Monday, February 27, 2012

AHA-The Oscars!

Photo-Flickr: Loren Javier
This might be a stretch for a Visual Literacy blog topic, but really think that the Oscars are a big part of our country's visual culture. Though the Internet has certainly changed the face of mass communication in today's society, television and film still play significant roles in people's lives. One of the most celebrated awards in film is the Oscar, and every year the Academy Awards are televised so that America can see who and what wins each award. I would have to think that these awards and the films that essentially compete to receive them are part of our visual literacy. Since the Academy Awards are advertised and broadcast on a prime-time network during prime viewing hours (last night it was 7e/4p), one would assume that the general public finds them to be important. 37.6 million people tuned in to watch the Oscars, and it would have been 37.6 million plus one more if I hadn't had to work last night.

I think that the best film, in terms of visual literacy, this year has to have been The Artist, directed by Michael Hazanavicius. The Artist is a silent film, about a silent film star, George Valentin, who is anxious as to whether or not talking films will put him out of a job. The movie is in black and white, which keeps the focus on the action taking place on the screen. The lack of verbal communication places more emphasis on the visual elements of the film.

If you watch the trailer above, you will notice that the actors are primarily communicating with such dynamic personal visuals as facial expressions, dramatic gestures, and body language, relying completely on nonverbal communication to carry the action. The only verbal communication that occurs comes at the very end of the film. I highly recommend seeing The Artist if you haven't, it's a real treat!

Mary McNamara, a Los Angeles Times Television critic, noted that as the Oscars reoccur every year, numbers are waning. And though the Oscars have become predictable to an extent (the same process happens every year, hosts dramatically opening envelopes, famous people winning awards, giving short speeches, hosts cracking jokes in the mean time), we still love it. Maybe it's the anticipation of seeing the fashion on the red carpet, or the banter between this year's hosts, or the excitement of finding out each winning nominee. For me, it's the chance to catch a glimpse of movies I've missed for the year, to appreciate which actors and actresses have been hard at work to bring imaginative new films to life, and my favorite, seeing which film wins best cinematography! This year, it was Hugo, directed by Martin Scorsese, cinematography Robert Richardson.

I love the Oscars. I try to watch them every year, because I really do think that they encompass the spirit of film. Of course, I might be biased. I am a pretty huge film devotee, and I am a loyal viewer of Turner Classic Movie's 31 days of Oscar.

See all of the nominees and winners of the Oscars 2012 here.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

SIGNS: Sometimes Speech Is Unnecessary

I was looking through our Visual Literacy schedule today, wondering (like any responsible student) what was coming due, when I noticed a link on last week's activities called "Signs." At first, I thought it was something related to the presentation that my friend and fellow classmate Lauren and I had given on February 20 for Visual Verbal Relationships. But, it wasn't. It was a Youtube video that Magda had evidently placed in the schedule to support the topics of that week. So, from the video's title, I assumed that it would be all about pictorial signs, using picture symbols to show meaning and establish communication between different parties. However, I was surprised to find that my assumption was quite wrong. Directed by Patrick Hughes, "Signs" was a sweet, unexpected short film. The focus was not on pictorial signs in place of words, but actual signs with words written on them, read by the main character Jason, and the woman he meets named Stacey. Like one of the comments on the Youtube video said, they told a more beautiful love story than Twilight did in 90 minutes!

I think that we often over-simplify communication, and we under-think about it. To an average American, at least those that I've encountered, we take words for granted. We don't realize what an affect/effect they can have on those around us, or individuals in particular. In the video, Jason is going about his hum-drum day without anything to interest or motivate him. That is, until Stacey throws herself into his life with her simple sign "Take a photo." To Jason, this sentenced might have seemed sardonic and abrasive, something that we would expect from a person who might want to be left alone. Yet, when Jason's face indicated that he was flustered and troubled by her first comment (as a result of not hearing vocal tone or inflection), Stacey followed with another sign, "I'm kidding!" Then Jason was able to understand that Stacey was interested in a conversation, which was confirmed by Stacey showing a written sign of her name. After the conversation was initiated, it continued with both Jason and Stacey communicating with one another only by written signs through windows across buildings. Though the words that these two exchanged were on a very simple level, they contained a lot of meaning because of the intentions of the parties involved.

Think about how many times we text without even thinking about how what we say could possibly be misconstrued! Now think about how even though words are valuable tools, how simply we can communicate when we need to. My friend Colin and I were watching the German film "M" from director Fritz Lang earlier today, and Colin commented that he could usually understand children's German more easily than adults. I said that it was probably because of the simplified language and increased non-verbals that children utilized, because to an extent they're still learning and getting a hang of the language. Sometimes speech is not even necessary; when you want to deeply communicate something, and you can't think of words, signs (like faces, gestures, motions and body language) save the day.

