MTS 525: Communication Design

Instructor: Dr. Liz Gerber
Office hours: Fridays, 4:00 – 5:00 pm, Ford 2.327

Class Time 
Studio: Friday 10:00am – 12:50pm,  Segal Design Institute, Ford Design Building (Ground floor) G. 201/G.205



Information –> Design –> Response

Communication design is the intentional design of information to motivate a response, to inform, and to inspire. Communication design relies on a combination of the senses (hearing, sight, touch, sound, and taste) to attract attention and make information accessible, engaging, and relatable.

This studio course will introduce you to the fundamentals of communication design, including storytelling skills and graphical design to help you present information more effectively. You will practice individual techniques and how you might layer the techniques to hone your message. Once you achieve mastery in these techniques, you can choose the appropriate technique to suit the information you are communicating.

In the process of learning techniques of communication design, you will also learn the design process. The design process emphasizes collaboration and rapid iteration – expressing and testing ideas with an audience in a virtuous cycle.  You will develop this understanding through studio critique and in-class and out of class assignments.   The class will lay the foundation for productive and creative use of design in communication.


  • To facilitate a range of communication skills that encourage you to express your creativity in a practical and imaginative way using a variety of forms: spoken, written, and visual.
  • To develop the cognitive and practical skills associated with communication graphics, problem solving, and critical thinking.
  • To develop your capacity and ability in the area of visual-spatial reasoning
  • To provide a learning environment where you can plan, organize, and present appropriate communication design solutions using a variety of skills, techniques, and media
  • To develop an appreciation for, and understanding of, aesthetic principles and their importance in the designed environment.
  • To connect communication design and the design process to solve communication problems in your own area of study, for example Technology and Social Behavior, Media Technology and Society, Engineering, Learning Sciences, and Humanities
  • To aid researchers and future instructors in the delivery of complex ideas and concepts

Learning Objectives

The objectives of this course are to develop your knowledge, understanding, skills, and competencies in Communication Design, while fostering the use of communication design in problem solving.

Upon completion of the course, you should be:

  • Familiar with the principles, concepts, terminology, and methodologies associated with communication design (ex. typography, hierarchy, grid)
  • Able to apply the principles of communication design to a variety of concrete and abstract communication problems, such as public campaigns, posters, and web design
  • Able to model, in two dimensions, communication design problems and solutions, using a range of appropriate techniques and media.
  • Appreciative of the role of communication design in the visual communication of ideas.
  • Able to freehand sketch, in two dimensions, as a means of communication and as an aid to spatial reasoning and refinement
  • Able to evaluate design solutions and solve design problems on the basis of sound aesthetic principles and to appreciate the impact of design on the visual quality of the human environment.
  • Able to constructively and respectfully critique communication design work recognizing strengths and opportunities for improvement.

Topics Covered

  • Design Process
  • Professional Practice
  • Typography
  • Grid
  • Hierarchy
  • Photography
  • 2D Sketch
  • Visualization
  • Storyboarding
  • Video Sketch

Course Structure

This course has several learning objectives – all packed into 10 short weeks. It is extremely important that you stay on top of the reading and assignments. Parts of this course will be new and challenging for many of you; for this reason, class time has been allotted to work through some of the design exercises with the instructor and peers close at hand. The tradeoff, however, is that you are expected to complete out of classroom assignments with great care. This class is designed to stretch you! Work with your more experienced classmates outside of class and be ready with questions when you arrive. If you don’t try to complete the exercises ahead of time, you are likely to miss the benefit of in class studio critiques.

  • Reading/Viewing Assignments
    • Almost every class will have a required reading/video to prepare you for the learning we will do together. Readings draw from the textbook, Joel Katz’s Designing Information, Buxton’s Sketching User Experiences, videos, and articles linked on the website.
  • Class Meetings
    • Class meetings will incorporate group discussion, group critique, design exercises, and studio time to work with help from the instructor and colleagues.
  • Assignments
    • You will work throughout the course to create individual assignments that will result in a final portfolio due at the end of class. You are encouraged to revise your assignments after the studio critique and bring revisions to the final studio opening.
  • Peer to Peer Tutorials
    • Students will lead 20 minute tutorials on software to teach those unfamiliar with new communication design software.
  • Field Trips
    • Students will visit two design firms (IA Collaborative on January 29th and Gravity Tank on February 12th) in Chicago to learn about professional communication design and human centered design practice. Note that these trips tend to run over class time.


This class is letter graded.  At week 5, you will be notified if you are at risk of failing.You will have a mid-term portfolio review on Friday, February 5th to reflect on goals, accomplishments, and a plan for continued improvement.

