Article from the Journal of Epistecybernetics, 01(01) September 1999. pp. 106-116. This article first appeared (with minor differences) as a chapter titled “A Model for Assessing Applications of Essential Knowledge in Two-Dimensional Design,” in O. D. Hensley, C. B. Fedler, & D. J. Bagert (Eds.), Epistecybernetics: A New Approach to Knowledge Stewardship. 1999. pp. 157-170.
Within the visual arts curriculum at the level of higher education, I can think of no subject more important than the introduction to two-dimensional design. My feelings on this matter run deeply, but ultimately return to one simple fact: all two-dimensional art forms–whether drawing, painting, fibers, photography, printmaking, or others–have the rudiments of design at their core. Once learned, these rudiments inform all subsequent artistic work, even the most daring creative pursuits.
Despite this significance, design fundamentals are rarely taught in an express, forthright manner. Instructors are often vague when defining the principles of good design, if they define them at all. More commonly, they do not explain these principles as they relate to one another or to the visual elements that the principles govern. In short, design fundamentals are taught in an unstructured way.
Consequently, assessment of visual designs is often obscure or even cryptic. Too often, assessment–whether as final evaluation or instructive appraisal–proceeds without regard for principle, relying instead on the intuitive judgment of the instructor. The oft-heard student protest, “I don’t know what you’re looking for!” testifies to this practice, and the teacher may not know either. Although intuition may be an effective resource, it is enigmatic. Intuition is not a sufficient determinant for assessing education. Furthermore, as a result of this tacit approach, students do not acquire an adequate model for judging their own work. They, too, must resort to intuition (and raw intuition, at that) for assessment purposes.
In recent years, a concern for improving education through the systematic study of knowledge has produced research that offers new possibilities for improving instruction and assessment in design. This research, rooted in the science of epistecybernetics, adopts an expert systems methodology for defining and structuring knowledge. I believe that such a discriminating process is needed to develop an adequate model for assessing design.
The epistecybernetic method allows one to define and orient visual elements and principles within a functionally structured system. As parts of this system, the elements and principles function as generic solutions to problems arising in the design process. Additionally, these solutions specify the essential knowledge that should be the focus and criteria for an assessment. Hence, the epistecybernetic approach offers great promise for design education.
Purpose and Delimitations
This paper presents a model based on epistecybernetic theory for assessing work in two-dimensional design. As such, the model makes possible a quantifiable evaluation of various knowledge applications in the form of visual elements and design principles. Although space prohibits a complete definition of the knowledge relevant to the assessment model, the model’s structure should be comprehensible to readers unversed in design. Indeed, I hope that educators in various disciplines will find the schematic form of the model a useful structure for incorporation into their fields.
It should be noted that the model does not support every criterion that might be pertinent to assessing work in design. For instance, it does not provide for appraisals of such penumbral qualities as creativity, expression, or ideation. Nor does the model examine the demonstration of manual skills in design (which determine the general craft of a work). Finally, although the end purpose of a design may strongly affect creative decisions and the appearance of a finished image, the model does not take this influence into account. Instead, as a pedagogical tool, the model focuses on the application of visual elements and design principles for its own sake and for the sake of students studying these concepts. Further, the sheer number of possible functions that a design may serve precludes consideration in a basic assessment model. Future research will investigate the implications of such teleological concerns on the creative process in a professional or advanced instructional context.
Thus, the model is really less of an instrument for assessing designs than it is an instrument for assessing the application of select knowledge within a design. In this respect, it reflects Nelson Goodman’s (1984) approach to evaluating the arts. Goodman advised that educators “bypass the question of aesthetic standards by focusing upon those abilities that are necessary or conducive to production or comprehension in the arts” (164). In comparing such needed artistic abilities to the requisite skills for dancing or riding a bicycle, he went on to observe that “skill in working sample problems in art or science is not sufficient for superior performance but is an indication of progress” (165). Certainly, measuring progress is one objective of the assessment model.
In spite of emphasizing a precise definition of knowledge, however, the model cannot counteract one critical limitation: the inconstancy of the human eye, the medium of visual assessment. Because of this handicap, one must anticipate as much variance among judgments made by a single person as among those by different persons. Perception is not absolute. But if the model does not afford complete objectivity, by testing for specific principles, assessment responses will at least be less subjective. The more finite the knowledge component, the more precise a definition can be and the more certain an estimation of its effect in a design. This certainty goes far toward establishing agreement among everyone assessing a design.
Creative freedom in the arts, however, fends against defining knowledge too precisely and contributes to the vagueness of instruction and the problem of assessment in fields such as design. Something within the arts smirks at anything measurable or categorical. This view has certainly been prevalent in the aftermath of modernist conceptions of the work of art and the artistic process. Before the modernist endeavor, as Bartlett Hayes (1965) observed, the arts–as with so many disciplines–conceived of knowledge as absolute and orderly, comprising facts ordained in a predetermined manner.