Can you think of any instances where non-verbalized communication actually serves a more useful purpose than verbal communication? Have you ever been in a situation where you couldn't think of the right words to say, until someone else said something first? Do you think that Stacey and Jason actually grew closer because they had to "meet" in this fashion?

Monday, February 13, 2012

AHA! Distortion in the Media, for Women AND Men

Of course I watched Killing Us Softly 3 for our Visual Literacy assignment last week, and I remembered some scenes that Magda had shown us when I took Ed Tech and Design in 2010. My reactions to the video centered around shock and disbelief that there were indeed so many examples of female objectification still in the media today. Maybe I was naive to think that in the 21st century, we would be moving beyond such degradation, but I guess I was wrong. Jean Kilbourn's video contained examples leading up to the new millennium, but I did a little searching and found even more examples of the objectification of women AND men from today's media. Here are some of the most unbelievable and shocking ads:
Ad for XXL Durex brand condoms. Those are band-aids. This is sick.

The "Super Seven Incher"? This ended up BANNED in the US 

This ad was actually banned in South Africa! Wonder why?

The Vampire Diaries is a book target at teens! WHAAA?
And men are being objectified too, and often are even more overlooked than the ads objectifying women. Usually those ads placing men in an objectified position have to do with women being the dominating force in the ad. For example, this:
These boys are whipped...
Clearly, this billboard (advertising "winter hosiery") is telling us that men are dogs, and women are their owners. 

I think the issues that Jean addressed in her video are applicable to both women and men. It is up to us as individuals being targeted by these advertisements to be responsible when assessing their messages. 

Monday, February 6, 2012

AHA! What You Pin Is What You See: Pinterest and Visual Literacy

OMG! Repin!
Everyone's in a fuss today about Pinterest, the new "vision board-styled socio sharing website and app where users can create and manage theme-based collections" ( The site's mission statement is  to "connect everyone in the world through the 'things' they find interesting," ( If you have ever used Pinterest, it is very easy to start "pinning" things into collections based on what YOU like, or whatever you deem collection-worthy. I started Pinterest last summer, when a friend of mine invited me to join the website. I liked it initially because it was similar to Stumbleupon, in that I could just browse my interests and essentially waste time looking at things.

After a while though, I lost interest in Pinterest, mostly because I was working and in school so much that I didn't really have time to just sit and look at images of things that might have caught my attention. But examining Pinterest as a media tool that allows us to communicate and connect with each other through images alone (yes, there is text too, but the images are what catch our eye), I think it is a very interesting web application. I can go on my Pinterest homepage and see what my followers are pinning, and "repin" things that I find interesting or to my liking. All I have to do is LOOK at images and decide "yes, I like this" or "no, that doesn't really interest me" and my Pinterest boards are created. This is visually based judgment-making behavior, and something that fits very well into Visual Literacy. Can you think of any other places online where sharing your interests is as easy as sharing a photo? Looking at an image and making a judgment? Do all social networking sites have an element of visual communication?

AHA! Is Type Hype? Helvetica Movie Review


What do the many types and fonts we encounter actually show us or tell us? Of course they communicate the words, and therefore, the objects or ideas they are representing, but do the styles of types we see really affect our perception in their own right? After viewing the film "Helvetica" from our movie list, my eyes were opened to the reality of typography. Never before had I considered what an impact different typefaces had on the way we perceive. I remember Magda's presentation from Ed Tech and Design lecture (when I took it 2 years ago), about the differences between fonts. Like how Serif and Sans Serif are different, how some are better for physical text, some better for digital presentation. 

I think the director Gary Hustwit is trying to express the importance of typeface, and how we easily overlook something that has immense importance in terms of visual literacy and affect. Helvetica as a font itself was important to typography because it made a bold statement during the Modern movement, and allowed designers the versatility of a neutral typeface to use in a variety of settings. I think the director also wanted to bring viewers' attention to the global aspect of visual design, showing how using certain design elements in typefaces brings out collective meaning and reactions across cultures.

I did not find the film particularly focused or unfocused on minority groups. I think the film's main goal was to tell the story of Helvetica as a typeface and how it inspired many designers from different areas (especially during De Stijl movement) to branch out and create new typefaces, for whatever purposes they intended. Minorities weren't necessarily excluded or included, because the main body of designers working on Helvetica were in fact Caucasian (specifically Swiss, "Helvetica" itself means "Swiss").  I also don't think that the director's background effected the way the film was made or portrayed at all, because the film was focused on how representations in typeface affected a greater population of people through advertising and its use in corporations. Some might be offended that there are few references to people of color or minorities in the film, but I think it's just because so much of the film is focused on Helvetica and Swiss typographers. I don't think they were intentionally "left out" as a whole because the director wanted it that way. 

