Digital Design Journals

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Cigarette ad, claiming that smoking will keep you thin.Every week this term, students in my Writing and Digital Media course have turned in short Digital Design Journals that share a multimodal text and provide an analysis of how it works. Students have turned in things like commercials, ads, Twitter updates, documentaries, and public service announcements. Some of the texts are recent and born digital, and some are older and simply shared digitally, like the cigarette ad on the right.

Dànielle Nicole DeVoss’s Visual Rhetoric & Document Design syllabus provided the inspiration for the activity. DeVoss asks students to build a document design collection of texts, good and bad, and that they refer to in-class discussion as they work on projects in the course. As I have customized the assignment, it is essentially like a reading response journal, but the readings are student-selected texts of any genre that are shared on digital sites. The assignment in our LMS is straightforward:

Provide a link or an upload of a digital design that connects to what we have been talking about in class. This week find a still design, like an image or photo (not a video or audio). You have lots of options: ad images, catalog photos, magazine/news images, charts or graphs, and more!

You can use the embedding tools on the toolbar to embed images. Your design can relate to the topic for your major projects, but it doesn't have to.

After you give the link, explain how the design demonstrates or violates one of the design principles we have talked about in class, and then provide some analytical commentary.

I added the assignment primarily because I wanted a regular activity in the course outside of the major projects students work on. I didn’t want to develop reading quizzes for this course since that kind of testing clashes with the kind of creativity and student-centered, self-paced learning that I foreground in the course. In past semesters when I have taught the course, I relied on in-class writing activities. Students typically provided status updates or commented on class activities or readings. While those in-class writing activities were okay, they didn’t stand out. They felt more and more like busy work, and less and less like a useful learning strategy.

Weekly design journal entries have given students the chance to talk regularly about rhetorical choices and document design. The student who shared the cigarette ad discussed the audience for the ad, the choice of the model, and the spatial arrangement of the ad. She discussed how the font use distracted from the appearance, and she questioned the claim that cigarettes would help you lose weight. Analyses like this are a far better choice for these students than the in-class writings that I was using in the past.

In addition to these weekly entries, every student gives a presentation on one design journal, another idea borrowed from DeVoss. At the beginning of every class session, a student shares her digital document, describing it, pointing out rhetorical strategies, and discussing its design. During the presentations, they engage the class in discussion by asking questions and encouraging classmates to share observations and reactions. Not only are they writing about these digital documents every week then, but students are also talking about at least one digital text every class session.

This journal strategy is definitely a keeper. I have worried for some time that while students created wonderful projects for the course in the past, they still had difficulty at the end of the term talking about rhetoric and design. They were aware of the concepts and they seemed to apply them; however, they couldn’t talk about them comfortably. We are just past midterm in the semester, and I would say students have gone beyond just talking comfortably about the concepts to discussing them fluently.

I’m so pleased with the way these journals have worked that I am now thinking of how I might use similar design journals in the technical writing and business writing classes that I’ll be teaching in the Spring Semester. I could ask students to share various texts that matter to professional writing and to analyze how they demonstrate (or don’t) concepts like clarity, readability, accuracy, and accessibility. If I ask students to look for kinds of writing that they will ultimately write in their careers, they can build a collection of models that they can use in the class and beyond. I’m still considering logistics, especially since these classes are 100% online, but I think they could be far more useful than the quizzes I have been using.

Have you used design journals of this kind in your classes? Do you have suggestions to help me succeed with them in an online course? I would love to hear from you in the comments. 

About the Author
Traci Gardner, known as "tengrrl" on most networks, writes lesson plans, classroom resources, and professional development materials for English language arts and college composition teachers. She is the author of Designing Writing Assignments, a contributing editor to the NCTE INBOX Blog, and the editor of Engaging Media-Savvy Students Topical Resource Kit.