Thinking Graphics

Visual Language in Theory and Practice

Aalto University, MA Course in Graphic Design, 2009-2011

Student work: Petri Ladelma
Student work: Petri Ladelma

This course gives us an opportunity to reconsider graphic design in relation to the full spectrum of embodied human experience, and visual communication in relation to the whole visual/physical/social environment it takes place in. It combines a sustained practical exercise with lectures, readings and discussion.

The course is intended for graphic designers, artists, architects, poets, activists and others interested in visual experience and communication from a global, environmental perspective.

We will observe how visual language emerges out of the mechanisms of vision and the practical necessities of thinking and communicating. But we will also observe how seeing, thinking and communicating never happen without the help and involvement of the whole body. We will see how visual language and graphic design emerged as disciplines in modern visual culture, but also how these disciplines cannot be practiced apart from the rest of the culture and environment (human, material and social) they draw on and impact.

And in our practical work, we will address these same issues through a concrete engagement with our physical environment and with the fixed or moving situations where experience and communication take place.


After the opening lecture, the course will consist of two components: an initial week-long workshop focused on a practical visualization task in the environment, and a subsequent series of lectures/discussions, paralleled by student work on a final practical assignment.

Open to:

This course is required for all first-year MA Graphic Design students but, space permitting, it is also open to any other interested MA-level students from Graphic Design or other departments.


No particular graphic design training is required for this course, though it does presume advanced visualization or production skills in some medium. The practical exercise and final assignment can be completed in any number of different media.


This course will be conducted in English.


Ellon Lupton,  “Language of Vision” in Design Writing Research pp 62-65, “Visual Dictionary” in the ABC’s of _ _ _  p. 22-33

Gyorgy Kepes, Introduction to Language of Vision p. 11-14, p.15-65, “Plastic Organisation”

Lupton & Phillips, “Back to the Bauhaus”, “Point, Line, Plane”  in Graphic Design: The New Basics p.8-23

Scott McCloud, “The Vocabulary of Comics” in Understanding Comics

Kress & van Leeuwen, “The Meaning of Composition” in Reading Images

David McCandless, TED Talk “The Beauty of Data Visualiation”  (

Geoff McGhee, “Journalism in the Age of Data” – online video document




This course was introduced as a unit of the core curriculum in 2010, based on a proposal for programming to add a layer of theory teaching to the well-established Graphic Design program. The original concept for the course was as follows:

MA level   –   Thinking Graphics

The writing course: students familiarize themselves with various alphabets and grammars of visual language; with the story of modern/post-modern efforts to articulate a visual language; practice creating visual messages using many different codes & material constraints; excercises will be based on the expression of emotional experiences or patterns of thinking in philosophically clear and graphically readable visual texts.

for a shorter intensive workshop, this course would parallel the visual poetry workshop, but with a higher theoretical content (i.e. visual poetics as opposed to visual poetry)

for a semester-long course this segment would conclude with a final project where students take one relevant idea about how we think or how we function as human beings (from philosophy, sociology, psychology, art, somatics, whatever), and produce an interpretive visualization designed to enhance, correct or promote the idea.

The reading course: concerns media literacy and industry critique for graphic designers – assignments engage major “texts” of contemporary reality (YLE news broadcasts, the Matrix, FOX news, Nokia annual reports, cigarette packaging, nuclear power company PR, new local café design, the season’s new fashion profile; local political campaign posters, etc.); encourage critical interpretation of messaging at every scale; critical appraisal of graphic designers’ role in global social messaging; creative exploration of the options for a responsible and constructive co-activism with clients.

Practicum:       a supervised work project – students arrange to take on a paid or pro-bono job for an organization (small number of organizations lined up in advance; students free to initiate their own contacts); students work within the real constraints of their contractual agreements to negotiate an innovative, co-creative role in the design process – experiment with pro-active contributions that “stretch-the-brief” to the mutual benefit of designer, client and society– discuss process and results. Alternately: simply identify and collaborate with worthy organizations, working to establish a financially beneficial collaboration that allows the department to partner with positive causes.