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Visual syntax and the unique contribution of designers in collaborative multimedia projects

George Borzyskowski and Michael Pearson
Curtin University of Technology


This paper takes the view held by the Science Research Council - the Commission for the Future, the Tertiary Education Commission and the Australian Arts and Technology Council that artists and designers have a unique contribution to make on the central issue surrounding Interface and Interactive Design: that is the transparent communication of visual information.

This contribution, the authors contend, lies in the graphic designers' ability at synthesis as well as their knowledge of visual syntax. This paper, examines three multi disciplinary projects undertaken at Curtin University. By exploring the strategies that undergraduate students in the School of Design at Curtin University, adopted to resolve the problems of visual appearance and spatial location of the elements and the way they affect functionality, style and atmosphere .

The authors will discuss multimedia authors need for graphic designers, the importance of emotive content and its evidence in mainstream media, the contributions a designer makes and strategies employed at arriving at visual solutions, a description of three projects that employed student designers and the conclusion drawn.

The end users of these projects turned to designers out of a perception that the visual representation of the content could he improved in some way. They expressed the observation that they were not happy with the outcome and yet found it difficult to define what exactly it was, that was required to solve the problems of visual treatment. They had no preconceived guidelines apart from their perception of what they thought were successful products in existence which included the templates and icons and clip media provided with the authoring software packages they were using. The assumption was that if these visual aids were applied to any or all projects regardless, it would somehow guarantee successful communication. They had no real concept that these visual elements exert significant influence over the users perception of the presented content.

Other factors affecting the look and feel of the projects at the time the students became involved were that some of the projects were in prototype stage and some design decisions had been made as expedient measures to accommodate particularities of the authoring software being used. As a result, where prototypes existed there was little consideration to the consistency of visual style.. The authors will demonstrate that the visual style, the look and feel; in other words the emotive content, is a factor of prime importance in achieving the desired communication aims.

Where this observation is seen as self evident in other forms of communication media, there seems to be a particular blindness to these factors where computer based multimedia presentation is concerned. A possible reason for this state of affairs, is in our observation, a result of technology driven opportunity in the form of authoring software for media amateurs to produce what they would assume to be successful media programs. This admirable culture of the 'early adopter' and amateur enthusiast, which is an essential characteristic of technological innovation predetermines a degree of inevitability for the relegation of the finer points of aesthetics. These pioneers of technology suffer lightly the nuance of visual syntax.

The time has arrived in this technology where this attitude is no longer tenable. The sophistication of delivery platforms currently becoming available (viz the Apple AV range, 3DO, CD32 etc.) makes any compromise under the label of the 'limitation of technology' no longer sustainable in a professional environment. There is no excuse for sloppy audio visual presentation. The contribution of design skills to project development should now be taken as a matter of course rather than whim or fancy - as indeed is the case in all the mainstream media - paper publishing and television and other infotainment media.

The contribution of the designer

Because the perception of design is difficult to quantify for many; it is judicious at this point to discuss the actual contribution that design makes to our environment and how its application or misapplication can enhance or deny communication.

In communicating a single concept we are presented with hundreds of possibilities. Take for example 'clock'. Not only do we get across that this is a time keeping device, but we are able to colour the information with a whole array of emotive values and associations by means of stylistic device and illustration techniques.

Here we are engaging in issues that address questions of the visual environment in which the communication occurs and the context sensitivity of the object represented. The education of designers exposes them to a wide range of strategies which enable them to tune into variations of expression while at the same time maintaining the content integrity. These strategies go beyond merely stylistic issues. The concept of Clock can also be represented by addressing its function. Here come into play interpretive strategies that could include metaphor, apostrophe, parody, analogy, interpretation, illusion, allusion, borrowed interest, comedy, caricature, surprise, economy, efficiency, esotericism, obscurantism, decoration and the vernacular.

The illustrations we provide illuminate the description of just one concept. Within multimedia there is a need to address many concepts simultaneously and maintain complex interrelationships often across many events. These include the integration of spatial and temporal relationships and the impact of audio stimulus.

