UW's DesignLab helps students thrive in a digital world

Digital Salon set for April 14-20

MADISON, Wis. - In 1969, an early incarnation of what's now the Writing Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison opened.

More than 40 years later, DesignLab has opened at UW-Madison to help prepare students to express themselves in the new digital landscape and communicate knowledge in different ways.

DesignLab, which opened in the fall of 2012, was modeled on the Writing Center. Through one-on-one and small group consultations, DesignLab teaching assistants help students hone the conceptual, aesthetic and technical skills they need to work effectively in digital media.

"(The Writing Center) already has that approach, and we're kind of building off of that in multimedia ways," said DesignLab Director Jon McKenzie, professor of English at UW-Madison.

Of course, over the past 40 years, much has changed in how information is found and consumed as well as the various digital and new media forms it's presented in. McKenzie said DesignLab seeks to enhance students' digital literacies -- the analytic and applied skills students need to explore, communicate and live in a digital world in which "Google" is often used as a verb.

DesignLab supports student work in emerging scholarly genres that McKenzie calls "smart media" -- digital and new media projects that convey knowledge.

DesignLab focuses on five families of smart media genres: video/multimedia, such as digital storytelling, video essays or documentary video; presentation genres, such as PowerPoint or TED talks; e-writing, such as blogs or graphic essays; imagery genres, such as posters displaying research results or infographics; and audio, such as podcasts, radio documentaries or audio essays.

McKenzie said many examples of the changing digital landscape can be seen in scholarly research and publication, in the shifts from card catalogs to search engines and from books on shelves to files on servers. With these changes, McKenzie said, connections can happen faster and in ways that were not possible when people were communicating by letters or "just chance meetings in cafeterias."

"As the infrastructure of knowledge is changing from this kind of print-based archive, where all the stuff is literally in one place in an archive or a file cabinet, to a digital infrastructure, where things are stored in the cloud -- just think about the difference between a book having a unique place on a shelf and a file existing in numerous kinds of different ways -- you can intuit the changes," McKenzie said. "And what skills will students need? We're already seeing that they need, in addition to writing skills, they need these other media skills."

McKenzie stressed that writing skills will continue to remain very important and that he wants DesignLab to build onto those core literacies with other types of new media literacies.

"Getting students skilled in visual skills and aural skills -- podcasts and things like that -- it broadens the palette of their communicational skills," McKenzie said.

McKenzie noted that TED talks are a good example of multimedia presentations that students can study and learn about what constitutes effective communication in various smart media genres.

"We can recognize these are multimedia presentations -- they have certain forms. We can learn what works and help students recognize the form and play with it and get them to develop a language to talk about it," he said.

McKenzie said DesignLab is an innovative initiative for the university that, through its support of smart media projects, empowers students and instructors to think in new forms and work in new venues. He said that although there are several other universities with programs or facilities that focus on digital media production, DesignLab is the only one he knows of that offers media design consultancy services to any and all students, regardless of their course or major.

As for his long-term vision, McKenzie said he anticipates that something will emerge around media communication analogous to that around writing, and media literacy will become a fundamental skill that DesignLab can enable.

DesignLab, which is located in a renovated area on the second floor of College Library, is made up of six cubicles equipped with iMacs. The teaching assistants hold 30-minute consultations at the cubicles with students who make appointments. McKenzie said DesignLab's relationship to College Library is important and makes it accessible to all students.

"There's a role there for the libraries to play because of their tradition of working in scholarly communication, helping scholars produce essays and articles and books," McKenzie said. "As knowledge is being produced in these other genres, folks will need help in basically learning how to argue, how to work with evidence, how to create imaginative works and really just represent themselves online."

McKenzie said he's also very interested in using DesignLab to help students build portfolios and preparing them to think about how they could share the work and research they've done even after a class ends. Many times, he said, students are producing exceptional work that nobody but their class or instructor sees after it's completed, and DesignLab can help students explore how to digitally archive and present their work, such as on a personal website or in a multimedia presentation that can easily be shared with potential future employers.

"Students should come out of here probably with their own Web presence, with some things they've created, their research and things they've done (at UW-Madison) represented in a professional format," McKenzie said.

He said part of the DesignLab process is encouraging students to think about their scholarship as content that can take different forms. For example, the research paper that a student wrote could be remade as a graphic essay using tools like Photoshop and InDesign. Then the student could also add an audio track and some sound narration and develop it into a podcast or perhaps a short video essay. Ultimately, the student could use these multimedia elements developed from their original concept and research and build a website or blog around it to further connect with diverse audiences.

