Ron Saito, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
Art Technology
Department of Art
California State University, Northridge
   Design Cultures
Instructional technology, art/design and production theory

After completing my doctoral work in Instructional Technology I began teaching digital media in an art department. This move did not represent a change in focus but a return to my roots since my undergraduate and master's degrees are in art. I like teaching in an art department because I like its studio-based pedagogies. At the same time, I find that in many circumstances I still have the perspective of an instructional design researcher. I¹ve discovered that thinking about the difference between these two disciplines has been instructive, especially in terms of the way these two areas link theory and practice.

Geometry of Design: Studies in Proportion and Composition, Kimberly Elam

Notes on Graphic Design and Visual Communication, Gregg Berryman

Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, Betty Edwards

Sound Design, David Sonnenschein

John Cage (1912–92), American composer

Indian rag, an acoustic method of colouring the mind of the listener with an emotion


The art department in which I teach is loosely divided into art and design areas. One of the art professors here described art as the process of "obfuscation." I like this definition. Modern art emphasized personal, intuitive self-expression. Contemporary art is still a form of self-expression but one framed within a critical and poetic framework. Contemporary art typically raises more questions than it answers. It doesn't simplify issues but tends to layer them adding complexity and therefore, obfuscation.

Our design areas are different. Graphic design is the largest of these areas with over 50% of our department's students enrolled in this concentration. These students tend to use the terms "design" and "graphic design" interchangeably. Here, graphic design focuses on formal concerns as they relate to professional practice. Students study color, type and image and create posters, websites, brochures, packaging and other commercially-oriented products. One way to describe this emphasis is to say that graphic designers create products that are visually and thematically rich, yet communicate clearly. To make a crude generalization, let's say that art is a discipline of opacity while design is a discipline of transparency.

Now that I've been in this art department for many years I see how my background in instructional technology has given me a slightly different approach to art and design. Trained as a social scientist, I feel that my job is to produce work that clarifies concerns. Further, like many instructional design researchers, I am interested in developing understandings that tie together theoretical assumptions and practice. However, I find that this orientation sometimes fits awkwardly within a visual art and design program. Like an artist, I come from a background that encourages the critical examination of assumptions. However, rather than create poetic products that obfuscate, I'm trained to create products (models, articles, prototypes) that bring clarity to issues. In this way, I am like a designer in that my approach assumes a certain transparency of communication.

The discourse in art and design most similar to this "ID approach" is production theory. Production theory describes writing that helps others bridge theory and practice. Production theory is different than criticism or art history in that it is explicitly targeted at creating understandings that help us to make things. Although the term is infrequently used in art and design, the practice is widespread in instructional texts. From graphic design books that emphasize timeless, universal proportions like the golden section (e.g., Elam's Geometry of Design) to those that follow gestalt theory (e.g., Berryman's Notes on Graphic Design and Visual Communication) art and design books typically link practice to principles or theories. Perhaps the best-known example is Betty Edward's Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain which uses brain hemisphere research to ground an approach to drawing.

One of the most difficult things about developing production theory is juggling theoretical rigor and utility. Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, for example, has worked extremely well as a guide for teaching life drawing for decades. However, the research upon which it is based is generally lightly regarded. In fact, most production theory in the arts seems to emphasize practice at the expense of the theory. David Sonnenschein's Sound Design, for example, pulls together everything from John Cage's aleatory music, Marpug's theory of sound and emotional states, to Indian ragas and music therapy, This crazy quilt approach may work well for teaching sound design but doesn't hang together conceptually.

The question this raises for the issue at hand is what is the relationship of production theory to design culture? When I was in school I remember reading frequent arguments in the ID literature over whether instructional design models enhance or impede creativity. If we look at the great number of production theory books in the art and design areas--areas usually thought of as being very creative--the argument becomes clearer. Production theories whether in the form of texts, models or charts are everywhere in the arts. The difference between art and ID is what these theories are and how they are used.

Production theory in ID leans toward establishing cause and effect relationships. For example, a certain theory might tell us that using certain kinds of animations will cause the reader to learn more or become engaged with the material in a certain way. In the arts, however, the effects of using various theories are generally obscured. It is true that in some situations, certain compositions tend to look "lonelier" or that round shapes look friendlier or that red/oranges tend to feel warmer. However there are so many exceptions to these rules that they are not usually emphasized. Further, a majority of art and design concepts (positive/negative space, gestalt theory, color theory, etc.) are not associated with producing anything beyond aesthetic effects.

Another important difference is ID's predisposition to use theory heuristically. Traditional ID emphasizes models and theories of instruction. In the arts, on the other hand, it is much more common to forge ahead using theory only when one runs into problems. Schon's conception of reflection-in-action is a good description of this approach. It all comes down to whether theory leads or follows.

Is ID necessarily less creative than art? No. Following an ID model isn¹t much different that drawing from a live model or breaking a figure down into cones, cylinders and spheres. The difference lies in what each area chooses to see. Scientists look through products to the ideas beneath. For artists, everything is important from the thickness of lines in a diagram to the arrangement of images on a page. I wonder if it is possible--and desirable--to create production theory in which designers do both, paying attention to the submerged ideas as well as the specific components of a product.

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Last Updated: February 18, 2005