10 Ways to Ruin a Perfectly Good Design Assignment: Guest Blog by Dave Underwood

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This guest blog by talented author Dave Underwood takes a tongue-in-cheek look at what NOT to do when creating multimedia assignments for students. As a media consultant, he has worked with many faculty and students to help them become comfortable with the different technologies available for multimedia projects. For a great example of one such project, see his article with Cecilia Pang, Head of Performance at the University of Colorado Boulder. — The Editor

"I'm really frustrated. My prof wants me to make a meaningful image in Photoshop, but I don't know what he means by that. And I've never used Photoshop. Can't I do something meaningful without having to learn new software?"

Jeremy's on the verge of a major freakout, and I'd love to help, but where to start? Somehow, the assignment he's been given — which was, I'm assuming, designed to help Jeremy better understand the rhetorical strategy of political posters — has nose-dived badly. Now he's more concerned with layer styles than with propaganda styles. I know his teacher is after something deeper, but Jeremy is the third student I've worked with today who's in the same harried state.

Welcome to my world. I'm an academic media consultant at a state university. My background is in graphic design and illustration, but I've been lucky over the years to see my job shift from straight-up, in-house production into consulting, teaching, and coaching. In a nutshell, I meet with faculty at the beginning of the semester to help them plan and carry out multimedia assignments. After we hatch a plan, I typically offer their classes a series of media-themed guest lectures, which I follow up with office-hours style coaching sessions for students like Jeremy. Business is booming — the belief that tomorrow's effective communicator will master multiple modes of message delivery is catching fire — and, as you might imagine, I see dozens of frustrated students at the receiving end of the multimodal revolution.

I worry that the time will come when my services will go unneeded. Jeremy and his classmates will understand their assignments perfectly well and go about fulfilling their requirements with enthusiasm. Want to help me hang onto my job? It's easy, really. In the interest of self-preservation, I'm sharing a handful of helpful pointers which, used individually or in aggregate, are guaranteed to keep students confused (and me employed) well into the foreseeable future. Feel free to use them often.

1. Don't trust process; make sure students place deep faith in serendipity.

Or not. Creative professionals know that waiting for the muse to make a house call is no way to work a project. This isn't to say that serendipity and flashes of genius don't play a part in developing good ideas. It's just that they're unreliable, time-consuming, and unbelievably coy.

When assigning a paper, it feels natural to require outlines and establish waypoints that help students stay focused and productive. But what about a poster? Or a video? As communications challenges, they're strikingly similar, yet when students come to me with these types of design projects, they invariably tell me they don't know where to start.

There is a cure, and it's process-based. I call it "list and squeeze," and it always works. I have the student start by listing everything related to their subject that is unique, interesting, rhyme-based, visually clever, emotionally engaging.... This list can go on for pages, and it's the single most powerful way I know to get things moving and spark creativity. Virtually every student I've worked with has warmed to the assignment within minutes of embarking on this exercise. Essentially, they migrate from a sense of abject paralysis to a feeling of control, and from there the project becomes eminently doable.

The "squeeze" part refers to pushing key ideas or "hooks" though conventional communications ports such as humor, irony, fear, storytelling, personification, tribalism, shock, or appetite-fulfillment. Students see these treatments everywhere, and, once they've established a useful framework, they often come up with not just one, but two, three, and often more great ideas. Sometimes it's hard, in fact, to get them to stop inventing.

I'm certain many other processes would help students stop worrying and start producing. I like this one because it's a proven workhorse. The key here is to give Jeremy a sense of movement. And a moving Jeremy is a calm Jeremy.

2. Sequester your classroom from the outside world; life flourishes in a vacuum.

Or dies slowly. Let's say you want your students to compose a short piece for a jazz quartet. Where do you start? You'd have them listen to lots of other jazz quartet music first, wouldn't you? Why should design be any different?

