DesignLab: Shaping the Experimental Digital Studies Landscape at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

By Laini Kavaloski

Laini Kavaloski is a Ph.D. student in English and a DesignLab consultant at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

At their best, experimental spaces within the university inspire new fields of inquiry, cultivate new pedagogies, and make cross-disciplinary connections. The innovative University of Wisconsin-Madison’s DesignLab was established in 2011 in order to improve the media literacy of students at the university and to serve as a space of inquiry and experimentation for media work. Indeed, the creative environment of DesignLab has fostered my own interest in the potential of media forms to intervene in political processes. As a graduate student in English and a TA consultant at DesignLab, much of my day is spent contemplating the affordances and constraints of media platforms with students and faculty across campus. In what follows, I give a brief introduction to DesignLab, and then I present a specific example of one of the creative media platforms that we are currently teaching.

The author (left) meeting with another consultant in the DesignLab space.

The author (left) meeting with another consultant in the DesignLab space.

WHY? While print books and traditional papers remain the core texts of the university, assignments and research projects that utilize text, image, sound, and animation have broadened the ways we think about communication. Genres like video blogs, digital essays, and serious games are being leveraged more often to tell stories, to teach students, and to present research.

WHAT? DesignLab is perhaps best described as a writing center for digital media projects. Led by Director Jon McKenzie (English) and Associate Director Rosemary Bodolay (Libraries) and housed in College Library, DesignLab helps students develop and communicate their ideas in media genres such as digital storytelling, interactive posters, and professional websites.  In one-on-one appointments, consultants at DesignLab help students and faculty use design concepts to support the content of their work in ways that are thoughtful, innovative, and relevant.

HOW? When I consult with a client, I often begin by focusing on the conceptual and aesthetic aspects of the assignment by considering the interaction of the information architecture and the information design. I might do this by considering the hierarchy of information within the student’s work, such as the order of the navigation bar in a website, the arrangement of headings on a poster, or the story structure of a game. Equally important is the look and feel of a project; it is crucial that the design elements complement the content of a project rather than distract from it. Design elements include, the images, color, font, sound, and animation and their overall interaction within the media platform.

DesignLab consultants in 2013. Author is third from right.

DesignLab consultants in 2013. Author is third from right.

WHO? DesignLab clients come from many different departments across campus. Undergrads, graduate students, and instructors bring in projects that range from single blog posts to large-scale digital projects. Some of the clients that have utilized DesignLab this semester include:

  • Business professor creating an effective website compilation assignment
  • Journalism student brainstorming ideas for a video essay assignment
  • Graduate student in Public Health designing a conference poster
  • Spanish student starting a blog for her study abroad semester to Mexico
  •  English major editing an illustrated proposal for an interactive museum project

In addition to individual consultations, DesignLab also hosts Digital Salon, a digital museum installation of student projects, and fosters media literacy across campus.

The experimental space of DesignLab encourages connections between different disciplines and at the same time cultivates creative teaching and learning practices such as the ARIS example below.

Experimenting with Augmented Reality in DesignLab: An Example

One of the ways that DesignLab reaches out to the larger university community is through classroom instruction. DesignLab TAs teach six instructor workshops a year in addition to media literacy and design skills in their home departments. This past year I began working with Augmented Reality Interactive Storytelling (ARIS), both in instructor workshops and in English classes.

At DesignLab we like to experiment with new media platforms as they come to our attention. ARIS is one of those platforms. Developed at UW by the Games Learning Society group and DoIT Academic Technology, ARIS is an open source web-based tool that utilizes a combination of story elements and GPS (Global Positioning System) mapping to create a locative, augmented reality experience. ARIS puts fictional, historical, or theoretical content onto a specific location on a map, which appears to the player when they enter a designated space.

An ARIS map as it appears to the user/player.

An image from an ARIS situational documentary, “Dow Day.” Photo permission by David Gagnon.

ARIS has provided a new way for me to think about narrative structure in an interactive learning environment. Augmented reality GPS-based platforms imbue location with new dynamic experiences and generate multiple meanings within a specific geographical location. The text, image, and animation on the screen, project layers of meaning onto a particular space, thus transforming a seemingly static spatial environment into a kind of palimpsest, making abstract ideas or histories immediately experiential and relevant.

Currently Professor Jon McKenzie and I, in collaboration with the Mobile Learning Incubator, are exploring ways that abstract theoretical concepts can be situated or located in real spaces. In Eng 550: Studies in Criticism our students are using the concepts and information architectures of theory comics to build games in ARIS. For example, one group may decide to use post-colonial theory to animate the paradoxical histories of Bascom Hall, an historic and iconic building on the UW-Madison campus, so that as the player walks through the building with an iOS device, they can engage with Bascom Hall’s paradoxical histories of colonialism (e.g. its placement on effigy mounds) and democracy (e.g. its history of land grants and public education).

As you can imagine, locative-based game design has particularly exciting possibilities for learning. For example, as a student builds a game, she is compelled to think about the ways that the story structure (the narrative development/divergence, the pathways of the game, the conceptual architecture) and the design elements of the game (sounds, images, colors) affect the structures of knowledge within the game, the story arc, the affective augmented environment of the player, and the learning outcomes that result from these combination of choices. As students craft stories or experiences for other users, they reflect on the processes that affect the ways they think about and perceive the world around them.

DesignLab provides a space where the university community can grapple with the affordances and constraints of new media forms and with their relationship to pedagogy, interdisciplinary practices, and various area studies. For me specifically, DesignLab provides a forum for thinking about and experimenting with the interplay between theory, narrative structure, and media form. Just as language can be used as a political tool, so too digital media platforms often lend themselves to a radical potential that is materialized as artistic process intersects with theoretical innovation.

I would like to hear how your campus or department is experimenting with new media forms and digital studies.

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