Kinetic Vis Comm: Where My Research is Leading Me

I have lived, played, or worked in Visual Communication in some way for nearly 30 years, since the days I discovered I had to draw in order to stay sane. I have been through the waves of self-development and technological change and now that I teach these skills to others, I am always looking for ways to give the most high-impact lessons at the right time. Now, as I find myself drawn to physical computing and other modalities, I have to regroup and figure out how to show my students how to engage as beginners.

Once I started teaching at the college level, I taught straight-up web design for a number of years–it taught me process, code, order, and clarity. Now that web design has been tamed rather a lot, I am anxious to find another compelling way into the conundrum of how to show students what is truly possible without overwhelming them from the start. The rub is this: how can I awaken my students to all that is possible without immediately lashing them to the raft of a passing fad or technology? How can I bring together compositional fundamentals, motion, text, space, and time? How do I do this without immediately jumping into a piece of software?

When I was learning, there was not nearly the same pressure to leap into the digital space: my high school did not have computers, my undergrad had common labs that were always in disrepair. We still learned every fundamental process, idea, and concept. In fact, as we had to be scrappy, I dare say we learned them earlier and sooner, but that is perhaps my own folly.

Kinetic Vis Comm

We are beings in motion, bodies that are constantly in flux. It makes sense that messages and moments that weave into this part of our nature are deeply appealing and even seductive.

I look first to the example of the Burma Shave roadside signs (1927-1963): this campaign was a perfect conflation of the new highway system crisscrossing the United States, the freedom of affordable cars, and the wit of cheekily written copy. Taken at face value, the Burma Shave slogans were chuckle worthy. But there is nothing like the thrill of finding the next one when you are driving Route 66: you are involved, you are vested, and in the end it pays off with a laugh. Brilliance!

The MTA has flirted with a similar notion as recently as 2008, although it wanted to exploit the optical illusion that creates persistence of vision.

The same company used the principles for lenticular images and zoetropes to create pieces that animate as you walk by:

There are basic ideas on animation and involvement which we can bring into our lessons right now without learning any new programs, copping to useless gimmicks, or messing with our core instructional objectives. Movement is and always has been a part of art and design and as we struggle with how to place broadcast media (video, film, animation) in our curricula, let’s take some time to demystify the core concepts.

Flip Books: So Many Possibilities!

I find the simple flip book to be a marvelous way to lead many students into motion.

It’s a natural lead into stop-action animation…

We are designers and artists: within limits, we make profound meaning. This should the philosophy of any assignment we give!

This is just so lovely…

Dynamic Zines*: Book Arts Meet Motion

*This is my own title as I adore the zine and try to keep the word in use as much as possible.

Dynamic zines are books which are activated by the reader by means other than flipping. This sample is a brilliant use of humble materials and the comic book format. I cannot even believe my eyes on this one!

I was able to track down a photo of the piece broken down:

Please help me find the original artist!
Please help me find the original artist!

This notion is in no way new to book arts, but since bookmaking in general is seen as a more artisanal activity these days, we forget. Just remember the work by such paper engineers as Carol Barton:

Carol Barton, Tunnel Book

Gears & Mechanics

I’m still trying to find the person who made this one…

Please help me find the original artist!

This was something I found in relation to the last one, so simple! The motor could easily be a crank…

Please help me find the original artist!

When is the last time your students knew what the simple machines are? One day with an assignment using gears and they all would.

Shadow Puppets

If it seems silly to be talking about puppets in relation to a design program then I dare say you may be suffering from some inhibitory snobbery. Let your hair down, have some fun! This is storytelling at its most primal, what better lesson can our students learn now? These ideas and methods can be used as introductory lessons, group projects that happen very quickly and get the entire class primed to work at their best level.

Optical Illusions

At City Tech, we require students to take a class called the Psychology of Visual Perception. I have been going over its syllabus to find ways to tie perceptual realities to my teaching.

Pop-ups and other classic maneuvers

I have a lot of thinking on pop-ups in general, especially in tandem with all the ways we could do our die-cutting now…

Paper Prototypes

All of these ideas lead me to thinking about paper prototypes, a wonderful way to meld everything together and begin to launch into phases of actual implementation.

This is from a UX/UI Design Thinking class I taught at City Tech. Teams of students had a day to create and film a key interaction of a site they were redesigning. Every single team reported having immense amounts of fun while finally puzzling through interactions they had never truly considered deeply before. My teams bonded to each other and continued to rely on each other throughout the semester, making for far stronger work.

It’s not about the motion so much as the thinking, planning, and work behind the motion. If our students made dynamic pieces such as these more often in their foundation classes, there would be no horrible leap into the technological void, no rush to making them master software when they are still formulating themselves as creators. If we return to the actual phenomenon of perception over time, there are so many lovely ways of working it into classes that are actually meaningful. If we get students over the conceptual thresholds before they encounter coding or programs, they will learn those so much faster. I have done it and seen it time and time again.

What next?

I am writing some lesson and whole class ideas right now. I am hoping to workshop them at the EAT Lab, in classes at the Brooklyn Brainery, and in my formal classes at City Tech and Parsons. I’m also starting a suite of projects which are suing these principles in my own personal research.


I’ll be adding to this and expanding my writing on this subject as I develop lessons and courses based on these ideas. Please feel free to comment or email me and dig in yourself!

Animation History and Techniques:

12 Principles of Animation