Experienced designers wouldn't dream of digging into a design project without first looking at what their peers are doing. (Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino are said to watch a ton of movies before they even start shooting a new film.) Your students should be no different. By looking at and analyzing examples of other work, your students will, whether they're aware of it or not, begin to develop their own well-defined playbook of what works best in media design.

Expose them to failures. When I teach graphic design, I aim for a 50:50 ratio of good and bad examples. Needless to say, the postmortems my students pronounce on unsuccessful work are deeply instructive (and sometimes side-splittingly funny). Show me a rousing failure and I'll hand you a budding success.

3. Don't question the team; they'll probably work things out on their own.

Teams are self-regulating, aren't they? Every student on every team in your class will ultimately contribute and learn at equal levels, right?

I used to co-manage a media lab on our campus, and this gave my officemate and me a unique window on the dynamics of students working in teams. I think things hit rock bottom when a young woman (and I think gender is significant here) came to us in tears. It seems her teammates, all men (again, probably significant), had come in over the weekend and, without her knowledge, finished the team's short video project on their own. The end product was very good, but that wasn't the point. The young woman had seen her ideas swept aside and ignored. We were livid but also pretty certain her professor would never catch wind of this — not, at least, of how seriously it had hurt and enraged the student. We've seen variations on this theme repeated many times since, and it strikes us that there may be a pathology at work here.

Asking students to work in teams has always been problematic. Sure, the collaborative experience can be powerful and transformative when everything goes well. But we all know about the slackers and their polar opposites and how in-team politics can sometimes get nasty. Working with multimedia introduces a new, even messier variable: technology. Very often the student with the killer technology chops overrides the student with the great idea, and what could have been a beautiful partnership becomes an ugly, uninspired standoff. Trust me, this happens a lot. The takeaway here — that proficiency with technology is too easily conflated with true creativity — is, instructor beware. You have every right to get nosy about what's going on behind the scenes.

4. Keep them guessing; a little doubt is a good thing.

Or is it? Uncertainty can be terrifying for students. Being thrown into a video production or design assignment without a clear-cut idea of the project's goals or how much labor will be involved is unfair. Recall our friend Jeremy. When he heard "meaningful image" and "Photoshop" mentioned in the same assignment, he immediately lost his way. I'm always saddened to find students like Jeremy wandering aimlessly in the technology wilderness, searching for solutions.

Instructors can help students tremendously by letting them in on the big picture. What, ultimately, are they supposed to do? Convince us. Move us. Unsettle us. Start there, then offer technical recommendations, preferably with lots of examples, later on. The introduction of the assignment is a bad time to mention specifics, like "MP4" or "InDesign." Keep students focused on outcomes, not on the minutiae of execution.

I would rather see a student spend the lion's share of his or her time husbanding great ideas (and becoming increasingly excited about them!) than fretting over Photoshop's filter menu. Outstanding work is all about motivation and passion; with a great idea driving the effort, mastering the necessary software and hardware skills becomes almost painless.

5. Be afraid; be very afraid.

I met with a professor a couple of years ago who was feeling pressured to add a video project to his "Media in Society" course. Most of his colleagues were doing multimedia of one sort or another, and he was starting to feel as if he'd better board the bus or be left behind.

But he was scared to death. He had never even launched a media creation application or used a digital video camera. "I don't know how I can assign my class something that I don't know how to do myself," he told me during a coffee shop confessional. "My students will revolt. They'll drive me into the quad and publicly disgrace me." I reminded him that he had an amazing eye for film and art — his critiques were widely published — yet he'd never stood behind a tripod or worked oils into a canvas.

It does take a leap of faith to ask your students to do something that's well outside your area of expertise. But that certainly doesn't mean you're unqualified to assess their work. Avoiding risk in your teaching can become habit-forming. This isn't good.

