At their best, experimental spaces within the university inspire new fields of inquiry, cultivate new pedagogies, and make cross-disciplinary connections. The innovative University of Wisconsin-Madison’s DesignLab was established in 2011 in order to improve the media literacy of students at the university and to serve as a space of inquiry and experimentation for media work. Indeed, the creative environment of DesignLab has fostered my own interest in the potential of media forms to intervene in political processes. As a graduate student in English and a TA consultant at DesignLab, much of my day is spent contemplating the affordances and constraints of media platforms with students and faculty across campus. In what follows, I give a brief introduction to DesignLab, and then I present a specific example of one of the creative media platforms that we are currently teaching.
WHY? While print books and traditional papers remain the core texts of the university, assignments and research projects that utilize text, image, sound, and animation have broadened the ways we think about communication. Genres like video blogs, digital essays, and serious games are being leveraged more often to tell stories, to teach students, and to present research.
WHAT? DesignLab is perhaps best described as a writing center for digital media projects. Led by Director Jon McKenzie (English) and Associate Director Rosemary Bodolay (Libraries) and housed in College Library, DesignLab helps students develop and communicate their ideas in media genres such as digital storytelling, interactive posters, and professional websites. In one-on-one appointments, consultants at DesignLab help students and faculty use design concepts to support the content of their work in ways that are thoughtful, innovative, and relevant.
HOW? When I consult with a client, I often begin by focusing on the conceptual and aesthetic aspects of the assignment by considering the interaction of the information architecture and the information design. I might do this by considering the hierarchy of information within the student’s work, such as the order of the navigation bar in a website, the arrangement of headings on a poster, or the story structure of a game. Equally important is the look and feel of a project; it is crucial that the design elements complement the content of a project rather than distract from it. Design elements include, the images, color, font, sound, and animation and their overall interaction within the media platform.
WHO? DesignLab clients come from many different departments across campus. Undergrads, graduate students, and instructors bring in projects that range from single blog posts to large-scale digital projects. Some of the clients that have utilized DesignLab this semester include:
- Business professor creating an effective website compilation assignment
- Journalism student brainstorming ideas for a video essay assignment
- Graduate student in Public Health designing a conference poster
- Spanish student starting a blog for her study abroad semester to Mexico
- English major editing an illustrated proposal for an interactive museum project
In addition to individual consultations, DesignLab also hosts Digital Salon, a digital museum installation of student projects, and fosters media literacy across campus.
The experimental space of DesignLab encourages connections between different disciplines and at the same time cultivates creative teaching and learning practices.