Stephanie J. West-Puckett

writing, teaching, studying digital writing and rhetorics

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Wicked Problems, Indeed

Click here for your ticket to the Slide Show

As a Tar River Writing Project Professional Development Facilitator, I was asked to do a workshop about reflective writing for high school graphic arts teachers at the Printing Industry of the Carolinas Fall Conference in Kiowah Island, SC this weekend.  In my first-year composition classes, I’ve been using Wycoki’s Compose, Design, Advocate text and working with idea of writing as design while thinking about recent scholarship in college composition that redefines “writing” or “composition” as a social process that integrates alphabetic, visual and oral modes to communicate effectively with an audience.  This writing-as-design concept metaphor will, I think, be a useful way for this image-oriented audience of graphic designers and graphic design teachers to think about multi-modal communication practices.

What was interesting to me in my own process of articulating this metaphor and integrating research-based approaches to the teaching of writing with a more recent turn to design in composition studies (Marback, 2009) is the way my thinking changed and restructured it as I moved from a page layout Word Document to the big screen SlideRocket platform that I used to create the presentation.

Much of the original content that I included in the Word Document did get remediated into the slide show,  although in a different order, but the SlideRocket interface pushed my thinking beyond just the explication of the design metaphor and the sharing of a teaching strategy to encourage metacognition and reflective writing.  With the linear progression of slides, I started to think more chronologically about how the Designer’s Memo is sequenced to support other writing scaffolds that result in the eventual production of student portfolios for course evaluation.

In my conceptualization of this presentation and the early writing that I’ll include here below, I had planned only to briefly mention Design Plans and E-Portfolio Cover Letters, but the a-contextualization of the Designer’s Memo seemed odd when translated into the slideshow medium, so I fleshed out the other strategies I use to scaffold student awareness of process and products, making what I hope is a more useful presentation for teachers who might try these instructional approaches in their classrooms.

What is more strikingly obvious in the slideshow is a scarcity of visuals and voice.  With the exception of images of student design work, there are no visual appeals as I had real difficulty using the image and drawing tools available in the Sliderocket program.  Even adding basic shapes to create graphic organizers was problematic as I could not effectively manipulate their placement and didn’t have the time to really learn the visual tools before producing this text-heavy communication that is required of me by Saturday.  And neither did I bother to include a voice-over narration since I’ll be performing the content live– with embodied voice and gesture; however, I am thinking of recording my presentation and splicing in audio and perhaps video for web-delivery– yet another remediation meant to satisfy broader audiences and contexts.

But despite my argument for integrated communication modalities, my audience of graphically-minded teachers will clearly see that I am more proficient with words than I am with visuals and these exigencies do indeed produce “wicked design problems” (Rittel, as qtd. in Marbeck).   I just hope I can pull off a good delivery in the room– two out of three won’t be half bad.

Word Document Write-Up

In recent years, the field of composition or writing studies has moved toward a design approach that recognizes writing as designing.  Much like the architectural designer conceives a material structure that both draws on her own complicated values (environmentalism, minimalism, structuralism, regionalism etc.) and meets the complicated, sometimes contradictory needs of the client, the writer/designer shapes texts to communicate with an audience and meet human needs.

And since writer/designers are working to meet human needs—a job that is never efficient, easy or straightforward– they writer/designer has to make the best decisions at a fixed point in time to produce an effective communication.  Design Theorist Horst WJ Rittl described this messy complicated process as a “wicked problem” because a single process can never produce a perfect solution given the multiplicity of audiences, purposes, and contexts that call one to produce a design (Marback, 2009).

And while producing effective texts is difficult enough when the methods are unimodal, meaning a message is only being communicated in one mode, such as alphabetic text, this “wicked problem” is compounded when writers/designers use multiple modes of communication such as written, visual and oral modes—employing images (moving and still), color, voice, gesture, font, document design, and music to persuade an audience.  With the proliferation of digital tools for writing and designing that enable multimodal texts, writer/designers have to develop even more refined metacognitive strategies that allow them to control both the process of design and the products of that process.

Role of Metacognition in Design

To pose effective solutions to these “wicked problems in design, writer/designers have to have both process knowledge and product knowledge.  Process knowledge includes the ability to set goals, evaluate one’s own progress toward a goal, and the ability to adjust one’s process when it is not working toward the desired end.   Product knowledge means having an awareness of design types, their structures and their organizations.   Experienced writer/designers have learned to scan both their memories and their physical environment for the raw material of their compositions, keep both purpose and audience in mind, draw from a repertoire of strategies/ styles, choose arrangements (layouts) that meet audience needs, and work in a medium (webpage, poster, essay, brochure, Flash animation, etc.) that is appropriate for the writer/designer’s purpose, audience and context (Sitko, 1998).

As teachers, we can foster the cognitive development of our students and help them develop metacognitive strategies that transfer to multiple design contexts.  And while an expert orator who can control her voice, inflection, body language and gestures in an oral delivery may not work as effortlessly when communicating in visual modes, having more difficulty in arranging type, choosing effective typefaces, and selecting color with intentionality, we can employ strategic instruction to help student writer/designers set goals, translate ideas into products, and reduce cognitive overload when working through these messy problems of design (Sitko, 1998).

Designer’s Memo

The Designer’s Memo (adapted from Sommer’s Teacher-Student Memo, 1998)  is one strategic intervention that helps students gain control over design process and design product and develop metacognitive awareness through guided reflection.   A useful scaffold that can provide raw material for a more comprehensive portfolio or e-portfolio cover letter, a rational for the Designer’s Memo includes:

  1. Prompts the designer to reflect on her processes of composition and consider the flexibility of those processes
  2. Encourages the designer’s sense of agency (control) and responsibility for her design
  3. Engages the designer in soliciting the kinds of feedback that they desire from an audience and negotiate meaning with the audience
  4. Requires the designer to critically read and evaluate her own work—noting both the strengths and weaknesses in the design product  (Broad, 2010)

The Designer’s Memo is typically written in later in the process but before a designer submits his or her work for response.  In the classroom, this can be a peer audience and/or a teacher audience; however, the memo questions assume a collaborative design process–that the designer has already received some feedback and talked to others about the work, possibly even the receiver of the memo, before she writes the memo.

As an in-the-moment snapshot of a process and product, the Designer’s Memos can be a useful tool in fixing the particular problems, successes, and questions a designer is addressing as well as an early evaluative response to a product in process.  While portfolio cover letters can trace the larger narrative of the students’ growth and development as a designer and a student of design, the Designer’s Memos will be snapshots or scenes that the writer can splice together, edit and use to produce the larger story of the portfolio cover letter.

Designer’s Memo Prompt

Use the standard memo headings: To, From, Date, Re

Paragraph #1: Trace the evolution of this design project. When did you decide on this approach to the design problem? What other approaches did you reject in favor of this one? How did your approach evolve from what you knew at first to what you know now? Is there something else the audience should know or consider before reviewing your design?

Paragraph #2: Discuss the specific changes or revisions you’ve made to the design. What suggestions did you get? From whom? Which did you choose to use? Why? Which did you reject? Why? Where in the project did you make these changes? What effects do these choices have on your project/your audience? Why? Be specific about who helped you and what the reviewers suggested!

Paragraph #3:  What specific skills and technical knowledge did you develop while working on this design?  What prior knowledge did you use in the design process?  Where in the design can the reviewer best see evidence of that skill?  What skills and technical issues are you still struggling with?

Paragraph #4:  Come up with at least two or three questions that you really want answered about this design.  Ask for the help you want.  Don’t be afraid to ask your reviewers hard questions as they will are practicing critical reading/reviewing skills as well.