My professor friend went ahead with the media assignment. I assured him that his students wouldn't flail about helplessly as long as they knew what he expected of them (see Number 4) and as long as his assessment rubric was articulate and firm. I told him that if his class did hit snags with technology (always a given), they should come to me or one of my officemates for help. (If your school lacks a teaching support department like mine, lobby for one.) Remember that students are naturally resourceful and that the web is abundantly helpful, with all manner of technical instruction on multimedia creation.

The student projects from the "Media in Society" class turned out, by and large, to be very good. As the instructor has fine-tuned and recycled the assignment, the level of student accomplishment in his course has ratcheted consistently upward. Still, I'm pretty certain my professor friend has yet to use a digital video camera.

6. Don't offer alternatives: box your class in.

But, if you want to see real results and bring a little joy to the classroom, try opening doors rather than guarding gates. Give students as much latitude as possible in how they proceed with their projects.

A couple of years ago, I was helping an instructor who very much liked the "This I Believe" essay format, as popularized by National Public Radio. She wanted her students to record their written personal narratives for delivery as podcasts, using NPR's feature as a model. (This entails considerably more than simply reading one's work into a microphone. Pacing, tone, and inflection all contribute to an engaging and powerful work.) One of her students was terribly self-conscious about the sound of his voice and wanted to farm out the actual reading to a classmate. The instructor insisted on the NPR credo that personal work be personally produced. The student's final recording, though brilliantly written, was distractingly flawed. It occurred to me that a wonderful alternative existed — letting the student write a detailed and dynamic treatment of his essay, then contracting out the specialty work. In meticulously scripting and directing the production, the student would have met, understood, and surmounted the same rhetorical challenges as his classmates, and the end result would have rocked.

I often help students with stunning ideas who find themselves straightjacketed by resources and budget (nonnegotiable) or the assignment itself (negotiable). Offering alternate routes and removing capriciously placed roadblocks can go a long way toward generating student excitement. And there's absolutely no reason that doing so need threaten the pedagogical rigor of the assignment. You might find, in fact, the inverse to be true.

7. Lighten up on those critiques; why make waves?

For many students a media project is their first foray into multimodal communication, so why bog them down with criticism? And for many teachers, grading work that relies critically on things like lighting, sound editing, and typesetting is tough, especially, for instance, in a freshman English class. So, just this once, why not grade on effort?

No way. If you can grade a paper based on qualitative data, you can do the same with a poster or video. And if you've developed and tested your assessment rubric well, you're entitled to weigh in forcefully on presentation day. It's what your students want, actually.

There are a few curve balls waiting, though. The most nettlesome is the one that involves the ongoing battle between production values and proof-of-concept. Some students may have great ideas, but their work is noisy, poorly defined, and just plain rough around the edges. Others may have access to their roommate's ultra-exotic Red EPIC hi-def video camera and a friend willing to supply an original musical score, but they have the shakiest of core concepts. What to do?

Your first step, even before turning your students loose on an assignment, is to address this disparity and to let them know that you're not about to be blinded by a slick, aimless production. While you understand that video shot on a cell phone and edited in iMovie will necessarily fall short of Hollywood standards, you do have a keen nose for laziness; in your class, "I'm stuck with a low budget" simply won't cut it. This little pre-game huddle with the ref is surprisingly helpful and too-often neglected. It gives you a great start on enforcing your grading rubric with unflinching authority and without regrets.

Asking for written justification for production choices is another way to instill confidence in your grading. Most of my faculty clients do this routinely, and I can't imagine soft-pedaling this aspect of the assignment. Why did you choose this font? How does this music support the message of your video? Why did you use so much white space? Ideally, your students will be answering these questions as they work, and even the most "artsy" among them will be thinking about the logic of how and why certain media devices hit their target. Hold their feet to the fire here and everyone wins...even the student with the high-end camera.

8. Don't bug the experts; they're busy.

There's no earthly reason to ask a media professional to help with your class, is there? Unless, of course, you want your students to get a full spectrum of instruction, a sense of fraternity with creative professionals, and an intriguing glimpse into real-world problem solving.

