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CDP: Transform, Transcend, Transmedia

This conversation was held on 5 November 2021. It was edited for clarification and additional commentary was inserted for emphasis.

Brad Bartlett is a Professor at ArtCenter College of Design and Director of Transmedia in the Graphic Design Department. In the Transmedia program, they work with emerging technology to create experiences that cross traditional and emerging media, often using code-based operations to create dynamic systems and unique artifacts. As a practicing designer, Brad combines time-honored craft with cutting edge technology to create work across a range of media, often using generative design methods to accomplish this. For the ArtCenter Viewbook, he designed an algorithm that generated over 40,000 unique catalog covers. In the following conversation we discuss computational design education in ArtCenter’s Transmedia program.

Kyuha Shim (QS)
Please tell us about the Transmedia program at ArtCenter. How are students exposed to digital or computational design, and what are the foundational courses offered by the program?

Brad Bartlett (BB)
Transmedia is one area of emphasis within the graphic design curriculum at ArtCenter. The others include motion, interaction, packaging and print, which is kind of omnipresent. The first four semesters are a linear progression through traditional graphic design and by the fifth semester, students are designing holistic identity systems, bringing together all the skills they’ve learned in previous classes.
After those foundational classes, students are encouraged to take Generative Design and Intro to Transmedia. The Generative Design class introduces code in a way that is relevant to graphic design. We’ve found it can’t be too abstract or non-visual, students crave immediate visual feedback or else they’ll lose interest. Our Intro to Transmedia class encourages students to explore multidimensional storytelling beyond the page and screen.
Next, our Type5: Transmedia class is the capstone of our typographic program where students apply generative design methods across print, screen, spatial and emerging media. In that class, the students create an identity system and visual language that anticipates the places typography will live in the future. We use coding languages like Processing and P5.js to create dynamic and responsive typographic systems and to explore the creative possibilities of data-driven typography. We underscore the idea that these identity systems aren’t static or inert, and are fundamentally different from traditional identity systems that you might have seen in the 1970s and 1980s. We bring a systematic perspective to this approach by encouraging the formulation of a visual language. Within this visual language, you have syntax, diction, and grammar- all the components of spoken language- that can be expressed seamlessly across different media.

Transmedia Graphic Design 2015-2020. © ArtCenter College of Design

Transmedia Diagram. © Brad Bartlett

Transmedia provides not only new tools in the sense of new means to graphic expression but, also, what you have described as, the “systematic perspective to graphic design”. To relate this back to Computational Design, could we say that it provides a particular “lens” to graphic designers? How do you view the relation or transition between traditional and emerging media?

Great question. A systematic perspective enables designers to identify points of synergy across a broad range of media. Each media type has its own unique set of attributes and we want students to develop a firm understanding of those characteristics.
I tell students that the varied formats in print-based media can be seen as different points on a timescale, from fast to slow. To use a track and field analogy, a poster is like a sprinter, it elicits a response in the viewer in about two and a half seconds. Whereas a book is more like a marathon runner, it requires a duration of time for information to be fully absorbed by the reader. In seeing each format from the perspective of time, they’re able learn different ways to engage the reader or viewer, from the visceral immediacy of the poster, to the deeper cognitive engagement of the book.
Next, we sequence the projects from traditional to emerging media, from simplicity to complexity. We encourage students to work in print-based media first, it has fewer moving parts and less technology. Then, we ask them to work with screen-based media to introduce additional levels of complexity. They create websites, microsites, and engage social media platforms. In print, they are often designing singular artifacts, whereas in screen-based media, they can design platforms where users can participate in the very act of design, creating their own unique experience within the parameters set by the designer.

Transmediale. © Chris Taylor

Dublab. © Zeke Wattles

Dynamic visual identity is a great exercise, as it requires constructing visual logic by varying the specification and placement of color, shape, and text, and encourages students to make it generative through code and explore new opportunities that may arise. On the Transmedia Design program website, I saw some fascinating immersive installations. How are students introduced to the expansion from screen to space?

Thanks! Yes, after spending a few weeks designing screen-based media, we move into spatial media and explore the possibilities of multi-dimensional storytelling. This necessitates that students use all the skills that they learned and create something entirely new. It’s often our biggest challenge, building a bridge from what is known, to what is not yet known, or from the comfort zone of 2D design to the emerging possibilities of 3D and 4D design. We ask them to think about different ways that their graphic language will inhabit a spatial context, whether it’s exterior signage or interior wayfinding, then to create an interactive installation that utilizes digital projection. We ask them to think about what happens when the Internet is no longer trapped behind glass.
I should mention that we encourage synergy between our upper term transmedia classes and that students typically take several of these classes in tandem. Whereas our foundational classes can be seen as more linear, our advanced, upper term classes can be seen as more modular, like lego blocks that can be joined to create different combinations. For instance, students taking Type 5: Transmedia will often take Mediatecture, and Generative Typography in tandem, so the final projects begin to dovetail into each other. Together, these classes produce a kind of transmedia ecosystem, and in this way, our students are enabled to prototype their projects in a much more robust way than if they were just taking a single class.