At the end of the term—on Friday March 11th—you will bring in all your work for a final evaluation and studio open house.  Any ephemeral work you are unable to bring back for the final review should be documented in advance so that some representation of it is included in your final presentation.

Late Work

We will run class like a professional practice.  In practice, if you miss a deadline, you lose the job. Consequently, no late work will be accepted. Work must be pinned and ready to discuss at the start of class.


Plagiarism of copy, images, or layout of any kind will not be accepted.


Class will begin on time. If you arrive late or miss more than one class, you will fail the class. If you are unable to make a class due to travel or illness, please email the entire class prior to your absence.

Distractions in class

Distractions (i.e. cell phones) must remain out of sight during class*. You may check messages/texts during allocated break times outside of the classroom.

Required Materials

  • Katz, J. (2012) Designing Information: Human factors and common sense in information design (A digital copy is available through the NU library; a hard copy is available through Amazon)
  • Greenberg, S. et al,  (2010) Sketching User Experiences: The Workbook (A digital copy is available through the NU library; a hard copy is available through Amazon)
  • Sharpie Marker, Fine Tip black marker, Pencil, Eraser, Ruler
  • Supplies may be purchased at Blick: Art Materials in downtown Evanston (NU student discount available) or online
  • Unlined Design Notebook: This will allow you to keep track of your process by tracking in your design notebook. You will also use the notebook to collect ideas that inspire, interest, irritate, and amuse you to be used as idea triggers for future design work (available at Amazon for $12).
  • Digital Portfolio: Please keep your submitted work in chronological order. I will review your portfolio with you at the mid-term and the final to discuss your progress.  I am happy to look at it any other time to offer helpful suggestions.

Software and Hardware available at the Library

  • Photoshop Suite (InDesign, Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator), iMovie  (available in the MAC lab at the library). Prior experience with these tools can be helpful but is not a requirement.
  • Digital Cameras or mobile phones with camera functionality


Optional Readings

Design Process

Graphic Design
  • Goodman, A. (2001) The 7 Essentials of Graphic Design
  • Meggs, P., & Purvis, A. (2011) Megg’s History of Graphic Design
  • O’Grady J. & O’Grady, K. (2008) The Information Design Handbook
  • Millman, D. (2007) How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer
  • Thompson, B. (1988) The Art of Graphic Design
  • Lupton, E. & Phillips, E. (2008) Graphic Design, The New Basics
  • Albers, J. (2006) Interaction of Color
  • Itten, J. (1970) The Elements of Color


  • D’Amelio, J. Perspective Drawing Handbook
  • McCloud, S. (1994) Understanding Comics
  • Edwards, B. Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain: The Artist Within
  • Hanks and Belliston, Rapid Viz


  • Bringhurst, R. (2012) The Elements of Typographic Style
  • Jacquillat, A. & Vollabuschek, T. (2011) The 3D Type Book
  • Strizver, I. (2001) Type Rules: The Designer’s Guide to Professional Typography
  • Woolman, M. & Bellantoni, J. (2000) Moving Type: Designing for Time and Space
  • Lupton, E. (2010) Thinking with Type: A critical guide for designers, writers, editors, & students


  • Christianson, S. (2012) 100 Diagrams that Changed the World


  • Elam, K. (2004) Grid Systems: Principles of Organizing Type
  • Elam, K., (2001) Geometry of Design: Studies in Proportion and Composition
  • Lausen, M. (2007) Democracy for Design: Ballot and Election Design
  • Muller-Brockmann, J. and Muller, J. (1971) Grid Systems in Graphic Design

Data Visualization

  • Tufte, E. (1990) Envisioning Information

Visual Thinking

  • McKim, R. (1980) Experiences in Visual Thinking, Cengage Learning

Creative Thinking

  • Adams, J. (2001) Conceptual Blockbusting, Perseus Book Group
  • Csikszentmaihalyi, M. (2001) Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention, Harper Perennial
  • deBono, E, (2015) Lateral Thinking: Creativity Step by Step, Harper Colophon


  • Madson, P. (2005) Improv Wisdom: Don’t prepare, just show up. Random House
  • Nachmanovitch, S. (1990), Free Play: Improv in Life and Art, Penguin Books
  • Johnstone, K.,(1979) Impro, Theatre Arts Books
  • Leonard, K., & Yorton, (2015) T. Yes, And, Harper Collins


  • Roth, B. (2014) The Achievement Habit

Optional viewings

Online Resources


Last edited 3.10.16