At UW-Madison, students are increasingly being given assignments that ask them to storyboard videos, create blogs and deliver multimedia presentations, and McKenzie said DesignLab was created to fill a critical support need for students.

While students have access to technical training through DoIT's Software Training for Students, there was a "glaring gap in support for translating ideas and arguments into new media forms, for nurturing the conceptual and aesthetic skills that go beyond knowing what effect can be applied to an image or audio clip, to knowing how to produce a desired style or mood -- and, more importantly, why this design for this idea," according to the Madison Initiative for Undergraduates proposal to create DesignLab.

UW-Madison freshmen Eugene Newman, Labreea Walsh and Carlos Figari are among the students being assigned digital media projects. The three set up an appointment with a DesignLab teaching assistant to work on a video project for their English 100 course.

Their assignment was to create a video of a commercial for a seminar on creativity that's being offered at UW-Madison. After receiving a crash course in storyboarding from their course instructor, the group created a storyboard and shot some initial video footage that Walsh described as horrible.

"We didn't even know how to put it together," Walsh said.

They hoped to get assistance at DesignLab with producing their video. While the teaching assistants have some technical knowledge, their primary focus during consultations is focusing on conceptual and aesthetic aspects of the media project, offering assistance with project management goals, developing media project ideas and discussing assignment drafts. Students can also meet with teaching assistants to practice their upcoming presentations and get feedback for improvement.

Newman said the teaching assistant viewed what they had shot, discussed their goals for the assignment and had many helpful insights to share, especially tips for filming and aspects of video production.

"We discussed what things would make (the video) more suited for a commercial, and better suited for our goals for the project," Newman said. "(The teaching assistant) suggested certain camera angles for our re-filming of it, like angling it from top or bottom, depending on whether we're trying to convey a certain mood."

Walsh added that they also received helpful advice on lighting for future filming -- as in, avoid filming in areas with only fluorescent lighting.

"(The DesignLab consultation) was super-helpful," Newman said. "I can't imagine where people would go before this. How would (students) even do these projects? I have no idea."

Noting that laptops and smartphones are ubiquitous on campus, McKenzie said DesignLab also offers a valuable service because it recognizes that IT -- the Web, smartphones, PCs, iPads -- is central to both the learning and lives of students.

"Many students are already coming in (to the university) with (digital media) skills. They're already doing this on their smartphones, and we're focused on how we can enhance them and enrich them and give them a critical language to think about media and information while they're here," McKenzie said.

"Many students are already coming in (to the university) with (digital media) skills. They're already doing this on their smartphones, and we're focused on how we can enhance them and enrich them and give them a critical language to think about media and information while they're here," McKenzie said.

He added that once students learn the languages of these different media, DesignLab can really help ramp up students' skills by empowering them to get into more of a savvy digital media production mode rather than a consumption mode.

"And that would go a long way for preparing them for whatever it is they're going into," he said.

McKenzie said DesignLab is also connected to a larger societal mission in creating knowledgeable citizens.

"One of the missions of DesignLab is to democratize digitality the way that in the 19th century the universities helped democratize literacy. We took it wholesale and tried to educate everbody and get everybody to read and write, and so we need to do an analogous thing now with the medium," he said.

"There's a ton of evidence that all sorts of industries have been transformed by smartphones, iPads and computers. So getting society in general more skilled, both critically and creatively, on these devices is an important thing," he said. "Traditionally, literacy was tied to the creation of knowledgeable citizens. So, if you want democracy to continue, what is that same function in the digital realm? And we see examples of it online, on blogs, online voting -- it's all kinds of things that are out there in our future. So having our citizens skilled and knowledgeable is an important thing."

UW-Madison Libraries and DesignLab are organizing the fourth annual Digital Salon, which will be held April 14-20. The Digital Salon is open to UW-Madison graduate and undergraduate students to showcase artistic and research-based projects that take digital form or rely heavily on information technology in the production process. Podcasts, experimental videos, graphic novels and essays, websites, blogs, multimedia installations, posters, other new media work will be exhibited in College Library's Open Book Café and online.

DesignLab is funded through the Madison Initiative for Undergraduates, which charges students a supplemental tuition fee to provide for additional faculty and enhanced student services. More information about DesignLab can be found at

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