Asking About Design 2: The Activity


Asking About Design: The Activity Introduction:

The activity that I have created is generic, not based around any one item or set. Of course, as a graphics tutor, my main aim here is to provide a set of questions to help open up graphic design or perhaps photography or illustration and related topics. (You may also like to see our previous post by way of further introduction).

Who is it for? You could use this with any people to get them interested in design, art and communication, journalism and history. Or you could use this within those topics when they are researching for a project – each item they find to inspire them or inform them could be held up to this scrutiny. It is also useful as a field trip activity for museum and gallery visits. I always use a very similar activity with new learners to make sure that they know what to look for in design artefacts and I use the same thing to break down analysis into easy parts when introducing difficult theory, like semiotics, to university students.

The Tutor: This is addressed to you, who ever you are, as a tutor! I expect you’d be mostly homeschooling parents and new design tutors. If you are a new designer you can tutor yourself.

The Learner: Anyone of about fourteen or over can attempt these questions independently (though they are more effective and more fun in a group), and younger people can also have a go too with a bit more structured support. The activity is intended for those who are interested in or beginning graphic design, but would also be appropriate for people exploring visual communication, media and history, perhaps even subjects like geography, religious studies and literature or writing.

How to do it: Take an object or artefact, such as a magazine, a poster, a leaflet or flyer, a C.D. or D.V.D. case, a book or packaging. These could be old or contemporary objects, or a mixture of both would be even better. Why not dig out your old vinyl record sleeves to compare with the learners’ C.D.s or even with their online MP3 imagery? Your old fanzines, books and comics can also be compared to modern ones.

You can also ask these questions about design in the environment, which we see every day, using the street as an outdoor “museum”. Also, many actual museums do have areas where you can handle design objects, which is great fun! You may have to book in advance.

You could ask these questions about an object that is shown in a book or online, but the best results will come from objects that you can handle. The great thing about graphic design objects is that they are all around us all the time. But do you ever stop to think about their purposes and why they work to change our buying habits, political ideals, news feeds and so on? Design objects are meant for use not just for gazing upon…

If you start with some object that has some personal meaning for your learners, such as the C.D. of a favourite band, it’ll keep up the motivation. But sometimes it is easier to get deeper meanings out of objects the learner thinks they have no interest in or personal agenda with, because personal involvement hides the wood for the trees! So a comparison of an object of interest and one that is “not” may work very well.

If a learner is struggling to answer, using comparison with another object to draw out the differences is very effective. A double page spread in a magazine may be hard to make of analysis of if you are new to this, but lay two out side by side and immediately you can see that design choices have been made.

You can apply most of these questions – perhaps with some adaptation – to other creative objects too, such as paintings, film or television shows or even pieces of music, as well as historical documents and so on. The questions apply equally well to professionally-made or amateur (vernacular) objects. But the questions here relate specifically to pieces of graphic design that include both typography and images within their design.


Asking About Design: The Activity Questions:

Look at your object. If possible, handle it and use it as it was intended to be used. If it is a poster, for example, pin it to the wall. If it is a magazine browse an article. Now answer these questions. You can discuss this as a group which helps learners prompt each other and develop answers more fully. Individuals can discuss with a tutor, or make notes or make sketches in response to the questions. If you are doing this to be inspired to make design then go ahead and make thumbnail sketches of your own ideas too.

1. Object label? What is your object? Describe it and try to explain how it might be used. What do you think is its purpose (why was it made?).

2. Object use? In what ways do you think people would be using their senses to “use” the object?

3. Your reaction? What is your immediate reaction to it? What do you like or dislike about it? Explain what makes you feel this way. In what ways does the object seem familiar or remind you of things you know about, or not?

4. Images: Look at the imagery of your object and describe what you see. If there are many images (ie: in a magazine or inside a book) pick out one of two to discuss. Think about things like:

  • composition (the way items are arranged within an image – this can include scale, the size of things within an image)
  • colour
  • lighting
  • body language (if there are people or animals)
  • are there any symbols

5. Image meanings? Now, remembering what you described in the question above, try to answer these questions:

  • What do you think the images are telling you? (You might be able to work this out by wondering what it would be like if the elements within the image were changed)
  •  What kinds of moods do the images convey?
  • What do you think the image-maker and the designer want you to think about them?
  • Why do you feel this is the case?

6. Typography: Now look at the typography (lettering). Again, if there are lots of different pieces of type, such as in a magazine, pick out one or two pieces to describe.

  • What is your reaction to the type?
  • Do you notice it because of the design style or is it sort of plain and  “invisible” and you only read the words?
  • In what ways does the type or lettering style fit well with the words, or not?
  • Why do you feel this is the case?
  • Where does the type appear within a page/poster/cover (where ever it might be on your object)?
  • How can you tell if some type is more “important” than other bits?
  • What do you notice about the way colour, size and any effects are used with the type (or not)? Is there anything else you could mention about the type?
  • How would you change any of the type? How and why might your changes alter the meaning of the object?

7. Characteristics? Now explore the overall object and talk about the following things:

  • Its texture
  • The materials it is made from
  • Its size
  • Its style
  • How much blank or “white” space is there on the pages or layout of the object (“white space can also include coloured space – it just means areas where there are no other elements)? How does this space add to the meaning or effect of the design style?
  • How do the elements, like images, type, space, page numbering and other design motifs, all fit together?
  • Anything else you notice about it
  • How expensive or cheap do you think it might be? What makes you think this?
  • Who do you think it is aimed at or, in other words, who do you think is the audience or who would use this object?

8. Context: These next two sections digs deeper into the context of your object. You may be able to answer these questions but you may also find it useful to do some fact-finding or exploring at this point.

  • Do you know or can you guess where your object was made? Why might this make a difference to how we understand it?
  • Do you know or can you guess how old or new the object is? Why do you think this is the case?
  • What kinds of events were happening at the time your object was made and what trends, styles or political ideas were in fashion then? In what ways do you think or an you guess that your object fits in with these, or not?
  • If your object is old – can you suggest how the object might have been seen differently when it was new? Say why you think this.
  • If your object is new(ish) – can you suggest how people of the near and more distant future might see it differently to us today? Say why you think this.

9. Deeper Purpose? At the start you discussed the purpose of the object, but now you have explored it more deeply you can try to  take this idea of its purpose any further by answering these questions:

  • Do you know of or can you guess who made this object and why they did so? (Remember that graphic design objects usually have a client who orders the making and a designer who creates the style).
  • Do you know of or can you guess any hidden reasons, ideologies, agendas or sorts of propaganda why they might have made it?
  • In what ways do you think the object was made to help people think in certain ways?

10. Changed Opinion? Finally, describe in what way your opinion of or attitude to this object has changed or grown now that you have explored it more fully. Please add anything else that you’d like to say about the activity.

If you are interested in this kind of learning you may like to visit our main website at to see our design projects, which use object-based inquiry learning.

IMG_0419 IMG_0804IMG_1431

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s