An action figure of the painter Vincent Van Gogh paints water lillies onto the screen of an iPhone that has been set up on an easel. There is a box of paints sitting on the floor behind him.

Understanding Contrast (Graphic Design)

An active learning module to analyze, process, and learn visual information with students providing content, research, and presentation (inside out lecture).

Activity aim: Students will review, synthesize, and select exemplary samples of contrast on their homework reading to further understand the concept of “contrast”

Learning goals: To really understand the different types of contrast so we can indicate them on all future projects as we build skills.

Materials needed: Each students needs a pen, access to the reading, and printed samples from other students. Classroom needs presentation space and hanging materials. Students must complete homework due for this class (reading about contrast and finding printed design samples, with written support for their choices).

Assessment: Students create their own design using contrast, and they have to label it. Also, contrast examples are part of a low-stakes quiz, and image review next class.

Time: 70 minutes (or more), depending discussion

Activity Description

Class 4: Basic Graphic Communication: Introduction to Graphic Design and Advertising

Students come in having read a classic essay on “Seven Principles of Typographic Contrast” by Carl Dair that was assigned as homework. Rather than showing samples in a lecturing to the class, students bring in a printed sample of each type of contrast. They also write a short description of the example they chose and explain why it fits the description.

Before class: create paper label for each type of contrast, and set up whiteboard with labels and clips for presentation of samples.

Break up the 24 students into 4 groups of 3, and 3 groups of 4 (total 7 groups). If students are missing, more groups of 3 are preferred.

    1. Groups are by row for efficiency. Harder samples are given to higher-achieving students.
    2. Students will put their name on the back of each of their contrast examples, and put them in the appropriate pile on a communal desk, or in group row. (5 minutes)

    3. WHOLE CLASS: DEFINE what the basic concept of contrast means and have a student write it on the whiteboard.
    4. Each group will be assigned one of the contrasts, and they should work together to “redefine” the contrast in their own words to present to the group. Time limit to collect, discuss and define. (3 minutes)

    5. Each group would also look through all the other students examples and show the ones that reflect that contrast. Time limit to choose examples. (4 minutes)

    6. Students groups will then explain their contrast as a whole class activity, and present their findings by pinning the best examples on the wall, one group at a time. Time limit for presentation (3-5 minutes) x 7 = 21 minutes

    7. We will discuss whether or not their definition and samples are correct. If students have the definition incorrect, we can have a whole class discussion with the whole class choosing a definition and good sample. Time limit for discussion (3-5 minutes) x 7 = 21 minutes

    8. If other students disagree, they can choose different samples from the pile to show a “correct” sample.
    9. Directly ask students to share what revelations or insights they gained through the experience of viewing other classmate’s choice of contrast elements to submit, and choice of contrast elements to present.  How differently do you think others “see” things than you?
    10. Students will then be able to go back into their own homework and make edits/corrections in pen before handing it in. (5 minutes)

    11. Students will comment on another student’s blog post about the 8th type of contrast (5 minutes)

    12. WRAP UP: A return to the main idea of contrast, and ask again if the choices shown, however good their use of color or size or texture or etc., were faithful to illustrating this central focus of contrast…Did contrast remain the central aim in your choices?  Why or why not?
    13. Additional questions can be saved for the end if another discussion comes out of this. Total lesson time 60+ minutes.

This activity was developed by Suzanne Dell’Orto as part of the Baruch College Center for Teaching and Learning Summer Seminar on Active Learning.

Image credit: JD Hancock

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