Everyday By Design
What do 21st Century Digital Literacies Look Like?
Design is an evolving medium. Everyday design is constantly developing and always changing how we perceive our surrounding environment and broader perspective. Design in the digital realm has its own unique affordances that inform not only the way we see 21st century digital literacies, but also the way we experience them. The “digital medium” is crafted by different ways of exploiting the representational power of the computer—the computer being broadly considered here as any device with digital sensory capability, such as Arduinos, cameras, phones, hard drives, microwaves, remotes, and so on. As digital environments expand we are still creating what the digital medium is and discovering the myriad of ways the digital informs human communication every day. When we expand the digital meaning-making conventions that make up 21st century literacies, we expand our ability to interact and connect with each other. Designing in this new digital medium contributes to the development of an even wider collective effort of understanding and communication.
As I write this text I am surrounded by transmissions of different evolutions of design. Most directly in front of me is the arrangement of the computer keyboard I use to type: a design referred to as Q-W-E-R-T-Y (the name comes from the first six letters appearing on the top left letter row of the keyboard). Alternating hands while typing is considered a desirable trait in keyboard design—while one hand types a letter, the other hand can prepare to type the next letter in order to enhance uniformity and type speed. The QWERTY layout was devised in the 1870s by a politician and newspaper editor, Christopher Latham Sholes, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The first iteration of the design had two rows of characters ordered alphabetically. Over the next several years the design evolved immensely as Sholes reworked the layout based on typewriter innovations and published letter-pair frequency studies. In 1878 the QWERTY layout significantly increased in popularity with the success of the Remington No. 2 typewriter, which was the first to include both upper and lower case letters via the shift key. Today, essentially the same QWERTY layout is utilized on more digital devices and for more nationalities than any other keyboard design.
Figure 1: QWERTY Keyboard Design on Remington No. 2 Typewriter
It is important to recognize that like all “universal” design choices the QWERTY design is not optimal for every person, language, or device. Some studies suggest elements of the design favor left-handed people over right-handed people (more typing strokes are done with the left hand). The QWERTY design may also not be well suited to mobile technologies utilizing keyboards. It is important to identify and understand the implications of design affordances on our everyday experiences. The QWERTY keyboard is exemplifies how digital literacies, such as typing, are significantly tied to design. This one design decision made in the 1870s has become a standard literacy in many places despite its limited scope of usability. The impact of design decisions can span decades. Would the text of this chapter be different were it written on a typewriter or tablet? Typed on a different keyboard design?
Figure 2: QWERTY Keyboard design this chapter was written with…
Looking beyond the keyboard, up at the kitchen space where I work, visible design feels omnipresent. As I write, image notifications pop up on the screen from my Instagram feed (@jjstratto), while circular slices of radishes lay on the table, neatly arranged on a cutting board for eventual input into a salad. This juxtaposition of the organic and digital designs reflects how the human sensorium now treats organic and digital material as an extension of one another. In the 1967 landmark text The Medium Is the Massage, media theorist Marshall McLuhan draws attention to daily design in regards to 21st century television culture:
"The medium or process of our time-electric technology is reshaping and restructuring patterns of social-interdependence. It is forcing us to reconsider and re-evaluate practically every thought, every action and every institution formerly taken for granted. Everything is changing; you, your family, your education, your neighborhood, your job, your government, your relationship to the other. And they’re changing dramatically ."
Figures 3 and 4: Instagram Images from @jjstratto
Exercise in Everyday Design + Perspectivism
In her book Inventing the Medium: Principles of Interaction Design as a Cultural Practice (2011),Janet Murray explores the expressive power of digital artifacts through the identification and exploration of four representational affordances of digital environments for designers across applications: computational procedures, user participation, navigable space, and encyclopedic capacity. Adapting an exercise from Inventing the Medium we began our process of designing this book with a collective exercise, as follows:
1. Find a manufactured object in the classroom.
2. Exchange the object with another person and individually write a first impression of each other’s selected object.
3. Together, write a detailed description of the object identifying design decisions, including size, material, shape, interface, sensory relationships, portability, etc.
Figure 5: Snapshot of whiteboard from class design exercise
By starting first and foremost with an exercise, we were able to gradually settle into critically looking and thinking about design decisions prior to making any regarding this book. The exercise balances quick first impressions with more in-depth analysis. This balance is reflective of the relationship between details and the first-look realities of design. An eye-catching product design is the result of detailed consideration of that product’s existing as well as non-existing design attributes.
In Inventing the Medium, Murray structures her discussion about digital design around four affordances of the digital medium that simultaneously work together to create different design outcomes:
1. Encyclopedic: The computer can contain and transmit information in humanly accessible form, and it can represent processes through logical, symbolic representations (examples: databases, archives, portable media players).
2. Spatial: The computer construction of space is different from preceding mediums. It creates virtual spaces users can navigate through and visualize (examples: maps, images, 3-D models, GPS).
3. Procedural: The medium is able to “represent and execute conditional behaviors” (examples: spreadsheets, search engines).
4. Participatory: The medium interacts with the user, allowing the user to manipulate and have an effect on the digital content and exchange (examples: blogs, social networking sites, recommendation sites).
Viewing design options through Murray’s affordances, our class had different defined lenses for discussing what form this book may take. Working in the digital medium was of interest to everyone due to the feasibility of the platform as well as mirroring the book’s very content in a digital space. However, we were also interested in a book design that was a natural extension of the classroom experience of the 21st Century Literacies course.
The Journey is the Destination
The experimental and tangible nature of in-class exercises like the one described above inspired a process-based design form for this book. Scientists, ethnographers, and historians engage in participant observation in order to gain insight into cultural practices and phenomena. These insights develop over time and through repeated observation, research, and analysis. To facilitate this process, researchers often rely on their field notes to constitute a major part of the data on which later conclusions will be mapped out. Why not take a similar approach to exploring the ever-evolving cultural practices and phenomena of 21st century digital literacies? Accordingly, the aim of this book design is to inspire and facilitate further recognition, utilization, and study of 21st century literacies.
Figure 6: Still from "Exercises in Optics and Perspectivism" Vusual Field Notes Series
Having a clear design goal and concept of “field notes” has provided an essential structural foundation from which to consider all subsequent design decisions that compose this book. Once specific user criteria are in place, the consideration of nuts and bolts design principles and accessibility standards, including balance, repetition, rhythm scale, and directional force, are necessary for implementation. Usability, functionality, and aesthetics are the three fundamental markers of strong design. The underlying challenge for design teams across the digital platforms is then finding an integrated, user-centered approach to aesthetics and functionality.
On the Cover
Why A JellyFish?
Figure 7: JellyFish Cover Art Image (Jennifer Stratton, 2013)
So how did jellyfish of all things wind up on the cover of a field notes guide for 21st century digital literacies? The class gave a number of reasons why this image would make an appropriate cover:
“The transposable forms of jellyfish embody the fluidity of forms 21st century literacies take.”
“Jellyfish feel [as] alien as pedagogical uses for digital literacies can be to traditional academic institutions.”
“The light of the jellyfish fits with [the idea that] the medium is light.”
“The image will really pop out on a bookshelf and online.”
These comments were made while the class looked at mock-ups of different cover designs based on collective discussions and ideas. In this setting design preferences felt instinctual, as comments were vocalized within seconds of cover options being viewed. Responses to the initial cover mock-ups typically addressed two concerns: 1) the immediate impressions the cover might create—that is to say, people can and will judge a book by its cover; and 2) how accurately the cover would reflect the intentions of the book. At the end of a lively discussion it was collaboratively decided that the jellyfish cover struck the right balance between form and function.
Experimentation with collective design processes continued with the development of the images used throughout this book. The chapter covers together form a tapestry of images collected from each author to create a visual representation of 21st century digital literacies. There is an interesting thread of nature images from the submissions that is reflective of the presence of biomimicry between organic and digital organisms. This mosaic of imagery is an expression of biological and digital confluences shaping the environment around us. Ultimately, the design evolved beyond these initial discussions and comments into a creative intersection of the original design mock ups. Our decision to pursue a variety of publishing forms for this book also allows for the design to further evolve over time.
Figure 8: Sample Cover Design Mock-Up for this book.
The experiences of selecting a cover for this book and constructing the inside cover brings up an essential design truth: People are passionate about design. Design is simultaneously deeply personal and culturally universal. An effective design may look effortless and simple, but it has the daunting task of packaging together complexities of function in relation to form. As such, design considerations and processes play a vital role in understanding, utilizing and producing 21st century digital literacies.
An Evolving Medium
Collective Design Futures
Like the QWERTY keyboard the design for this book will undergo review processes to adapt and evolve, based on user experiences. Design for the digital medium is an ever-evolving process.
What do you think 21st century digital literacies look like? How should a guide to digital literacies be designed? This is an open call to become part of the conversation and help shape different forms of 21st century digital literacies. Adapt the design decision exercise listed in this chapter to analyzing and critiquing the design decisions made for this book. What would you put on the cover? What other forms aside from field notes could a guide to 21st century literacies take?
Baker, Nicholas. “Why Do We All Use Qwerty Keyboards?” BBC News. 11 August 2010. Web. Accessed 12 June 2013. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-10925456>.
McLuhan, Marshall, Quentin Fiore, and Jerome Agel. The Medium Is the Massage. New York: Random House, 1967. Print.
Murray, Janet. Inventing the Medium: Principals of Interaction Design as Cultural Practice. New York: The MIT Press, 2011. Print.
Pendleton-Jullian, Ann. Four (+1) Studios: Seven Papers and an Epilogue. La Vergne, Tennessee