A Tool for Understanding: Giving Voice to Diverse, Non-traditional and Low-Income Students Through Teaching Letterpress Printing

Vida Sacic
Associate Professor
Northeastern Illinois University

Visual communication skills provide a backbone for participation in a shared cultural exchange. Yet, universities often fail to offer tangible ways to foster long term accessibility and inclusion.

Northeastern Illinois University is among the nation’s leaders at graduating students with the least debt while serving the most diverse group of students in the Midwest.*

In the span of last eight years, we have formed a program in Graphic Design tailored to students who come from racially, ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse families and communities of lower socioeconomic status.**

Students often define success as the ability to use design skills to earn a living following graduation. Self-expression builds our students’ confidence and assertiveness as designers. For this reason, storytelling organically became a focus of the program. As it became evident that diverse students achieve most favorable learning outcomes in collaborative spaces where they can interact face-to-face, the heart of our program became our letterpress printing class.

Our growing letterpress type shop houses digital and analog tools. Students are required to collaborate with class members and beyond to complete projects, thereby practicing cultural sensitivity and interpersonal communication skills. The experimental nature of print and mechanics offers students an ability to slow down and consider their work more carefully, while introducing elements of chance and discovery to their process. This arrangement offers a unique environment to raise 21st century citizen designers and a valuable model for integration practices in design education. This model can be replicated in any makerspace environment that uses high tech to no tech tools.

Beneficial outcomes are evident as increasing amounts of our students are finding employment in the field, applying their skills to relevant positions and using their lived experience as a source of knowledge that can serve as an asset in their applied practice and beyond.

* data by U.S. News & World Report, September 2017

** 38% of Northeastern Illinois University students declare themselves as Hispanic/Latino, 31% Caucasian, 11% African American, 9% Asian, with the rest listed as other.
6% are identified as Non-Residents (including undocumented students).
55% of our students are non-traditional students, defined as postsecondary students who are 25 years old and older. They are contrasted with traditional students, aged 18 -22, who enroll immediately after high school, attend full-time, live on campus, and do not have major work or family responsibilities.
data by www.collegefactual.com

How Hard Is It To Navigate A Rectangle? Harder Than You Think

Neil Ward
Assistant Professor of Graphic Design
Drake University

Wayfinding and signage are important pieces of a buildings structure and interior space, especially on college/university campuses. They provide a visual blueprint that informs students, administrators, faculty, and public visitors where they are and attempts to direct them to classrooms, galleries, labs, performance spaces, and offices. When the signage is missing, incomplete, or inconsistent, all who enter the space are left confused and quite possibly frustrated as they wander around. A missing/poor wayfinding system can intensify these feelings when an individual is mobility challenged and unable to use the stairs. Especially when the building in question is rectangular in shape.

This is a particular problem senior level graphic design students encountered during a Research and Application class in the Fall semester of 2016. Using photo ethnography, observational research, and visual anthropology, students learned and observed how and why visitors entered, moved through, and exited the Fine Arts Building (A building that is rectangular in shape). Based on their findings, students designed a wayfinding system for the building that heavily considered those who are mobility challenged.

An individual (we will call her Jane) from the Office of Student Disabilities, who is mobility challenged, volunteered to test the wayfinding systems. During the user test, dialogue ensued between both parties about what was missing, what could be done better, and what to think about for future iterations. Upon debriefing, students passionately discussed their systems and the building as a whole through Jane’s point of view. Experiencing movement through the building with Jane they unanimously decided the current systems are unacceptable for a campus deemed accessible. Furthermore, they were inspired by Jane’s encouragement and the notion of how their wayfinding could continually and positively impact a large audience.

“How hard is it to navigate a rectangle? Harder than you think” will feature project visuals, the unexpected drive to design for social good, and the issue of accessibility to inspire empathy through wayfinding.