Afropunk. © Yuma Naito

Right, simply acquiring the syntax of a programming language does not make you become a computational designer; designers need to exercise and apply coding in various design contexts to integrate it with their graphic language. Coming back to dynamism, there are several ways to achieve it, including computer-aided or computational methods and tools, like using Adobe Creative Cloud or writing code in Processing. How are students exposed to such methods?

Our students are required to take at least one motion class where they learn the basics of After Effects. It is a good tool for fixed, linear storytelling and for sketching out ideas before working in code. In transmedia, we like to build upon that by encouraging nonlinear thinking and open-ended solutions. This approach aims to create systems that can result in an infinite number of permutations or outcomes. It’s like the difference between Bruce Conner and Sol LeWitt. They both work with time and space. Bruce Conner uses found footage to create immersive installations that are fixed and linear, whereas Sol LeWitt uses basic algorithms to design systems that create sculptures that are open to change every time they’re executed. I love the idea of not necessarily crafting singular artifacts, or things, or objects, but creating larger systems within which any number of possible outcomes or experiences can emerge.

Cubic Construction Diagonal 4 Opposite Corners 1 and 4 Units. © Sol LeWitt

LAIAD Catalog (inspired by LeWitt). © Brad Bartlett

LeWitt is a great example. He crafted instructions that can be adapted to the spatial context of an installation site. It can be argued that, conceptually, it is like the responsiveness that we aim to achieve on-screen through computational design, although his logic was realized by humans instead of machines. Regarding the significance of Computational Design and how design education should (or should not) include it in its curricula, what are your thoughts on its impact and place in design curricula?

Computation has enabled graphic designers to work in new ways and to respond very quickly to the changing social and technological conditions of communication. And though we often talk about “best” practices, it may be more valuable to lean forward into the idea of “next” practices. I think it’s such an interesting speculative space. How do we prepare students for jobs that don’t yet exist?
Often when I talk to students that have been out in the world, it’s less about whether they’re making transmedia, and more about the experience in the classroom that gave them the courage to try something new. Like Alice Rawsthorn’s book, Design as an Attitude, where she uses Moholy-Nagy’s design philosophy as a springboard, I feel that design is an attitude and transmedia isn’t necessarily just about cross-media storytelling. It’s about a willingness to work in new ways to create new experiences and to anticipate the future of graphic design. We really encourage the students to think about graphic design in a much broader context, and not just silo themselves in one particular way of making. I know that if we have this conversation a year from now, it’ll be a different conversation, because the world will have changed.

That’s great: design as an attitude and design education as providing a space in which students can explore, experiment, and speculate. Through computational design, students can be encouraged to materialize their ideas in ways beyond existing software, like Adobe CC or Figma. Designers who can program their own tools that drive data may be truly future-centric, particularly from seeing standard designer titles out there in the job market. Where do your students go after they graduate?

That’s a great question. We’re asking transmedia designers to transcend those boundaries. They’re not necessarily specialists, nor generalists. They lean into new tools and technologies in order to expand their design capabilities. They tend to get jobs all across the discipline, and a lot of our students are recruited by companies like Apple or brands like Nike before they graduate.
It’s interesting, I often hear that the projects that resonate most during the job interview process are the books they design. The creative directors at these companies have a sophisticated and nuanced understanding of design, and they value what books represent and how books are repositories for ideas. And even if it’s a medium, that’s maybe not at the center of what they will be doing in their professional career, they understand the value of that medium and the visual sophistication of that format. I’ll hear a student say, “I just took a job at Apple and the project they really liked was the book project.” Sometimes there is not a one-to-one matchup of a particular medium to a particular job title, but a response to the research and storytelling across a range of media.

Could you share some of the work done by Transmedia alumni, especially the ones that have been pushing graphic design forward?

Paul Hoppe is an Associate Design Director at 2×4, overseeing many projects in interactive spatial media. Prior to that, he worked at Local Projects and was the creative lead on a suite of interactive experiences at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum that invited visitors to explore the collection and create designs of their own.
Cindy Mai and Elbert Tiao were designers at Google Creative Lab when they collaborated on a tribute to software pioneer Margaret Hamilton. It was a project that created the world’s largest portrait by synchronizing thousands of solar panels.

The Pen. © Local Projects

Margaret By Moonlight. © Google Creative Lab

Lastly, do you have thoughts or comments you’d like to share about Computational Design Practices?

More than just a set of tools or techniques, it’s a way of thinking. It encourages designers to work with a systematic perspective and to explore new processes in both traditional and emerging media. Designers can create custom tools for other designers to use and they can develop systems that invite the audience to participate in the very act of making.
I tell my classes there is no better time to be a student. Much of what we’re experiencing is new and hasn’t been codified in design education yet. We’re in a transitional period of time where the rapid acceleration of digital technology, in large part due to the pandemic, has seen the rise of NFTs and blockchain and the increased use of AI and Machine Learning, among other things. Many of the early experiments and attempts to understand this space will come to define an emerging area of practice. This will impact design and influence how it changes. Maybe 20 years from now, graphic design won’t be called graphic design at all.
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