language, graphic design and meaning

As English teachers, we usually focus on the text, the words themselves, and leave the graphic design to the art classes. But can't graphic design create meaning as well as the words themselves?

I'm starting a new role at school as accreditation coordinator. We will have our accreditation done by several bodies at the same time in 2014, and we are starting the lengthy process now. For the ECIS accreditation, the school's mission statement is a significant benchmark. The idea is that the mission statement ought to influence everything we do, defining our relationships within the school community and focusing our decision-making as an institution. 

With that in mind, I went to find the school mission statement. (You may detect a problem already.) It's easily found, although not prominently displayed, on the school's website:
Our mission is to provide excellence in education through a caring and diverse environment that encourages the holistic development of each student. We provide students with the means to succeed in a challenging world.
You may now detect a second problem. These two sentences are unlikely to inspire anyone. There are some good concepts there, but they are buried in some almost hilarious jargon. It hardly rolls off the tongue or springs to mind when doing unit planning, discussing student behavior or really any other time. A committee of teachers, parents and students wrote it a few years ago, and it reflects some strains in the community at the time. The teachers involved in the process admit that it was a semantic battle to get everyone's ideas about education crammed in there, and that's obvious.

When we started looking at this, there was an idea that we should scrap this mission statement and do something simpler and more direct. Indeed, our school slogan, 'Each one is unique,' defines the culture of school fairly well, and we refer to it often. And while I'm open to the idea of re-visiting the mission statement and being innovative about it, we don't really have time for that process at this point. We'll have to live with the thing as it is.

I thought it might be possible to use graphic design to draw out the significant concepts. I started playing with the text, talked to a few people who have worked with design (including my wife), and this is what I came up with:
My goal was to isolate the significant concepts from the semantic filling, to get some clarity out of the confusion. It's not perfect: 'holistic' isn't the greatest word, for instance. Some might argue that those five concepts are vague and open to interpretation, but I think that's a strength. What does it mean to be successful? How would we express diversity? How can we look at each student rather than the entire student body? These are great questions that we should be debating and returning to constantly. 

Of course there is a value judgement here, and it would be interesting to see how different members of the community would do the same project. Somehow there is even something subversive here as I promote some concepts ('each student') and downgrade others ('excellence in education,' 'a challenging world').

I informally shared it with a few teachers and most of my students last week, and they were enthusiastic; today the curriculum leadership team approved it for printing and distribution.

To me, this is the power of design: the content has remained the same, but the arrangement of the words on a page has created new meaning. Not only do I want to do this more and better for my students, I want my students to experiment with it themselves. 


  1. I think you are 100% correct. I had to actually go back and re-read the text version to check it was the same as the graphic version. The image and design makes the words seem much more powerful. Great example! Thanks!


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