Course Basics


Purpose of the Course

This course website was designed by me, Graham Larkin, for a seminar I'm teaching at Carleton University, Ottawa in the Winter term of 2013. The seminar (officially ARCH 5201 W) is designed to deepen students’ knowledge of communications history and expand their rhetorical toolkit.

What is Multimodal Design?

In the limited sense that I’m using the term multimodal design refers to forms of communication (graphs, diagrams, maps, cartoons, architectural representations) that integrate different kinds of signs or symbols (e.g. words, images, numbers) into a cohesive multivariate system, thereby maximizing our ability to make something of the material at hand. My italics emphasize the twin poles of successful multimodal communication, namely the combinatory art of production and the attendant range of affordances for a community of interpreters.

This idea of interpretive communities, borrowed from reader-response criticism, emphasizes the creative and collaborative role of a public who I don’t want to sum up as readers, viewers, or audiences (terms too biased toward a given mode of perception), much less as receivers (too mechanistic and passive) or users (a descriptor limited to only two domains). Generously and genuinely participatory in spirit, multimodal works are tools for thinking and feeling with. In their capacity to be read in different ways they epitomize the kind of active learning that we’ll be pursuing in this class.

Although it can include such elements as sound and video multimodal does not mean multimedia. Indeed very few multimedia experiences or interfaces come remotely close to works such as Minard’s Russian campaign data graphic, Beck’s London underground map, McLuhan’s Medium is the Massage or Ware’s Building Stories in their rhetorical intensity and interpretive latitude. A common characteristic of these four very different examples is that there is no single point of entry or route through the work. Unlike a novel or a film that progresses in linear fashion from beginning to end, a diagram, map or compendium is something one dives into and moves through in a very personal way, according to one's habits and needs.

The surest guide to the mechanics of effective multimodal design is Edward Tufte, a statistician-turned-designer whose four great books elucidate the design principles underlying hundreds of well-selected and beautifully-reproduced graphs, diagrams, maps, manuals, schedules, scores and lists. While the bibliography for this course ranges beyond the territory mapped out by Tufte, his self-exemplifying studies of verbal, pictorial and numerical exposition form the foundation of this course.

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