In creating the overall visual environment in keeping with the functional requirements specified by the projects authors, the designer employs further strategies in representing the visual elements to be included. Techniques often employed are: translation, subtraction, repetition, combination, addition, transfer, empathy, superimposition, change, scale, distortion, substitution, fragmentation, isolation, disguise, contradiction, parody, prevarication, analogy, hybridisation, metamorphosis, symbolism, mythology, fantasy and animation.

While these strategies are the more sophisticated of those that can be employed in multimedia design, it should not be forgotten that simple applications of elemental relationships of texture, colour and position have fundamental influence.

It is significant to note that in two of the projects to be described the student designers spatial orientation (as opposed to textural) prompted them to look at the overall construction of the projected multimedia experience. Indeed the students were intuitively compelled to complete this overview and in doing so were able to identify unforeseen flaws in the structure and create potential for novel links which the original authors had not foreseen. This ability at visual synthesis makes a powerful contribution to any project and reinforces the opinion that designers should be included in the projects formation as early as is practical.

Experienced designers carry this out at an intuitive level and as a result of their training are able to produce novel solutions to pedantic problems which by the nature of their freshness are inherently attractive. It is a common strategy to solve problems of visual syntax by simply opening a style book or template library. This approach is fundamentally flawed because the structure of the syntax would not necessarily bear any relationship to the needs of the problem. It more than likely throws away any opportunity for novelty which is so important in engaging our attention.

It is practise in the application of the afore mentioned strategies which enabled the student designers to contribute a fresh approach in resolving the visual problems posed by the projects described.

Project description and graphic solutions

Computer assisted learning project - Anatomy: shoulder and upper arm

The project resulted from a successful Committee for the Advancement of University Teaching (CAUT) grant application by Harry Lee and Don Cameron of Curtin University.

The application resulted in two separate projects being undertaken to which design students contributed. Here we shall discuss the student contribution to the Anatomy project. This CAL program had already been completed and trialled in HyperCard format and the requirement was for its conversion to Supercard in colour, to be delivered in a Mac LC equipped teaching laboratory. The programming was to be undertaken by Dr Rob Phillips of the Computing Centre at Curtin University, and the graphics supervision to be provided by the co-author of this paper: George Borzyskowski.

Discussions at the outset concentrated on novel content presentation strategies, including a QuickTime based content navigation system. There were a number of trials undertaken for the purpose of acquiring suitable video footage and photographic images to construct the QuickTime sequences. Photographic skeletal images were also to be used as the basis for musculature and other anatomical overlays. In the event two factors ultimately indicated the preferability of drawn illustrations for this purpose, although the video footage obtained could still be used for illustrative rather than navigational QuickTime sequences. The factors were the difficulty in achieving consistency of photographic quality given the wide range of posing and positioning of both a live model and skeletal materials available. Secondly it was found that once programming commenced, the technique chosen for highlighting image elements for identification meant that these elements could only be of a single colour, precluding the multitude of tones and shades found in photographic imagery.

At an early point in the project one of the students involved, Hon Hew, had prototyped a number of illustrative options for depicting anatomical detail. One of these visual solutions has now been adopted to address this task. Similarly, the students had produced a number of visual concepts to solve the graphical interface.

Preliminary work in this area was subsequently continued by the co-author George Borzyskowski in collaboration with Dr Rob Phillips, the project programmer, in order to resolve the complexity of command functions available in the HyperCard version into a visually coordinated solution.

A further factor which affected the final screen layout was the need to optimise the use of the increased available screen area, moving from black and white HyperCard to a resolution of 640x480 pixels afforded by SuperCard. Hon Hew's and George Borzyskowski's contribution, although relevant and useful, was indicative of a designers contribution being perceived as an exclusively production function. The result of this experience was for both, a sense of distance om the project, something which is usually alien to their normal involvement when given the opportunity to work from project conception.