In this environment, it is not surprising that art and the necessary training to produce it was regarded objectively. Certain romantic emotionalism aside, reality was found in surface appearances: in the static imitation of nature arranged precisely as observed; in the reproduction of textures; in the accurate transcription of color relations as they were literally observed. (204)
But the continued march of science after 1880–which laid the groundwork for the technological achievements of the twentieth century and led directly to the breakdown of the Newtonian worldview–and the concurrent rise of modernism shattered any notions of objectivity or absolutism in arts education. The aim of studio instruction became increasingly less certain and specific pedagogical approaches grew more individualistic. In 1937, Arthur Pope remarked:
The general reaction against the nineteenth-century point of view has, of course, had a considerable effect on inherited methods of teaching, and all sorts of experiments are being tried. . . . There have been art schools in this country where the students have actually been discouraged from going into the museums for fear that they might lose their originality! There has been almost no attempt to study the painting of the past in any systematic and thorough way. (99-101)
Consequently, relativism permeated the curriculum, down to the broad assessment of the work of art. No longer did one ask the empirical, “Is the work executed skillfully?” but rather the nonjudgmental and evasive, “What is the meaning of the work?” (Hayes 1965). This situation grew extreme as the twentieth century progressed. In 1968, Edward Mattil observed, “The problem of teaching artists today is complicated by the fact that no one can say for sure what art is or what form it should take. In the past artists were trained ‘in the tradition,’ but what is today’s tradition?” (72).
More recently, efforts to establish systematic models for instruction and assessment in the arts have encountered opposition. Cognitive approaches to studying the arts are often “thought by writers on art to be bent on analyzing the arts to death” (Goodman 1984, 146). Among arts educators, “much rhetoric is expended to create a polarity with knowledge and skills on one¿ end, and creativity on the other” (Hope 1993, 38). Seemingly, the notion of structured knowledge in the arts today is tantamount to absurdity.
Still, some systematic models have attained respect for their approach to the visual arts curriculum. The major effort has been the development of discipline-based art education (DBAE). This program evolved from Bruner’s (1960) notion of a discipline’s structure, which stirred arts educators to rethink how the visual arts were taught. But although DBAE has made great strides toward restructuring curricula at the primary and secondary levels (and in limited college applications), the program is exclusively directed toward general education. It is not intended for the professional development of artists.
To this end, educators have made less insistent efforts toward structuring the visual arts, and only in specific areas of practice. In design, the major texts, including those by Ocvirk et al. (1994), Lauer (1995), and Goldstein (1989), have structured their content by topic, emphasizing such conventional concepts as elements and principles of design. The specific organization of these textbooks differs, however, although most progress through increasingly complex material. Goldstein also includes a unique chapter identifying a typology of basic compositions used by artists. The most precisely structured text in publication, though, is by Charles Wallschlaeger and Cynthia Busic-Snyder (1992). Complete with graphic models of various facets of design, the text is a major contribution to instructional materials within the field. It does not, however, identify the specific knowledge of the subject as solutions to problems in design.
To my knowledge, the only model for design assessment in common circulation is Mittler’s (1994) Design Chart, presented in his text for high school students. As a pedagogical device for teaching criticism and appreciation, the chart provides a useful schema for examining the application of visual elements and principles. Although the model does not incorporate the level of detail needed for professional instruction, it does reflect a basic knowledge structure for the visual arts. Likewise, the format of cross-indexing visual elements with the design principles is similar to the arrangement of the model in this paper.
I turn now to the influence of epistecybernetics on knowledge management in general and on the development of this assessment model. Epistecybernetic theory is distinct from other knowledge management approaches (including expert systems and areas of cognitive psychology) in its view of knowledge as a body of solutions to the problems of a discipline. Underscoring this pragmatic definition is a central motivation for improving education. Concerned with the glut of information inundating education and society at large, the epistecybernetic view distinguishes between solutions in a generic sense and specific facts, data, or other bits of information (Hensley 1992, 3).
Furthermore, in not restricting knowledge to cognitive experience, epistecybernetics offers an enticing definition for the visual arts and other hands-on disciplines. In epistecybernetics, creativity, sensory discrimination, psychomotor skills, and even affective responses all function as potential forms of knowing; each may govern part or all of a solution in a problem-solving repertoire.
In an epistecybernetic knowledge structure, solutions correspond directly to problems that arise in the practice of a discipline. In turn, the knowledge structure may subsume these problems under broader processes that reflect performance in the discipline. Hence, solution-based descriptions focus learning on identifiable situations. For example, the visual elements of point, line, and plane provide a solution to the problem of what an artist can visually depict. This problem may arise as part of a general process of executing a design (which is only one phase–albeit an important one–of the design process). A subsequent problem might ask how an artist can depict a chosen element, i.e., in what variety of ways. In response, various qualitative features of the elements would provide the requisite solution.
