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ASU researcher helps students unleash the power of good design

ASU professor of technical communication Claire Lauer

Associate professor Claire Lauer recently won the Ellen Nold Award for writing the best article in the field of computers and composition studies. She teaches multimedia writing in the technical communication program in the College of Letters and Sciences at ASU's Polytechnic campus.
Photo by: Charlie Leight/ASU News

June 25, 2015

Claire Lauer wants her students to become confident creators of multimedia communications for work and everyday life.

“As seasoned users of visual culture, students often come to the university with the ability to recognize good design when they see it, but they don’t know how to produce it themselves,” said Lauer, an associate professor at Arizona State University who focuses on unlocking that potential.

Lauer, who recently won the Ellen Nold Award for her research on technology-related keywords, teaches in the technical communication programs offered at ASU’s Polytechnic campus and online as part of the College of Letters and Sciences.

“Knowing how to take mountains of data, distill it and visually present it in a rhetorically professional and ethical way that is easy for readers to understand is a literacy skill that is almost essential today,” she said, “for people in the sciences, journalism, business – for anyone who has to communicate in almost any kind of organization.”

Two of Lauer’s courses, TWC 411: Principles of Visual Communication and TWC 414: Visualizing Data and Information, are relevant for anyone wanting to develop their skills in crafting content that harnesses the power of visual design. The classes are open to students in any major.

‘White space is not your enemy’

ASU junior Beth Toci took Principles of Visual Communication in fall 2014 to complement her graphic information technology major in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

“My semester in Claire's classroom taught me about light, color, space, contrast, size, etc., and how each plays an important role in how a design affects the viewer,” Toci said. “I also learned to apply rules like ‘white space is not your enemy’ and ‘err on the side of readability’ to make my designs effective and visually appealing.”

She said she’s now better able to explain her design thought processes and to recognize and describe why a particular design can evoke specific feelings or reactions.

“In a nutshell, Claire taught me how good design holds great power, and gave me the ability to create quality work that can mold an audience to my purpose as a designer,” she said.

Lauer said that what she loves most about her work is that visual literacy is relatively achievable with practice of basic design principles and tools. 

“Learning simple building blocks and being able to name principles students might have known all along but didn’t know how to speak about or replicate, often opens up a whole new realm of meaning-making that can make their communications more rich and complex,” she noted.

Career-changing impact

Paul MacDonald had been working as a self-taught, registered architect when the economic downturn brought construction to a halt.

“In 2009, when the building industry essentially stopped, I worked for a while fixing computers, and decided to go to college and get my first bachelor’s degree,” MacDonald said.

He enrolled in the College of Letters and Sciences’ technical communication degree program and in his junior and senior years took Principles of Visual Communication and Visualizing Data and Information with Lauer.

“Both courses, but particularly Visualizing Data and Information, had a profound effect on my education and career,” said MacDonald, who graduated in fall 2014 and is back in the field of architecture, working as a senior designer at the Scottsdale firm Allen + Philp Architects.

“I work with data sets just about every day. Having the ability to better visualize information, eventually represented or expressed as an object (a building, outdoor space or piece of furniture) makes me a better designer. …

“What we learned [in the course] about presenting information to our audience has also had a positive impact on my work. My presentations to clients and other stakeholders are done with greater clarity and control.”

Award-winning research

As the communication landscape expands, Lauer has centered one strand of her research on documenting and analyzing the terms that scholars are using to describe new kinds of digital work, such as “new media,” “multimedia” and “digital media.”

“In courses and the workplace today, we may be asked to construct communications using HTML, iMovie, Prezi,  Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop, and InDesign; incorporating audio and video clips, images, interactive links and text, with an expectation that attention be paid to color, font, layout, organization, layering and other design elements,” Lauer said.

“So what do we call this kind of composition? How would you describe the faculty member you wanted to hire to teach such a course? If you asked 10 people what they would call it, how many different answers would you get?”

She scoured 20 years of the Modern Language Association (MLA) Job Information List advertisements, looking at the use of 17 technology-related terms used to describe the texts, technologies and composing practices that groups were looking for in new hires from 1990 to 2010.

“I wanted to see what patterns emerged and what the clusters of influence might be,” Lauer said.

The resulting research article was honored with the Ellen Nold Award, presented annually for the best article in the field of computers and composition studies, at the national Computers in Writing conference in Wisconsin in May.

In recognizing Lauer’s work, Kristine L. Blair, a professor of English at Bowling Green State University, noted: “This study is the first of its kind in our field and necessary to understanding how our field is both defined and shaped by these postings.”

What were some of the findings?

The term “computer” is being used less frequently. “Digital” (when describing a field such as digital humanities), she found, is being used more to signal a break from tradition, rather than just conveying the literal notion that a text is digital. And “new media” is frequently used to signal a progressive, cutting-edge professional writing or English degree.

“As a field we won’t always agree on which terms to use or how those terms should be defined, but knowing which terms have fallen in and out of favor, when, and in what contexts, can inform how we lead the way forward through our rapidly changing technological landscape,” Lauer said.