I do see how some might claim that Helvetica's heavy use in the corporate advertising world could translate to a deeper message of "corporate oppression." The idea of corporations using certain fonts to appear neutral and more human, more relatable to people, so they don’t seem so overbearing or oppressive to consumers. But the fa├žade aside, does the way the company is reflected actually change anything? “Now they don’t have to be accountable, accessible, or transparent, but they can look that way.” I personally thought that it just reflected about a font that did a great job getting meaning across, and one that looked good doing it.

The director used a lot of montages of images and video of the different fonts featured in the film (most notably, Helvetica). I had never realized how prominent this particular typeface was, and if I had, I didn't know what it was called. I loved seeing how one font could be manipulated in so many different ways, to serve each designer's purpose so simply, yet at the same time so complexly. As Wim Crouwel said in the film: "The meaning is in the content of the text, and not in the typeface and that is why we loved Helvetica very much." The font provides the medium within which meaning is born. The great thing about typeface is that when we want to communicate something through graphics like symbols (letters), we can choose some type of font that is neutral enough to not distract from the meaning of the content, while at the same time providing a pleasing, interesting aesthetic. 

After watching Helvetica, I felt like my visual literacy was effected because I started seeing the beauty of different fonts. I saw how certain texts did a great job getting meaning across by being at a certain level of neutrality, but how these texts also had a level of beauty and aestheticism to them, making them unique. I decided to check out The Non-Designer’s Design Book I looked at different types of type (haha, types of type!) around campus, and even though there weren’t too many to look at, I still found that there were a lot of fonts! What I noticed about the different ways in which the words were presented, was that no matter what the style of the text looked like, the main message to be displayed by the symbols was conveyed clearly. I basically became obsessed with looking at words as they were displayed publicly, looking for meaning but also looking for how they could be interpreted based on their appearances. I learned that you can look at typefaces to get the meaning they are meant to convey, but there is always a deeper element that can be seen. 

“Don’t confuse legibility with communication. Just because something’s legible doesn’t mean it communicates. And more importantly, doesn’t mean it communicates the right thing and vice versa.” -David Carson

Sunday, February 5, 2012

AHA! The Evolution of Aesthetics
What makes something beautiful to you? To me? To the guy sitting next to you on the subway, or at the grocery store, or in yoga class? Aesthetics is a big branch of philosophy, focusing on the nature of beauty, art and taste, and how these things affect our appreciation of life, our emotions and sense of well-being. So what might be the most beautiful thing in the world to someone might repulse somebody else. According to Pierre Bourdou, two components affect our interpretations of beauty: "aesthetics, which is the philosophical notion of beauty; and taste, a result of an education process and awareness of elite cultural values learned through exposure to mass culture." So from a young age, our surroundings shape both our perceptions AND our aesthetic/taste preferences.

Considering the "nature vs nurture" argument in terms of human personality and psychological development, human aesthetic development can be broken down to the biological, evolutionary level. Dr. Denis Dutton, a professor of philosophy at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand, proposes that art appreciation (and therefore aesthetics) is less culturally learned, and stems more from evolutionary adaptations made during the Pleistocene Epoch.

Lookin' good in the Bean
I see things and can reflect on that thing's raw beauty, the way it looks to me at face value. But when I start thinking about this object/thing more deeply, I might be able to find connections to apply to my life and the people/important things in it. For example, whenever I see "The Bean" in Chicago, I can tell you how I perceive the overall aesthetic of the structure itself- it is a large, metallic silver blob that appears to be sagging yet arched over an invisible source underneath. That's what I see. But what I SEE, with my mind's eye, and why I love the Bean so much, is my face reflected in the shining mirrored surface of the sculpture, my friends Mandy and Tyler on either side, and I can hear us laughing. It takes me back to my spring break trip to Chicago last year, and I am flooded with nostalgia. I find the Bean beautiful because of my beautiful friends. I know that we all apply beauty to things for similar reasons, too.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Mommy, Look What I Can Do: Using Project-Based Learning in Education Today

The Thambo Project
Project-based learning is a hot topic in the world of education today. With the current generation going through school being the most "plugged in" and fast-paced to date, traditional teaching methods (ie, direct teaching, lecture, "teaching to the test") simply, for lack of a better expression, can't hack it. Educators are now looking for fresh approaches to teaching content to students, ways in which students don't just sit in their desks, silently passing class time without an inkling of interest. Cue project-based learning, or PBL. Aaaaaaannnnnnd, action!

The Buck Institute (an organization that is committed to PBL professional development and promotion), defines PBL as: "students going through an extended process of inquiry in response to a complex question, problem, or challenge. While allowing for some degree of student 'voice and choice,' rigorous projects are carefully planned, managed, and assessed to help students learn key academic content, practice 21st Century Skills (such as collaboration, communication & critical thinking), and create high-quality, authentic products and presentations." (Buck Institute Website)

Now, in education, there are 2 types of PBL (that are referred to as such): project-based learning and problem-based learning. Project-based learning focuses on a design structure that requires public presentation or performance as an outcome. So students would have to actually create something that could be exhibited to an audience (such as an art exhibit, or maybe building a structure, or creating a service in the community). Problem-based learning does not necessarily have to feature this presentation element in its overall design; however, it must still focus on inquiry for its overall purpose (Robert Ryshke, Center for Teaching). 

