them skills they will use later.

“Critical and divergent thinking, transdisciplinary collaboration, as well as the call to design working for social good (rather than the expectations of consumption) are reshaping and expanding the practice,” Asher said. “How can graphic design education, and specifically curriculum, engage students in these new practices, as well as create experiences resulting in real outcomes outside of the idealized confines of the classroom?”

The message is also important.

“Sure designers can set type, use color and graphics to make something look really good, but what are they saying? What is the message?” Asher said. “Designers and visual communicators can be culturally aware by creating work that is socially responsible and influences positive change in society. Graphic designers in the forefront of social change are currently using their design-thinking skills to develop and execute their own solutions to social problems—pushing the boundaries of what design can do.”

Sharon said designers have the opportunity to have a big impact on everything that is happening in the world.

“The more that I design, the more and more I am convinced that you need to design with purpose and meaning,” he said.

During the conference, participants will be encouraged to interact with the displays and provide feedback to the students.

“We might have Post-It notes for people to write comments or ask questions or maybe even suggest resources,” Asher said.

After the symposium, students will create a process book that shows the beginning, middle and end of their research, and they will promote the zine on social media.

Asher said one of the benefits of graphic design is displaying information and communicating big stories in a more aesthetically-engaging reading.

“There is a natural transdisciplinary research already happening with graphic design,” she said. “Many disciplines have poster sessions at their conferences. Soil scientists are using graphic design to make posters about their research to share with people at a conference so they can give people an idea of what their research is without having to read an 80-page paper. So it’s natural for us to be talking about these topics, and then also for other disciplines to see how we visualize information could be useful for them in their own presentations.”

The students will leave the class with great skills, Asher said.

“They’re going to have some valuable tools in their belt, skills that will be useful to their careers and a portfolio that will show what they can do,” Asher said. “Demonstrating that you know how to research for a project is very important. Critical thinking is one of the best skills they can come out of this with, and then applying it to their own voice and where their interests are.”