City Tech - NYC College of Technology, CUNY

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OER Fellowship 2023-2024


Project Scope Abstract: I’m creating from scratch a collection of student writing and research presentations to be used as a supporting text in COMD3504 Communication Design Theory to help broaden the course readings to include a diversity of voices and perspectives. This collection will include research papers, essays, reading responses/reviews, manifestos, and research project presentations selected from coursework or submissions. Students interested in publishing their work openly/publicly will work with faculty and/or peer reviewers to prepare their work for inclusion in the collection. The collection will be published as an OpenLab Project and linked from the existing COMD Theory OER.

In support of a student-led / co-creation model of education, this collection of student writing will provide an opportunity for students to publish their unique perspectives in the historically privileged field of communication design. Part of our course curriculum and the COMD Department’s mission is to increase the variety of voices in professions that utilize creativity, technology, and design. While every attempt is made to present a broad view of design history and theory, the first half of the course takes a mainstream viewpoint in order to prepare students for the field.

Dec 2023 Proof of Concept: I will work with two current students to help prepare their essays for publication, create a submission with a release form, and test some new possible “book-like” themes (similar to Pressbooks) in OpenLab Dev.


  1. Worked with two current students to refine/revise their essays for publication.
    • The first essay is “Simple Driving.” It analyzes how the 1971 Mini Automatic advertisement perpetuated gender stereotypes through coded messaging.
    • The second essay is “A Look into the “Get Down”. It analyzes a 1970s McDonald’s advertising campaign, which launched a new era of African-American representation in media.
  2. With the help of other COMD faculty teaching COMD3504, we created a release form.
  3. Two other faculty, Profs. Nicolau and Goetz are collecting work from students this semester.
  4. My OpenLab colleagues and I are reviewing “book-like” themes (similar to Pressbooks) to install on our testing server.

WAC Writing Intensive Certification Portfolio


Recently I was visiting with a group of Communication Design students who were lamenting about having to take a writing-intensive course. They asked, “Why do we need to take all these writing-intensive courses, Professor? We’re visual designers.” When asked this question, my immediate answer is always “writing is a design skill.”

A designer will regularly communicate with clients or collaborators who are not designers. They will need to explain why they have made certain design choices and explain complex visual scenarios. Writing helps visual designers communicate and articulate their ideas. Before sitting down to formulate a visual solution, a designer will need to research, organize, and synthesize written information and data. Reading, writing, and critical thinking are integral to the design process.

In writing-intensive courses, whether taken as part of the Communication Design Department or General Education curriculum, students practice skills to find, evaluate, organize and communicate information. Even if they are not excited about the topic, they will gain experience in the practice and process of creative design thinking. I remind students that as designers, they will work for all types of clients, from banks to boba tea and everything in between. It’s not the subject but rather the process of finding a creative solution that is exciting. Writing is part of that process.

For the WAC Faculty WI Certification, I revised the syllabus and improved scaffolded assignments for COMD3504 Communication Design Theory. I also participated in the OER Fellowship, where I refined my openly available and clonable COMD3504 Model Course and Communication Design Theory OER, which provides faculty with a detailed course structure and assignments to improve curriculum consistency across sections.

Revising the low-stakes writing assignments (Discussions and Reading Responses) and the formal Research Paper on the Model Course site helped me rethink and refine how these learning exercises scaffold to meet the course learning objectives.

I initially developed COMD3504 to address several learning objectives missing from the curriculum and provide students with additional experience in reading, writing, and critical thinking.

  • To think critically, to distinguish between fact and opinion in the analysis of different kinds of design.
  • To evaluate critical and historical materials for the study of design and to construct a coherent and substantiated argument, written in clear and correct prose.
  • To develop communication skills and demonstrate the ability to reflect critically on the learning process.
  • To develop a historical appreciation of communication design, including designers, technologies, media, processes, creative expression, challenges, effects, and significance.
  • To acquire an understanding of different forms, traditions, processes, and styles of communication design in various national and international contexts.

Between 55-70% of the coursework uses written assignments to meet the learning objectives.

  • Informal writing exercises are used to research, evaluate, organize and communicate.
  • Students submit critical analyses to design projects and readings via weekly blog posts.
  • Students articulate thoughtful responses to critical readings or media during online written discussions.
  • Students use Hypothesis to annotate difficult readings collaboratively.
  • Using reflective writing in their design journals, students articulate their knowledge and opinion of design styles, movements, and history.
  • Informal writing assignments are scaffolded and lead to two formal research papers and a final Research Presentation in which students identify primary and secondary sources using MLA formatted citations.

Student writing is assessed with an eye toward self-expression and clarity. In written discussion and reading responses, I encourage students to use whatever written communication skills they have to express their critical ideas about design history through social issues, politics, ethnicity, psychology, personal experience, etc. Because the content of the course is often theoretical and written for a narrow audience, I work with students to communicate in clear, well-structured, and easy-to-understand language. Having the ability and courage to write from your heart and express your spirit and personality is also important. This combined practice gives students the confidence to apply these skills to their design projects.