John Larmer and John Mergendoller (John and John, well isn't that precious?) write about the Seven Essentials for Project-Based Learning, featured in Educational Leadership's September 2010 issue, Giving Students Meaningful Work. When planning for instruction, teachers can be sure to include the following 7 elements, and  have a better chance of success in the PBL activity. 

1. Give them A Need to Know: Launch a project with an "entry event" that sparks their interest and gets them curious about the topic, and what is to come. This way, students will have an idea of the context of the project, instead of just thinking it's another "thing we'll be tested over."

2. Give them A Driving Question: Every good PBL is centered around a focused question which provides the foundation for inquiry. "A project without a question is like an essay without a thesis." Without this element, students aren't going to know what their goal in doing this project even is! What's the point!?

3. Allow for Student Voice and Choice: Remember when your teachers would just tell you what to do, without even taking into consideration that what they were assigning seemed, to teenagers, like the most BORING THING EVER? Let students be involved (to an extent, but not so that the project loses feasibility or focus) in choosing a topic for a driving question, or deciding what products they'll create, resources they'll use, and how they'll manage their time. This will make them feel less oppressed, and strike more interest! Ha, I rhymed...

4. Plan for some 21st Century Skills: Today's projects should give students a chance to practice not just their familiarity with technology, but such 21st century skills as communication, collaboration and critical thinking. Because they're going to be living and working in a world filled with potential (and the need for!) innovation.

5. Encourage Inquiry and Innovation: Work with students to generate more detailed, specific questions branching from guiding questions, so they will be able to explore different facets of a topic or issue. Raising new questions calls for synthesis of new information they have been gathering during the initial question exploration, and also leaves room for further inquiry. Students find it meaningful if they engage in real inquiry, rather than just regurgitating what the teacher has asked.

6. Give Feedback and allow for Revision: You like to get comments from others on something you've done, don't you? It is often helpful to hear what others have to say about a project you've been working on, and constructive critique is a great way for students to see how they're doing. Teachers should formalize a feedback and revision process, so students are guided and encouraged to create high-quality work.

7. Give a Publicly Presented Product: Nothing makes students feel more proud than being able to show their work, their good, hard work, to an audience. Whether it's peers, parents, or other teachers, giving students the opportunity to share what they've learned and created through a PBL endeavor solidifies the experience. "Schoolwork is more meaningful when it's done not only for the teacher or the test." 

My dad is an educator; he is the principal of Prairie Point Middle School and 9th Grade Academy in Cedar Rapids. As he has been "in the business" for nearly thirty years, he has seen how rapidly education has been able to change, how far it has come since when he first started teaching. Since he takes a general interest in the face that I too am becoming a teacher, Dad likes to send me weekly emails of educational headlines, and things to pay attention to in the world of teaching. Appropriately, just last week I got an email with some headlines/ topics all about PBL!

The ePals Global Community website gives a slough of great examples and ideas for project-based learning. Several of these include Digital Storytelling, Holidays and Festivals around the world, and many more. The great thing about this resource is that each of the PBL topics draws out essential questions to ask students during each unit.

Another great example of PBL is happening at that very same Prairie Point Middle School where my dad is principal. Students in eighth grade Family and Consumer Science (FACS) class do many different hand-on projects during the year, but a favorite is the quilt-making unit. Students work in teams to design and create custom-made flannel quilts, and then donate them to local homeless shelters and children's relief organizations. Who's the mastermind and director behind these students' nimble stitchings?

My mother, of course!

My mom and her students do a quilting unit, where the students create these quilts and donate their finished products. The students start with a plan, asking themselves "how can we collaborate to design and create the highest quality flannel quilt?" They challenge themselves to work in groups, collaborating on how it will look, who will sew what squares, what they'll do to construct the overall quilt, and how they'll deliver a presentation of their progress and end product to parents, teachers, other students and the community. They also have the satisfaction of donating these projects to Project Linus, where children who may not have even had the opportunity for the simple comfort of their own blanket. My mom tells me that her students are very receptive to this project, they work well together, and are very proud of their quilts when the project is finished. They displayed photographs and write ups in the hallways of the middle school for parent-teacher conferences, so parents could see their children's hard work and dedication. Mom also told me that the students feel accomplished and like they've done something to really help on a personal level, AND they learn valuable math and tactile sewing skills in the process!

PBL seems like a great choice for teachers to use in their classrooms to engage and interest students, and bring them to the inquiry process.