Beyond Digital Technology – the Non-Linear Workshop Series

from Lucy Brown

I’m currently embarking on a new journey – one that seeks to navigate a way through the woods of ‘academia’. Having been teaching now for 6 years, the word has sat quietly on my shoulder whispering of its prowess and stature, yet I’ve struggled to find a straight answer with regards to how to begin to find my way through its seemingly impenetrable mass of trees. In taking up a new post at Staffordshire University earlier this year, I was determined to conquer it and with some research under my arm and a tactile approach to pedagogy in tow I set off hoping to meet a guide along the way.

Several days into my journey, I met Alke, the author of this fine blog. She writes, “the different ‘hats’ I wear – teacher, researcher, writer, designer, artist – … all weave together to one identity.” “Finally,” I say to myself, “I’ve found my guide.”

Alke has kindly invited me to contribute to this online space, and I find myself at the first stop on my map. I’ve shared this small anecdote with you all in the hope of encouraging those new to the academic landscape – it’s simply a case of one step at a time!


 

Walk

Walk

In 2014 I completed a pedagogic research project on the MA Graphic Design course at London College of Communication. The research discusses a tactile, visual metaphor for an increasingly prevalent issue within art and design education, culminating in a series of practical workshops entitled ‘The Non-Linear Workshop Series’.

Research Title:
Beyond digital technology: introducing undergraduate graphic design students to the non-linear landscape of the creative process.

Many undergraduate graphic design students struggle to explore the landscape of the creative process in a ‘non-linear’ way, due to the dominance of digital technology on their life thus far, which increasingly encourages a ‘linear’ mode of thought.

For example, the undergraduate graphic design creative process has a tendency to map as follows (particularly at entry-level):
A) Brief to B) Solution (via Google).

Palfrey (2010 p.6) writes, “Digital Natives are coming to rely upon this connected space for virtually all of the information they need to live… Research means a Google search… they simply open a browser, punch in a search term, and dive away until they find what they want — or what they thought they wanted.”

In my research question, I have used the word ‘landscape’ as it means ‘all the visible features of an area’, or ‘the distinctive features of a particular situation or activity’. Many entry-level students are blind to the ‘visible or distinctive’ features of the non-linear creative process, and unaware of the options with regards to how and why they should traverse its landscape. They have grown up in an age of linear immediacy — of the digital Google map that tells them where to go. The Non-Linear Workshop Series uses a physical landscape as a metaphor for the exploration of this idea.

In addition, I have used the phrase ‘beyond digital technology’ with the intention of suggesting ‘more than, exceeding, in excess of, above, over and above, above and beyond, upwards of’ as opposed to ‘on the other side of, further away than, behind, past, after or over’. I recognise the value of the Internet as a research tool, yet the Non-Linear Workshops Series aims to teach students to know how to ‘go beyond’ it.

Choice is now linked to risk (Salecl, 2013) and therefore causes anxiety. Notions of non-linear creative ‘travel’, visual exploration, wandering and at times becoming lost seem irrelevant and frightening to many, meaning that the development of a non-linear creative process is culturally challenging. A colleague of mine recently overheard a student say: “If it’s not on Google, it doesn’t exist. Everyone knows that.” The Non-Linear Workshop Series aims to readdress and refresh the methods through which the non-linear landscape of the creative process is introduced to entry-level students in an effective and relevant manner, considering the linear nature of their digitally dominated lives. Palfrey writes:

“The innovative use of technology leads to a ‘copy and paste culture — a practice that is in tension with traditional educational ethics… In order for [educational institutions] to adapt to the habits of Digital Natives and how they are processing information, educators need to accept that the mode of learning is changing.”(Palfrey: 2010, p.239)

The Non-Linear Workshop Series

The Non-Linear Workshop Series presents ‘A) Brief, to B) Solution’ as a visual, tactile, focal point, and encourages undergraduate graphic design students to question and explore how exactly they traverse from A to B, along with what their journey might look like in relation to ‘linear’ or ‘non—linear’ form.

Lines

Lines

 

Workshop 1 of 7: Context
The first aspect of the workshop series introduces the students to the context of the research in an appropriate, simplified manner through the group discussion of a short text and series of questions. The students are able to grasp and engage in the research proposition easily through this method, enabling them to ‘want’ to learn more through realising a ‘need’ to engage in the subject matter.

Workshop 2 of 7: Non-Linear – Define
The second aspect of the workshop series enables students to begin to unpick and understand the meaning of ‘non-linear’. The workshop begins with a brief whereby students write down their initial understanding of the meaning of ‘non-linear’, before investigating further. This enables the discussion of the nature of Google-led research through the drawing of a line within a given template. Formal definitions of linear and non-linear are then provided to conclude the session.

Workshop 3 of 7: Non-Linear – Make
The third aspect of the workshop series asks students to generate varying forms of line during a 1 day workshop. Students use varying tools and mark making methods to do this. The lines generated provide further visual impetus through which to discuss the development of their understanding of the differences between ‘linear’ and ‘non-linear’.

Workshop 4 of 7: Non-Linear – Map
The fourth aspect of the workshop series asks students to map 5 different routes on an OS map, through which they begin to explore an unfamiliar, local landscape. The aim of this brief is to generate non-linear visual form in a way that directly corresponds to a physical landscape. These forms are then extracted from the maps and digitised so as to provide further, clear visual impetus to reinforce the context and increasing understanding of the research context. This activity also provides students with a route to follow during the next workshop.

Workshop 5 of 7: Landscape
The fifth aspect of the workshop series involves a field trip to an unfamiliar local landscape. The route that the students follow will be chosen from the previous session where varying non-linear routes are mapped.

A design brief is provided at the start of the field trip which asks the students to represent the landscape in 5 different visual ways. They are asked to document the landscape as they walk their elected route in consideration of their 5 senses — sight, touch, smell, taste and sound.

“There is something about walking which stimulates and enlivens my thoughts. When I stay in one place I can hardly think at all; my body has to be on the move to set my mind going… to lend a greater boldness to my thinking.”
Rousseau (in Solnit, 2006 p.19)

Workshop 6 of 7: Creative Process
The sixth aspect of the workshop series asks students to develop a visual response to the material that they sourced and documented during the Landscape trip. The length of this workshop will vary dependent on institutional structure, unit/module requirements and the needs of the student group. The output work produced acts as impetus for discussion surrounding the ‘non-linear’ landscape of the creative process – as experienced in a physical, tangible manner.

Workshop 7 of 7: Evaluation/Review
The seventh aspect of the workshop series involves a final group crit of work produced in the previous session(s) so as to enable the students to both see and reflect on each other’s work critically. The work produced will also act as impetus when the students repeat one of the earlier briefs whereby they draw a line that they feel represents the creative journey they have taken in representing a physical landscape creatively. The drawing of this line, in comparison to their earlier ‘30-minute Google’ line will instigate discussion concerned with its change in form from straight to more complex, enabling the students to evaluate and reflect on the workshop series in relation to the development of their personal working methods. Each student will also receive a visual template for future projects through which they are able to apply what they have learnt through drawing the ‘linear’ or ‘non-linear’ nature of their creative process on any given brief.


Throughout the academic year 15/16 I will be seeking to continue to test and develop the Non-Linear Workshop Series with the aim of disseminating it to HE art & design lecturers for potential use.

If you would be interested to read a full copy of the research project, please see my blog and/or contact me on lucy[at]lucybrown.co

For references please check the Bibliography page.

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