Several years ago I helped a class with a big assignment that involved interviewing a dozen or so healthcare providers on a wide range of social issues. At about the same time, I was working on a side project with a local video production company. During a phone conversation with one of the company's producers, I mentioned the class project at the university. "You should have Gary come talk to the students about shooting," he told me. "He's a total wiz, and he loves sharing what he knows." Really?!?

I'd never dreamed of reaching out to the local creative community for help with university projects, but when I called Gary, he responded with such enthusiasm, I wished I'd tried it much sooner. Not only was he willing to visit the class and go over the nuts and bolts of shooting a beautiful and effective interview, he would also be happy, he said, to assist with the actual shooting. Would we like him to bring his gear? And an audio engineer? And how about editing: would the class like a sampler of cool tricks?

As it turns out, Gary's response was by no means singular. I've since discovered that most professionals are dying to share what they've learned from their years in the trenches. I'm not certain quite how to account for this, but I'm happy just knowing that scores of highly talented people working in my city will happily drop what they're doing for an afternoon to come work with our students.

What does this look like to the student? The class response to an expert guest speaker has always been very positive. And I do think that the involvement of the pros lends an element of credibility to what the instructor is asking of her students. (And if it doesn't, that's valuable as well: "Actually, in our shop, we don't write treatments at all anymore; we go right from the script to the storyboard.")

9. Stay away from service learning; there's too much about it that you can't control.

If you feel that control and teaching might be a bit like oil and water, you may find that the divine chaos of working for a community partner can pump new life into your curriculum.

After helping dozens of instructors with multimedia projects over the years, one thing has become glaringly obvious to me: students do much better work when they know the end product will be seen publicly and will positively affect their world. I could go on and on about the power of service learning, but I prefer letting my friend Gabe do the speaking here.

Gabe was a senior in an International Affairs class, and the project he and his teammates had been given was to produce and package training materials for our local children's hospital. The end product gave hospital volunteers a good introduction to working with multi-cultured patients and their families. It was presentation day — several hospital representatives were in class and were being given the royal client treatment — and toward the end of the session, Gabe stood and said, "In four years of attending classes at this school, this is actually the first meaningful work I've done."

It was simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming and a wholly eloquent summary of why service learning works. Find nonprofits in your area that could use a little help with communications and see how one phone call can turbocharge 20 students for an entire semester.

10. Never, ever let fun into the classroom.

Some old-schoolers may hate me for saying this, but I frequently tell students that if the project isn't fun, they're doing something wrong. Admittedly, this sounds like the ultimate feel-good nonsense, but I've arrived at this point of view honestly. From years of doing design work, I know that fighting with a project most often means something is fundamentally out of whack — it's time to go back to the drawing board. There's no shame in retreat when you've hit the wall.

One of the great joys of my coaching role comes from helping students up and over that wall. It's surprising how often a second pair of eyes can see an alternate route, one that's quite often frictionless (which is not to be confused with effortless) and which allows a student to move ahead with an idea that's more natural and more in line with her own way of speaking. Once the student finds that voice and feels enthused about deeper exploration and more personalized expression, she will happily devote hours and hours to the job because it's...well, fun.

You've undoubtedly heard this referred to as "working in the zone." I'm convinced that that zone exists, in one fashion or another, as prime habitat for solutions for virtually every creative problem. I've never done good work without dipping into the zone, and while I'm there, I love what I'm doing and time quite often comes to a standstill. I think this is worth sharing with students.

I know how syrupy this all sounds, and I'd regard it with deep suspicion myself had I not so often seen students light up and fly when they finally discover their own style. Try the "fun" goal as a starting point, not as a sidebar, and see what happens.

A Heartfelt Thank You from the Instructional Media Guy

Now that I've shared with you some truly effective ways to hobble an otherwise fabulous media design assignment, I trust you'll use them often. I'm not ready to retire anytime soon, and I'd truly appreciate your ongoing support.

After all, we're in this together!