I am currently exploring other approaches to assessment in COMD3504, including “ungrading” and “contract grading.” I encourage students to submit a finished draft for feedback and then revise until they are satisfied with the final work. The work is not graded but is marked completed after a couple of rounds of feedback and revision or when the student feels they have met the assignment guidelines. I’m also interested in encouraging students to write with the goal of submitting work to City Tech Writer or for inclusion in student-curated essay collections. I’m looking forward to experimenting with other ways to encourage students to showcase their written work.

The WAC Writing Intensive Certification was a welcome addition to a busy semester. The experience of working with WAC Fellow Weiheng Sun was the most valuable part of the WI certification process. Weiheng provided practical suggestions for improving writing assignments that I’ve been struggling with for years. I also enjoyed the workshops but often felt the delivery of the content was not tailored to the audience. Many of the participating faculty teach and practice in STEM or STEAM fields. In some workshops I felt there was too much information presented and not enough time to digest the content. I would suggest smaller breakout rooms led by WAC Fellows to help faculty discuss and work through the content, rather than having an open-ended shareout with the entire group. Overall, an excellent experience. Thank you!


COMD3504 Communication Design Theory Syllabus and Schedule

Informal writing assignments that lead to a formal writing assignment.

A copy of one formal writing assignment sheet, including a rubric explaining how student writing will be evaluated.

A Brief History of Failure

The road to innovation is paved with failed designs.

Sterling Engine is being revived and tied to solar panels to power a small business or a rural village.

What follows is — depending on how you want to think about it — either a gallery of technologies we lost or an invitation to consider alternate futures. Some of what might have been is fantastical: a subway powered by air, an engine run off the heat of your palm. Some of what we lost, on the other hand, is more subtle, like a better way to bowl or type. As new standards emerge, variety fades, and a single technology becomes entrenched. (That’s why the inefficient Qwerty keyboard has proved so difficult to unseat.)

We can take heart, however, in the fact that good ideas never disappear forever; the Stirling engine didn’t pan out in the Industrial Revolution, for example, but it can keep the lights on for a small village. As you look through the images, then, please consider not only what might have been but what could still be again. — RYAN BRADLEY

A Brief History of Failure | New York Times Magazine

Drawing needs to be a curriculum essential

Drawing has creative, expressive and educational value; it remains fundamental to translating and analysing the world– Anita Taylor

“Drawing remains a central and pivotal activity to the work of many artists and designers – a touchstone and tool of creative exploration that informs visual discovery. It fundamentally enables the visualisation and development of perceptions and ideas. With a history as long and intensive as the history of our culture, the act of drawing remains a fundamental means to translate, document, record and analyse the worlds we inhabit. The role of drawing in education remains critical, and not just to the creative disciplines in art and design for which it is foundational.”

“As a primary visual language, essential for communication and expression, drawing is as important as the development of written and verbal skills. The need to understand the world through visual means would seem more acute than ever; images transcend the barriers of language, and enhance communications in an increasingly globalised world.”

“If we really want to move the STEM to STEAM agenda, drawing could be the connector at the heart of it all.”

From “Why drawing needs to be a curriculum essential” Anita Taylor, 29 May 2014 :


Science Wonder Art ven diagram

The Imaginary Foundation

“The neurobiologist Antonio Damasio has written about Descartes’ error that, to put it in shorthand, “I think therefore I am.” Damasio instead makes the compelling argument, empirically based in neurology, that feeling and emotions as expressed in art and music play a central role in high-level cognitive reasoning….. much of the focus in education these days from Singapore to Shanghai to American schools is on STEM — science, technology, engineering and math. As important as that is, it is short-sighted. We need to add the empathetic reasoning of the arts to the mix — STEAM. The values behind arts integration — collaboration, flexible thinking and disciplined imagination — lead to the capacity to innovate.” Behind The Cello, Yo-Yo Ma – adapted from a conversation with WorldPost 

Link Between Art, Perception, and the Self

Lithograph of the brain (via Wellcome Library)

Lithograph of the brain (via Wellcome Library)

“When you look at a painting and feel that somehow it was made just for a person like you, it might actually be true. New neuroscience research shows that deep feeling of personal resonance from some works of art is linked to your brain’s sense of self.” Neuroaesthetic Research Probes Link Between Art, Perception, and the Self by Allison Meier

“‘…certain artworks, albeit unfamiliar, may be so well-matched to an individual’s unique makeup that they obtain access to the neural substrates concerned with the self—access which other external stimuli normally do not get. This mediates a sense of being “moved,” or “touched from within.’ This account is consistent with the modern notion that individuals’ taste in art is linked with their sense of identity, and suggests that DMN activity may serve to signal “self-relevance” in a broader sense than has been thought so far.” Art reaches within: aesthetic experience, the self and the default mode network by Edward A. Vessel, G. Gabrielle Starr and Nava Rubin

Workshop: Designing Digital Projects for ADV1100

On Wed. January, 23rd I will be facilitating a workshop for all faculty teaching ADV1100: Graphic Design Principles 1.

After teaching Web Design for my first six years at City Tech and observing that only a minority of students appeared to have grasped basic design principles and concepts by the time they reached their concentration classes, I asked the Department Chair if I could teach the foundation class Graphic Design Principles 1 (formally known as Design and Color).

