Visual Design in the Composition Class

ProfHacker’s guest editorial, Teaching Document Design, Not Formatting Requirements, is an interesting presentation of the argument for why we should teach document design. I have taught document design in business and professional writing classes. My dissertation dealt with document design. I have not, however, made the transition to freshman composition and visual design techniques.

While I am not totally sold on the idea, there do seem to be some legitimate points in favor.

I don’t want to be influenced, positively or negatively, by students’ design choices; I want to focus on the content of the writing.

Comments like this imply a binary—word/image, content/form, etc.—that doesn’t necessarily hold up under scrutiny. In rhetoric and composition, Anne Wysocki has argued persuasively against these binaries, exposing the inability in complex visual work to distinguish between visual and textual content. Moreover, like it or not, we are all influenced by visual design every day, sometimes subtly, sometimes less so. So, while we may be standardizing that influence, it is still there. We’re also making it so that any deviation from the expected norm is considered negative, evidence of an inability to follow directions.

In other words, if we require a certain format, we will in fact be influenced by design, but never positively: we will only think worse of students who for whatever reasons do not follow our rules. I absolutely understand the impetus to control the scope of writing courses, which have grown exponentially over the past couple of decades. But, visual design is always there, is always a part of writing, whether we want to acknowledge it or not.

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