Computer aided learning - Urinary contract infections

As project one, this application resulted from a successful Committee for the Advancement of University Teaching (CAUT) grant application, in this instance by Ms Peta Edwards of Curtin University.

The content providers, having already produced and trialled the project, discovered that in its original form there was a sense of user confusion over navigating the sequence of instructions and learning modules. Jodi Burgess, a third year student, having recently chosen to specialise in multimedia design, was assigned to the project with the brief to visually revise the graphical user interface and illustrative content to resolve the perceived difficulties of the original program.

While a programmer had been assigned to realise the revised implementation, the requirement to redefine the visual structure from a navigational point view prompted Jodi to analyse the existing program structure by visual flow chart analysis. In the event this proved highly useful for Jodi, enabling her to grasp a clear overview of the projects complexity. In addition her resulting analysis prompted both the project author and the instructional designer on the team to re-evaluate the programs navigational characteristics. Jodi's then unfamiliarity with the detail of the authoring environment (HyperCard) and the specific formats of graphic requirement ie. low resolution monochrome, found that by working in collaboration with the programmer, Martin Hill, provided her with a unique educational opportunity that far outweighed any self or directed learning.

The experience of working in a truly collaborative environment accrued benefits to the project as a whole in contrast to a client/ designer brief which in multimedia development, anecdote suggests is significantly less productive. Jodi's main contribution to the project eventuated as a clear and consistent visual appearance throughout the program, a less confusing navigational structure which resulted from the screen layout, the depiction of the control functions and the clarification of visual content through revised illustrations.

ArTrek: An interactive computer program designed to assist art students to make effective use of library resources relevant to their subject areas

The project resulted out of a mini research grant allocated to Cathy Dubert, Art Librarian and Ted Snell, Senior Lecturer, School of Art, Curtin University. At the conclusion of the research phase there had been prepared a concept model, documentation and flow chart for a proposed multimedia implementation. Simon Reid, a third year multimedia major student in the School of Design at Curtin University, was assigned the project.

University libraries are formidable places and Curtin's is no exception. In recognition of this observation the researches established that students need to encouraged to overcome the sheer size and enormity of these establishments. The projects function was to help students realise that they could come in and learn at their own pace. While the project in this instance is directed at Art students, with particular emphasis on Journals and periodicals, due to a history of student difficulty in their access, it could easily serve as a prototype for similar programs in other study disciplines.

Simon was provided with the text content and a preliminary , though supposedly complete flow chart. His job in the first instance was simply to interpret the content screen by screen. In his opinion, in order to do this job completely, he felt intuitively compelled to analyse the content to gain an overview of the project as a whole. During this process of design preparation he discovered that there were inconsistencies in the flow chart he had been directed to follow. There appeared, notably, to be a significant section that was isolated from the rest of the program with no links to or from any other point in the program. Discussion revealed his observations to be accurate, thus saving the possibility that the project would require later revision. This observation, the authors note is another example of making sure that the contribution of a designer is enlisted at the earliest practical opportunity.

The program authors, in mitigation, offered Simon complete freedom in program logic and visual interpretation. The result was an overall treatment that was visually appropriate to the intended audience, free of any of the program author's preconceptions.


Observations of these programs in production have shown that: This paper is supported and illustrated by means of a multimedia presentation.

Authors: George Borzyskowski, Senior Lecturer
Michael Pearson, Visiting Lecturer
School of Design, Curtin University of Technology
GPO Box U 1987, Perth 6001 WA
Tel: 09 3512263 Fax: 09 3512980

Please cite as: Borzyskowski, G. and Pearson, M. (1994). Visual syntax and the unique contribution of designers in collaborative multimedia projects. In C. McBeath and R. Atkinson (Eds), Proceedings of the Second International Interactive Multimedia Symposium, 38-41. Perth, Western Australia, 23-28 January. Promaco Conventions. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/iims/1994/bc/borzyskowski2.html

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