My aim was to explore how this course was taught and try to find ways for our students to successfully translate the basic design principles learned in ADV1100 in upper-level courses. It was a mystery to me how some students could produce strong hand work in their first semester and weak digital work in subsequent years.

What was causing this disconnect?

  • insufficient exposure to digital tools in their foundation courses?
  • a focus on a “fine art” rather than “design” approach in foundations?
  • lack of consistency across the course curriculum? ie: each faculty was teaching a different set of principles?
  • the principles were not being reinforced in upper-level courses, beyond foundation year?

These are things I have been trying to explore for about two years. My attempts to actively collaborate and collectively explore this challenging issue have been slowed by OpenLab directorship duties, a year-long sabbatical, and the challenges of coordinating adjunct ADV1100 faculty meetings during a busy semester. I set up the ADV1100 Instructional Resource project on OpenLab to encourage faculty to contribute, but with only a few digitally-confident faculty, I haven’t been able to jump start a dialog.

At the start of this workshop ADV1100 faculty will discuss the course goals and learning outcomes, foundation principles and skills, and pedagogical practices that they are currently using and compare those with the department’s master syllabus. Together I would like to propose a set of learning outcomes based on our current curriculum, student needs, and lack of computer access and work together over the semester to improve the master syllabus.

Next I will present some small digital tasks that faculty can introduce into their class assignments throughout the semester. Rather than ask students, many of whom are not yet skilled in digital tools, to complete an entire assignment in Photshop, Illutrator or InDesign faculty can introduce the basic use of these tools as part of a larger project. Other faculty members are encouraged to post their example tasks to the ADV1100 Instructional Resource.

Examples might include using Photoshop or Illustrator to:

  • create proportional color inventory
  • recreate a simple paper collage project
  • scan and trace a sketch
  • create Simultaneous Contrast pairings

Lastly, we will work together to propose pedogogical solutions that still allow basic design principles to be explored through experimentation and traditional  skills, but also find ways of creating a “bridge” to real-world design projects. I would like the group to come up with two digital bridge assignments that will act as stepping stones into the next course: ADV1200 Graphic Design Princples 2.

These projects should address the following principles:

  • Structural Thinking (ie: Organizational Frameworks, Planning Systems, Visual Filling Cabinet, The Grid)
  • Visual & Information Hierarchy (ie: Classification, Data Chunking, Visual and Conceptual Order)
  • Proportional Color (ie: Schemes, Palettes, Inventories)

EXAMPLE: Ask students to deconstruct a magazine layout, web page, game interface, etc. and reduce the structure down to a grid framework and limited color palette. Essentially a page of hierarchically ordered colored boxes. Ask students to identify the information hierarchies and explain how they are supported by the visual design choices (color, proximity, scale, balance etc.). Ask students to create a proportional color inventory of this deconstructed framework and show how the palette is used to reinforce information hierarchy and create a unified composition.

I strongly believe that students NEED a course that gives them the freedom experiment and fail- to think creatively and challenge their beliefs about what is possible. This is hugely important for the majority of our students, many of whom come to us from the public school system and have never been asked to “invent” a solution to a problem and partake in a collaborative design process. ADV1100 is only class that allows that freedom to experiment and fail.  I hope we can allow this exploration, but also find ways of translating the basic concepts of design to the real-world practice.



Fostering Friendships with Collaborative Projects

One of the greatest joys I get from teaching is seeing friendships develop in the classroom.

I always ask my students on the first day of class to look around the room and introduce themselves to the person sitting next to them, because “these strangers will someday be your colleagues, partners, bosses, clients.” They always laugh, but the people they meet in college and graduate school often become the colleagues they will turn to when they need a job or collaborator.

Recently, I ran into a former student from my Graphic Design Principles 1 course from several years ago. I joked with him that he seemed all grown up now. He acknowledged that there is a big difference between age 18 and 22. I was happy to hear that he had stayed friends with several of the other students in that class.

That was the year that I began to incorporate a number of group/collaborative projects in my classes. The increase in the classroom camaraderie was dramatic. Students worked together to solve design problems, offered help to students that were struggling, and contributed to a much happier classroom environment.

Another thing that improved was the verbal project critiques. Students went from painful, sullen, teenage silence to confident, mature vocal interactions. One of my primary goals when teaching freshman is giving them a chance to speak freely. I repeatedly encourage them to use the course vocabulary, but when they are at a loss I ask them to share their impressions about what they see in whatever words or associations work for them. This relaxed approach gives me a much better gauge of how well students are comprehending and connecting the vocabulary with design principles and helps me to make corrections and repeat concepts as needed. This relaxed critique environment paired with a feeling of comfort among their peers often allows them to take risks and express themselves without fear.

Recently, through the use of OpenLab messaging and discussion forum, I have observed students requesting feedback from their peers if they miss a class or are stuck in their design process. Holding critiques or collaborations in this medium also supports those students who feel self-conscious in person, but less inhibited online.

Creating a classroom environment that fosters friendships though multiple modes of collaboration gives students a safe place to learn (and fail) and prepares them for their future collaborations beyond the classroom.

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