Admittedly, these problems are exceedingly simple. But although few designers would hardly pause in solving them, the expert’s solution would probably not be as clear as those outlined above. For instructional purposes, such problems are fundamental, and the solutions need to be explicit. The problem of how an artist can depict the visual elements will illustrate why I make this assertion. In learning design, students frequently grapple with the principle of variety (itself a solution to the problem of how to compose). In this endeavor, they may be incognizant of the multiple ways of rendering a point, line, or plane. Most textbooks are not definitive in this qualification, and classroom instruction is seldom more conclusive. Yet a solution that categorizes the qualifiers for each visual element presents a full range of options. Consequently, this knowledge may enhance the degree of variety in a design by providing students with a precise but generic model for defining the elements.
The conception of visual elements and principles according to epistecybernetic theory also mitigates concerns that the design principles may be cast as universal truths. By the epistecybernetic definition, the principles serve merely as solutions that have been accepted for solving design problems. Although each may be considered “necessary or conducive to production . . . in the arts” (Goodman 1984, 164), they may not be the only or even the best solutions in all situations. In this respect, the epistecybernetic definition accords with the expert systems view of solutions to so-called ill-structured problems.
The important point to make about “good solutions” to ill-structured problems is that there generally are not “right answers.” Thus, whether you arrive at the “right answer” cannot be a criterion. Similarly, there is no set of rules to say that if you “solve by doing these n steps” it will be a good answer. The fact that such criteria do not exist underscores the importance of argumentation as a means to show a solution is “good” (Voss and Post 1988, 281-282).
The epistecyberneticist, however, would uphold the importance of acceptance, not argumentation, in affirming a solution. This critical facet of epistecybernetics addresses problems of context that arise in any epistemological debate. To this end, epistecybernetics defends a pragmatic philosophical position: the only good–or true–solutions are those accepted in a problem-solving repertoire. Anything less, whether empirically verifiable or not, is simply meaningless.
Undoubtedly, this view raises questions concerning the criteria for acceptance. In epistecybernetic theory, experts in a discipline confer acceptance on solutions by simple validation. The definition of an expert is established according to the discipline in question. Merely placing “the burden of evaluation upon solvers with expertise similar to that of the solver” (Voss and Post 1988, 281) does not suffice. One must establish more specific standards, such as professional accomplishments and education. Likewise, epistecyberneticists must define the degree of validation needed for a solution’s acceptance in a discipline. Disciplines distinguished by ill-structured problems (such as the arts) may tolerate lower validation levels for some solutions. Furthermore, acceptance of solutions to the problems of a discipline may change with time and context.
The Assessment Model
The assessment model, shown in Figure 1, allows for estimating the degree to which certain principles are applied in a design relative to different features of the visual elements (described below). In actual use, this appraisal proceeds according to a cross-indexing of the principles (listed across the top of each chart) with the features (which designate the three charts of the model and are further specified within the charts). For example, the principle variety can be assessed in relation to the hue, value, and intensity of the colors of elements in a design. Likewise, variety can be assessed in relation to features associated with the configuration of the elements or in relation to the elements’ textures. The other principles may be assessed equivalently.
As an instructional device, the model offers the advantage of focusing attention on particular design solutions in specific applications. As an epistecybernetic model, it also offers a useful structure for representing this essential knowledge. In both respects, the usefulness of the model only extends as far as the relevance and coherence of the knowledge it reflects. An examination of this knowledge, then, would seem necessary for this discussion. As a complete explanation of every component is not possible, I will limit my attention to the visual elements and major principles and to the general structure of the assessment model.
The Visual Elements
The visual elements represent the building blocks of two-dimensional design and consist of points, lines, and planes for the purpose of this model. These elements reflect the only possible impressions an artist can render in a two-dimensional design. Hence, they are truly elemental. Although this set of visual elements contradicts the set of lines, shapes, colors, and textures favored by most art educators, the latter distinction is inaccurate, confusing elements with attributes and other qualitative features. From the perspective of structured knowledge and an expert systems methodology, it is inadequate as the basis for an assessment model.
Moreover, the designation point, line, and planeis not totally unfounded in visual arts instruction. Besides having their conceptual counterparts in the forms of Euclidean geometry, these elements appeared as the building blocks of painting as early as Alberti’s Della Pittura (On Painting,  1956). Of greater pertinence, these elements provided the foundation on which Klee and Kandinsky established the famous design course at the Bauhaus (Klee  1959), and on which Kandinsky ( 1979) built his approach to art in general. Furthermore, at least one contemporary text retains this designation (Wallschlaeger and Busic-Snyder 1992), and another (Wong 1993) identifies points, lines, and planes as conceptual, if not visual, elements.
