Why design?

Why Design?

By: Curtis Kelly

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Now why would a magazine that connects brain sciences to language teaching have an issue on design? You probably already have an inkling. Language is communication. To be specific, it is a system of encoding the information in one person’s mind so that it can be decoded in a similar way by someone else. Our job is to teach students how to communicate in English or some other language. Unfortunately, we have been saddled with a bias from the field of linguistics that tends to make us just language teachers, instead of the more appropriate communication teachers. A long time ago, linguists developed definitions of language, not general communication, that are still the basis of the field. They see the components of language as being morphology (word structure), syntax, phonology, semantics (meanings), and pragmatics (rules of use) (source) and sometimes with a one or two other additions, like orthography (letter system). This general definition that focuses on word-bound language has been in existence for over a century. Linguists have more recently adapted the field to include some other aspects of communication, but the focus still remains on the written and spoken word.

But, wait a minute. Where do gestures fit in, like that wink that turns the meaning of an utterance into its reverse? What about the things you decide not to say during a conversation, the pauses, the hedging, the leaning forward to express something private? And, in writing, how about the enriched meaning of an italicizing a word, or the punch of a one-sentence paragraph, or the suggestiveness of putting a line in pink as in a mail I got yesterday)?  My mind is racing.

So, how did we get stuck with this very limited view of language as being only about lexical components and their relationships? If you think I am unfairly narrow, do a search with “components of language” and see what comes up[1]. Design won’t. And this definition of language as being fundamentally words and grammar is not a moot point, most of our language teaching has been, and still is, organized around this principle. Have you ever seen a wink on a TOEIC test?

[1] I am being a bit narrow, on purpose, and so, apologize to linguists for not including a discussion of sociolinguistics, SLA, prosody, metaphor, some areas of semantics, etc. I think the basic argument still stands though.

Nevertheless, our goal is not to make little linguists. It is to teach our learners how to use a language to communicate effectively and powerfully, in a way that will change someone. That goal requires us to bring other skills into the language. That is why design is important. It is an underlying set of principles that, as Roman Mars puts it, are “99% invisible” and yet shape our basic perception and understanding of anything that has them. Design communicates; and usually does so far better than the lexical part of a language. So, let us start thinking of design as one of the components of language, too.

Design lets us bring hierarchy, attention, value, unspoken meaning, and practicality into language; and not just language, teaching language as well. Design triggers associations in our brains as stark and meaningful as any word, and as nostalgic, hopeful, and moving as any passage. Give me pink.

So, it totally perplexes me why it is not part of our curriculum, especially now. We have recently entered an age where virtually all information is at our fingertips, with multiple renditions of any one topic competing for our attention. An online search usually turns up from a few hundred to a few million hits, each source desperately vying to be the one we choose. It is, then, design that keeps us looking at one of the choices instead of others, design that adds both clarity and mystery. As Jakob Nielsen famously wrote, usability and good design are important because “all the competitors in the world are but a mouse click away.”

Obviously, then, in today’s world, design is a communication skill our students need in order to make sure their message is heard, especially messages delivered in written or spoken presentations. In regard to the latter, oddly, schools seem to be adding more oral presentation classes to the curriculum every few years, but I have yet to see a language department offer a class on visual presentation. I suspect that our language teaching field is overpopulated by people who love the written word, as found in minimally designed books, and are thus less aware of more subtle, non-verbal acts of communication.

Not me. I teach design in my courses, devoting a class or two to graphic design.[2] And when I do, I can see this thing happening in my students. They become quiet and their eyes change. I think it is awe. It is as if I opened this whole new world to them that was invisible before (99% invisible) and that from that day on, they will never see a train station poster ad or candy wrapper the same way. It’s as if I made them the keepers of the keys. They are typical business majors, but now they know the secret spells that will lure professors into giving them higher grades on their reports, or that will, when working in a company someday, surrounded by other business major hires, set them apart because of the beautiful manual they just put together. How sad for the other hires. Their competition was just a class or two away.

So, let us bring design into various aspects of our field. Our intro video offerings this time are a little different than usual. We found a series of videos that talk about the basic principles of graphic design for desktop publishing. They are truly superb. We hope you watch at least the first one and, like it did for us, it’ll probably inspire you to watch three or four more.

[2] I’ll bet most people reading this do not even know what graphic design is. Often, it is misinterpreted as meaning computer graphics. Graphic design is a huge field in which professionals create visual and sensory content to convey messages. It’s the science behind every label on a product, every advertisement in the media, every page on a website, and every public display of words.

We will show how understanding design can make you a better materials writer (Rishma Hansil) and help you avoid some common pitfalls (Anton Vegel). Julia Daley shows how raising students’ awareness of design features improves reading abilities, while Mohammad Khari takes a deeper dive into the neuroscience behind some practical advice on lesson design. Finally, our Think Tank Team reviews a workshop by Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa on Instructional Design.

In the end, we are all designers, whether that means designing classes, designing teaching and materials, or even designing the way your classroom looks. 99% invisible. Join us in looking at design and its neuro-underpinnings and you can get the secret powers as well.

Curtis Kelly (EdD.) is a professor at Kansai University, a founder of the JALT Mind, Brain, and Education SIG, and producer of the MindBrainEd Think Tanks. He has written over 30 books and given over 500 presentations. His life mission is “to relieve the suffering of the classroom.”

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