4.4 The notion of ‘design’

A key concept in the Multiliteracies Project and within writings on multimodality is that of ‘design’, a term increasingly used by those involved in research into multimodal texts, such as Kress and van Leeuwen (2001). This use of the term differs from more usual and commonsensical notions of design – such as the use of space or layout in ‘interior design’ – although it encompasses these meanings as well. The term ‘design’ in multimodal research signals a shift away from a focus on verbal language alone, and a move forward from a focus on critique and ideological stances in texts. Design, ‘the organisation of what is to be articulated into a blueprint for production’ (Kress and van Leeuwen, 2001, p. 50), implies that we are all increasingly able to have greater control over the texts we produce, and have a wider range of semiotic modes to select from when we communicate. The term is still used in much of the literature, however, interchangeably with ‘design’ in its more commonsensical way. We will return to the concept of ‘design’ at several points in this section.

This more dual notion of ‘design’ mirrors in some ways the dual meanings of discourse – both concrete and abstract – discussed in earlier sections. Both meanings of ‘design’, and both meanings of ‘discourse’, need to be considered in multimodal texts. So far in this unit we have discussed discourses in terms of the verbal mode of communication. It is also possible to identify them in operation in the visual. For example, Kress and van Leeuwen (2001) analyse photographs of children’s bedrooms taken from House Beautiful magazine, with the accompanying text. If we focus on the design of the bedroom in the everyday, more concrete, sense of the term, we might talk about descriptive details: colours, where things are, what’s there. This descriptive detail is important in multimodal research and analysis. But so too is the more abstract notion of design: constructions of childhood, family, etc.

Kress and van Leeuwen show how the bedroom furniture, use of colour, and layout impose or imply certain types of activities in the room (a child’s sofa is for reading, pegs are set at a low height for children to hang up their own clothes, and so on). The photographs therefore encode discourses about childhood, homes, families and gender. The design presents as normal and conventional certain idealised Western models of children’s behaviour: they will play or read quietly in such spaces, away from adults who have better things to do, and they will tidy up after themselves. Kress and van Leeuwen point out that not all cultures separate children from adults in these ways, nor do they design spaces for these specific activities. They also note that the design of the bedrooms is highly gendered, and link this to conventionalised notions of appropriate behaviour for boys and girls: girls read, sing, dance and dress up, whereas boys play with trains and toys. A desk is also shown.

This children’s bedroom is clearly a pedagogical tool, a medium for communicating to the child, in the language of interior design, the qualities (already complex: ‘bold’, yet also ‘sunny’ and ‘cheerful’), the pleasures (‘singing and dancing with your friends’), the duties (orderly management of possessions and, eventually, ‘work’), and the kind of future her parents desire for her.

Kress and van Leeuwen, 2001, p. 15

Multimodal texts can guide our reading and interaction with them in other ways. Researchers have noted, for example, that encyclopaedias produced on CD-ROMs can be quite restrictive in terms of how they can be used, what information is available, and how people and events are represented. Luke (2000) sees a major challenge for education in mediating electronic texts:

Literacy requirements have changed and will continue to change as new technologies come on the marketplace and quickly blend into our everyday private and work lives. And unless educators take a lead in developing appropriate pedagogies for these new electronic media and forms of communication, corporate experts will be the ones to determine how people will learn, what they learn, and what constitutes literacy. For instance, a quick look through any of today’s most popular CD-ROM encyclopaedias (e.g., Microsoft’s Encarta) shows how limited entries on, for example, ‘Australia’ or ‘Aborigines’ are; how ideas are connected by lateral links and pathways which exclude other knowledge options; and how the software in fact ‘teaches’ the user-learner certain cognitive mapping strategies. Many of these best-selling American-authored encyclopaedias are in use in Australian schools and households. But even Australian-authored educational CD-ROMs reproduce the same old tired narratives on, for instance, bushrangers framed in mythologies of male heroes, and narratives of colonialism framed in mythologies of settlement instead of invasion. The point is that today’s corporate software designers can easily become the literacy and pedagogy experts of tomorrow. This is not to say that many educational products on the market today are pedagogically unsound or lack innovative teaching-learning methods. But it is to suggest that educators need to become familiar with the many issues at stake in the ‘information revolution’ so that we know how and where we must intervene with positive and critical strategies for Multiliteracies teaching, and how to make the best and judicious use of the many multimedia resources available.

Luke, 2000, p. 71

Zammit and Callow (1999) analysed in detail screens from two educational CD-ROMs (The ANIMALS!, based on San Diego Zoo, and the Encarta encyclopaedia). They compared the introductory screens (splash screens) and a page of information from each CD about koala bears. The authors were interested in the ideological positions set up within the CD-ROM texts, in how information was presented as factual or questionable, in implicit or explicit hierarchical structures, and in how the design encourages particular ways of navigation through the text. The ANIMALS!, for example, uses predominantly visual icons, with many symbolic abstract images, and discourages individual keyword searching – this CD-ROM prefers visitors to go on a pre-defined tour of the zoo. Encarta, on the other hand, uses both verbal text and visual icons and encourages topic-specific searching and navigation. Zammit and Callow demonstrate the complexity of reading positions required by CD-ROMs, even on a single screen. They advocate providing students with critical evaluative tools for use with such multimodal texts.

Van Leeuwen (2000) looks at a different aspect of educational databases on CD-ROM. He is interested in how visual and verbal information is presented, and what sorts of information are presented in each mode. He analysed a Microsoft CD-ROM, Dangerous Creatures, which uses a number of ‘guides’ who lead users through the database. Van Leeuwen notes that the visual mode is used in a similar way throughout the tours, whereas the verbal text differs considerably; and he questions whether the various guides leading users through the database represent different points of view on events. Overall, he suggests that the apparently different viewpoints are actually packaged consistently – while they may appear heterogeneous on the surface, there is an underlying conformity. Van Leeuwen links this to practices in other spheres of life, such as radio broadcasts which, while admitting wide variations of accent and musical style in their programmes, all tend to follow a similar overall format. Children using this CD-ROM may follow different routes, but they are nonetheless learning social and textual patterns which are remarkably conformist.

Activity 9 Evaluating CD-ROMs

Timing: Allow up to 2 hours

If you use CD-ROMs for teaching, or have one at home, or can use one in a library, look to see whether you can apply van Leeuwen’s points to them. Look particularly for:

  1. Any ‘division of labour’ between visual and verbal modes: what sort of information is presented in each?
  2. How are you encouraged to engage with the narrative, and how restricted are you in terms of following your path(s) through the material?
  3. What conclusions are you able to draw from this?

It is claimed that technology has played a hugely facilitating role in democratising the processes of text production, for those who have access to it. Desktop publishing and word processing programs certainly make it easy for users to change typefaces, layout, emphasis; they can add images (often supplied pre-drawn); they can digitise photographs and change almost anything about them; they can send audio clips and video clips, and so on. Web authoring programs are also widely available. A vast number of non-professionals have thus been handed the tools of individualised text production. As we will see in the next part, however, even larger numbers of people have no such tools.

Our increasing engagement with multimodal texts in more and more areas of our lives, as well as the need to create them ourselves, comes largely from the widespread use of technology. Before we turn to look at that in more detail, however, we outline some more general ways in which technology influences language use and linguistic forms.

4.3.3 Understanding how and why texts are produced

4.5 Information technology and language: Access and participation