Various generic features qualify the elements of point, line, and plane. For the assessment model, these features are arranged on two hierarchic levels. The first level, identified as attributes, qualifies the elements directly. The attributes consist of texture, color, and configuration, each of which designates a chart within the model. In turn, the second level, referred to as properties, qualifies the attributes. The properties appear within cells of the assessment charts. Finally, I have included a third hierarchic level, not of features but of that suggest generic distinctions for each attribute or property. For a model of the organization of attributes, properties, and types for visual elements, see Figure 2.
In qualifying the elements in this fashion, I am adopting the expert systems practice of hierarchically encoding an object’s descriptors. Such an approach is critical to developing a useful assessment model, as it diverts attention from the elements and to the elements’ features. To the model’s advantage, this emphasis anticipates questions regarding the definition of elements. For example, although most students distinguish between a line and a plane in isolation, the difference becomes more ambiguous in some designs. By focusing on the more relevant attributes and properties of the elements, the model does not demand such semantic distinctions.
The Design Principles
Despite the detail of this qualification of the visual elements, nothing in the model has yet specified possible arrangements of the elements. Such combination marks the essence of design. In the conventional lexicon, effective arrangements of elements are known as principles, and I will use that term. However, the principles really function as attributes for the design as a whole. As with the visual elements, the design principles are further qualified by properties, which I will refer to as subprinciples. Likewise, a level of generic types identifies possible distinctions for some principles or their related properties (Figure 3).
Difficulty arises in determining what constitutes the principles and their qualifiers. The major texts disagree in this regard and in regard to terminology that should identify the principles. For example, the principle of harmony in the text by Ocvirk et al. (1994) is known as unity in Lauer’s text (1995). The term unity refers to an entirely different concept in Ocvirk et al.
Moreover, the influence of pluralism on the arts has challenged the practice of teaching by principle at all. Adherents to this view fear such instruction will profess to teach universal truths. Mindful of this danger, they may endure principles only if related to a culture, epoch, or other governing dynamic. At its core, this stance is similar to the epistecybernetic view of knowledge and the notion of acceptance. I do not feel, however, this paper requires a comparison of paradigms to justify incorporating principles in its assessment model. As noted at the outset, I am not attempting to define the qualities of good design exhaustively. Rather, I merely indicate those principles without which a design will likely suffer and frequently will fail.
In defining the principles and qualifiers that compose the assessment model, I have adhered to two guidelines. First, I have retained the most typical examples from the field of design as reflected by the major texts and academic writings. In this way, my goal has been one of synthesis without complexity. In some cases, I have included less than typical principles or qualifiers that seem especially descriptive of certain visual arrangements. In other cases, I have redefined quite common principles as subprinciples or types. For example, the ubiquitous principle rhythm has been reduced to a special type of repetition, which in turn serves as a subprinciple of unity.
Second, in determining the principles for the design assessment model, I have relied on the idea of structured knowledge derived from epistecybernetic theory and built on certain logical presuppositions and pragmatic necessities. Where there has been a conflict in the literature, the integrity and practicality of the knowledge structure have resolved the issue.
Effective use of the assessment model demands that the user possess a clear understanding of each element feature and design principle. Ultimately, agreement on the meaning of these components and the ability to recognize them in application are critical to applying the model. However, the model may also serve as a learning device to facilitate the understanding of attributes, properties, and design principles, and may thereby improve future assessments.
Within a design, each application of a particular principle in relation to an element feature receives a numerical rating that reflects the degree of its perceived effectiveness. This rating is based on the scale indicated at the bottom of the model. Although the four-step distinction is arbitrary, it is effective for student appraisals of visual works. Students frequently struggle with making fine judgments in a visual assessment. The four-step scale is broad enough to require only general discrimination, but still provides enough indication of an application’s effectiveness. However, educators may alter this scale to any number of rating distinctions, based on class aptitude and particular uses of the assessment model.
The model serves a variety of instructional purposes as described throughout this paper. It provides students with feedback as to the success of their designs and gauges students’ progress in attaining design competencies. Instructors may refer to the model in guiding students during the creative process or in teaching new content within a structured framework. In the latter respect, the model provides students with a graphic representation of solutions to visual problems. As such, it may serve as an organizer of sorts to facilitate knowledge attainment (Ausubel 1963).
Students may refer to the model during the creative process as a guide to designing more acceptable works. They may also use the model to critique their performances in final assessments of their works. In this way, the model itself may provide a generic solution to the problem of how to evaluate a design. Finally, students may use the model to critique one another’s designs.
As the model continues to be developed and tested, alternative uses will surely arise. My hope is that this paper has moved the model it describes one step further in this development.
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