On Design: Visual Literacy in Interface Design

During my art education at Emily Carr College in the 80s, I took a unique opportunity to study visual literacy under the college’s Dean of Education, Tom Hudson. This research and study involved developing computer-based imagery research for Tom’s telecourse, “Mark and Image”.

In practical terms, it was like having a world-class personal tutor. We started off simply, using the limited personal computer resources available at the time. I remember using Koala Painter (with the KoalaPad and stylus) on a Commodore 64. I divided my screen into quadrants; the first of many “worksheets” which Tom had all his traditional-media drawing students do as well. Inside one of the quadrants, Tom instructed me to draw points and to arrange them spatially. “Feel the space between the points. Feel the space,” Tom’s voice told me. I smirked self-consciously, feeling too much like Luke Skywalker to Tom’s Obi-Wan Kenobi. But I was learning to watch and to listen. Tom’s guidance resonated with me and I kept at it, slowly beginning to learn about the space, pace, rhythm and texture of points, lines and shapes. We started in black and white, and moved into colour when we started looking at “primary” shapes and basic geometry.

I did dozens of screens like this on the C-64, and later, scores and scores more on the Amiga, where the spatial resolution and colour palette were significantly improved. However, it was still a pixely, chunky drawing medium, compared with paper, ink and charcoal. We learned that any deficiencies in resolution were quickly compensated for by the advantages of digital memory. “Cut and paste” and numerous other near-instant transformational capabilities provided by our little paint program provided us with almost unlimited possibilities for variations and explorations.

As for the drawing exercises themselves, it was a bit like learning a new kind of basic grammar, like learning musical notes, chords, and scales. I was actually learning a new vocabulary of visual elements; perceptual dynamics that underlie every man-made visual image. I learned later that the approach Tom took with his computer-based drawing students was based in the Bauhaus Basic Course, in principles taught by Wassily Kandinsky, and in aspects of visual perception documented by Rudolph Arnheim.

These were the same principles that Tom and his colleagues had infused into the British Art Education system back in the 1950s. So, I watched, I drew, and I studied, feeling part of a very fascinating modernist educational tradition.

Now, as I contemplate how my career has progressed and I continue to refine my skills in interface design, I must admit that those early teachings with Tom still have so much to offer me. His voice is still in my ear, and I need to keep listening…

See: “Visual Literacy in Software Design” (paper).

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