ASU researcher helps students unleash the power of good design

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. 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 Download Full Image

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.

Maureen Roen

Director, Creative Services, College of Integrative Sciences and Arts


Big man, big legacy: Artwork of 'Big Al' Carter comes to ASU

June 25, 2015

An artist who refused labels, Allen "Big Al" Carter fused styles and invented techniques to share his vision with the world.

More than 80 of his powerful paintings, sculptures, drawings and assemblages are on view this summer at the ASU Art Museum, thanks to Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts Dean Steven J. Tepper. portrait of Allen "Big Al" Carter painting The late Allen "Big Al" Carter was classically trained, but the artist presented himself as an outsider to the fine arts world, someone who was just “trying stuff” and “messing around.” Photo by: D.A. Peterson Download Full Image

Tepper first met Allen “Big Al” Carter in 1992, when Tepper commissioned the artist to create a mural for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s 200th anniversary.

“I knew, from the beginning, that I was in the presence of an epic creative force whose work would leave a huge legacy,” Tepper said. Standing 6 feet, 4 inches tall, “Al had a big laugh, a big personality, a big imagination, a big heart and immense talent.”

Over the course of the next decade and a half years, Tepper visited Carter’s studio in Virginia every chance he got, “enveloping myself in more than 10,000 works of art, crammed into a 750-square-foot house,” Tepper said. The two men became friends.

After Carter died of complications from diabetes in 2008, his daughters allowed Tepper, who was then the associate director of the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy at Vanderbilt University, to curate the first posthumous exhibition of their father’s life’s work. The show opened at the Curb Center in 2010.

Now Tepper is bringing Carter’s unique vision to ASU’s Tempe campus. Featuring more than 80 pieces, “Big Al: Larger Than Life” opened June 6 at the ASU Art Museum, with additional works to be displayed in Dixie Gammage Hall, which houses the dean’s office, later in the summer.

“I am honored to share [this exhibition] with our community,” Tepper said. "Allen Carter was a prolific painter whose life and work represents the very best ideals that we are advancing at the Herberger Institute.”

“While Big Al was classically trained,” Tepper explained, “he was constantly fusing styles and media and inventing techniques. He was an artist-teacher, an artist-citizen and an artist-community builder. His work drew powerfully from his own experiences but was always deeply connected to exploring and investigating central issues of our times — poverty, inequality, suffering and family.”

As Tepper writes in an essay that accompanies the show, Carter presented himself as an outsider to the fine arts world, someone who was just “trying stuff,” “messing around” and “having fun.” But Carter was also someone who had earned his BFA from the Columbus College of Art and Design in Ohio, pursued graduate work at American University, received critical acclaim from critics in Washington and New York, and exhibited at the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the Freer Gallery of Art, both in Washington, D.C.; the Virginia Museum of Art in Richmond; and the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Carter refused labels of any kind, Tepper notes, but was keenly aware of technique and had a firm grasp of artistic tradition. His influences included James McNeill Whistler, Henri Matisse, Robert Rauschenberg, Elijah Pierce, Sam Gilliam and artists from Black Mountain College, including Josef Albers. He worked in a wide variety of media: painting, drawing, murals, printmaking, sculpture and photography, as well as in multimedia constructions.

Growing up in the public-housing complexes of Virginia in the ‘50s, Carter was driven by a passion to draw everything he saw. It was not a passion his parents encouraged, Carter told The Washington Post in 2006, but “I was gifted in art, so I never stopped. There weren’t any gifted and talented programs back when I was coming up. So they all just thought I was weird.”

Carter remained true to the beat of his own dream, and to art, for the rest of his life. Not interested in prestigious dealers or conventional ideas of success, he made his living teaching art in Virginia’s public schools for decades. He also declined to date most of his work, partly because he was bad with dates, partly because he liked to continue working on the pieces, and partly because, as Tepper writes, “He did not want his life set down in a neat chronology or simple narrative.”

As Carter himself put it, “My art is my freedom.”

“Big Al: Larger Than Life” runs June 6-Aug. 22 at the ASU Art Museum. It was curated by Dana and Steven J. Tepper and designed by Stephen Johnson, chief preparator at the ASU Art Museum. All works in the exhibition are on loan from Flora Stone and Cecilia Carter. The exhibition is supported by the ASU Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts and by the Evelyn Smith Exhibition Fund. 

Deborah Sussman

Communications and media specialist, Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts