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"AppCamp" at the University of Pittsburgh

"AppCamp" at the University of Pittsburgh


Last week at the University of Pittsburgh, DM@P [Digital Media at Pitt]* sponsored a workshop and lecture by Dene Grigar, Associate Professor and Director of The Creative Media & Digital Culture Program at Washington State University Vancouver. Below, I will provide a review of the workshop, and my fellow DM@Per and guest blogger, Trisha Red Campbell, will discuss Prof. Grigar’s lecture.

“AppCamp (or Designing Information for Very Tiny Screens)”  

by Steph Ceraso

Prof. Grigar facilitated a 2 hour hands-on workshop on app design that was open to all faculty and grad students at the University of Pittsburgh. After walking participants through the basics of app design and aesthetics, Prof. Grigar broke us up into teams of two and gave us an assignment. Here is the prompt from her handout:

“It can be daunting to write a thesis or dissertation, not because we do not know our field or what to write, but because theses and dissertations constitute a genre that we seldom, if ever, produce a second time and because of the very specific requirements for their production.  As a service to your colleagues, envision an app that will help others navigate the ins and outs of producing a thesis or dissertation.”

For the rest of the workshop, we went through app bootcamp with our partners. We had to research what apps already existed to help grad students with thesis or dissertation research and study their goals and functions. After gathering enough information, we had to come up with our own unique app, name it, conceptualize it (figure out what would it do, how would it work, etc), and design an original app icon, splash page, and a landing page with a navigation bar using Adobe Photoshop.

At the beginning of the workshop, I was a bit intimidated considering that I’d never made an app before, especially since all of this had to be accomplished in 2 hours. However, with Prof. Grigar’s guidance, every team was able to conceptualize and design an original and useful app. By actually doing the assignment, we got to experience the compositional constraints of app making for ourselves. For instance, most of us who teach design emphasize texture and detail, but because apps are so tiny (57 x 57 pixels or smaller), it is necessary to keep your design as clean and undetailed as possible. The workshop really brought home the fact that compositional processes and practices are contingent upon the medium for which you are composing. There is a world of difference between designing a website for a giant Mac Screen and designing an app for a smart phone or iPad.

Most importantly, perhaps, Prof. Grigar’s “AppCamp” helped us see that app design is about much more than coding and usability. As we all found out, designing apps requires a keen understanding and revision of design principles, the ability to conceptualize and compose a complex media object according to strict constraints, the knowledge to make a cogent argument about why a particular app should exist, and the rhetorical skills to cater to a specific audience and/or client. I am more than convinced that app design should be a part of any course that deals with composing digital media.  

"Connecting with the Past, Networked for the Future: The Fort Vancouver Mobile Project and the Mobile Tech Research Initiative" 

by Trisha Red Campbell

Prof. Grigar, or “Dene” as she insists, is part artist, part scholar as she stands to deliver a long-awaited lecture about her work with the Fort Vancouver historical site. As she begins to speak, excitement fills room 501 in the Cathedral of Learning and Fort Vancouver comes back to life. Dene and 17 other scholars and storytellers from throughout the digital humanities field--including historians and archaeologists as well as experts in literature, rhetoric, and writing--came together to create digital content for mobile phones that can be accessed by visitors to The Village at the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, in Vancouver, WA.  

Dene focused much of her lecture on phase I of the project, which involved developing “apps” for mobile phones that deliver non-fiction narrative content about the lives of Hawaiian workers--or Kanaka, as they call themselves--of the Fort. This work and the discovery of spode ceramics at the site has led to phase II, which focuses on gender and domestic issues of women whose presence at the Fort, until recently, has not garnered much attention.

Several times throughout the lecture, Dene holds up a laptop, then an iPad, then iPhone, and emphatically relates the aesthetic and technical difficulty of designing for the three types of screens, with app design being the most difficult. This demonstration brings her to the second part of the lecture, which focuses on the Mobile Tech Research Initiative. At this point, I had been wondering how I might go about learning the coding and design necessary to build my own app. Dene provided some context about how her own students and colleagues met this challenge: In May 2011, Dick Hannah Dealerships sponsored a research project for the students of The Creative Media and Digital Culture (CMDC) program at Washington State University Vancouver. From there, a team of CMDC seniors were selected to design and create a smart phone app for Dick Hannah’s customer care. This app, which Dene proudly admits to having on her own phone, allows users to schedule service appointments, call for roadside assistance, and gives direct contact to the dealership all with rhetorically appropriate pictures. With Dick Hannah’s sponsorship, 10 students and many of Dene’s colleagues were able to learn app design, coding, and content development.

By the end, I was reeling with ideas and plans to make my own app, and turn some of these once thriving steel mills (here in Pittsburgh) into digital spaces.

* Digital Media at Pitt (DM@P) is a faculty-student collaboratory working to promote the study and production of digital media at the University of Pittsburgh. DM@P's research initiatives, hands-on workshops, issues forums, and speakers' series are made possible through generous contributions from the Office of the Provost, the School of Arts and Sciences and the English Department at Pitt. DM@P also works in collaboration with the Center for the Arts in Society and the English Department at Carnegie Mellon University.

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