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Alan Dyer (Senior Lecturer: Psychology and Art)
Coventry School of Art and Design
Coventry University

Advisory Group on Computer Graphics: Case Study

Hypertext and Research Presentation in Art and Design Education


Historical and theoretical studies is an integral part of virtually ail courses in art and design education. In this educational context students are exposed to a wide range of visual media and courses and projects are designed to provide students with sophisticated two dimensional and three dimensional manipulative and visualisation skills. The introduction of hypertext into the theoretical studies curriculum is designed to introduce students to aspects of computing which are relevant both to theory and research based projects and to the practical, image manipulation skills associated with studio and workshop practice.

Theoretical studies departments in colleges of art and design, as with many humanities courses, usually demand that students present their ideas and the results of their theoretical researches by means of the strict linear narrative of an essay or thesis. However, with the advent of electronic interactive documents opportunities are available for the studenVauthor to develop approaches to knowledge/text manipulation and presentation which can draw upon non-linear modes of thinking. The construction of documents in hypertext develops students' visualisation and design skills in ways that are not encountered in the linear narrative of the conventional essay or thesis.

This case study, examining research and text management through hypertext authoring, is specifically concerned with the relationship between theory and practice in art and design and with ways in which theory might be managed and presented using the visualisation skills derived from practice.

Educational Context

In art and design education attempts are regularly made to identify new media which have genuine potential for creative authoring. Such media must possess features traditionally associated with art and design practice. They must show a high degree of flexibility so they can be moulded and shaped according to the intuitions, flights of fancy, or communication needs of the individual artist and designer.

Clearly in an educational environment where students are exposed to a wide range of visual media and where courses involve Ihe development of creative visualisation and design skills the construction of graphic images provides students with familiar models for the interrelating of ideas, images and text. This makes students' graphic constructions valuable aids to perception, learning, data organisation, concept manipulation and communication. Such processes are also fundamental to the construction of hypertext documents.

Similarly, problems of navigation, mapping, management of multiple pathways which are intrinsic to hypertext systems are also central to art and design practice. The ability to create pictures, 3D constructions, diagrams, symbols, graphic signs, even simple box/arrow structures should give art and design students a ready purchase on the processes by which theoretical material is organised in hypertext systems. Furthermore It should enable tutors to approach students' theoretical material in ways which, from the point of view of critical discussion, have much in common with critical tutoring in studio and workshop contexts.

In schools of art and design courses in history and complementary theory enable students to extend and deepen their intellectual understanding of art and design practice, to develop their powers of critical thinking, to increase their visual and formal awareness of works of art, to gain a deeper insight into the social, political and ideological factors which influence the production and interpretation of visual media and to generally introduce them to the knowledge and perspectives derived from a wide range of humanities disciplines. The case for introducing hypertext authoring systems into the theoretical studies curriculum is that it might enable students to manipulate information and concepts in ways which mal

The most obvious application of hypertext in the theoretical part of the art and design course is the representation and organisation of ideas and information graphically. This involves, not simply the use of visual images for illustration, but the creation of 'maps' or 'models' which describe a particular aspect of reality, organise information in relation to the development of a particular theory, or create and plot multiple pathways through a knowledge structure.

Sometimes described as 'concept mapping' this authoring device permits text based descriptions of ideas or concepts to be interconnected and displayed employing linking devices which show structural and functional relationships between discrete bodies of information.

The introduction of hypertext into the theoretical studies curriculum is designed to introduce students to aspects of computing which are directly relevant to theory-based projects situated in an art and design school where courses are predominantly devoted to the teaching of practical, image manipulation skills. Through the design of hypertext based concept maps the student author can deploy sophisticated graphic visualisation skills to enhance the conceptual management of the theoretical research material.

Such visualisation skills permit the design not only of categories and sub-categories of information as in conventional database design but of linking structures showing 'meaningful' relationships between categories of information. The degree of 'meaningfulness' would be directly related to the author's selection of elements for presentation together with the patterns of links by means of which the discrete elements are interconnected. A variety of terms are currently being employed in the various explorations of this mode of authoring. King (1984 p17) for example refers to similar authoring features as Frames:

These are also processes fundamental to the construction of hypertext documents. The use of such teaching and learning techniques in the context of art and design education allows students to engage in theoretical investigations while deploying techniques and processes which have many formal simiiarities with their studio-based practical projects.

It might be argued that even in documents which consist wholly of text based information the devising of navigation routes relating to potential meanings becomes a problem of overview or map-making. Although graphic images might not be included within the body of information, the design and manipulation of the system as a whole could be dependent upon those object and image manipulation skills which are an integral part of art and design practice. If it is the case that information management in hypertext systems necessitates plans, maps, charts or diagrams for navigational purposes then clearly a fruitful relationship exists between theoretical research presentation in hypertext and the characteristics of art and design production.

Hypertext Software: Three Systems

During the 1980's the advent of low priced computers (particularly the Apple Macintosh) and easy to use hypertext software made it possible to explore the potential for introducing students to a medium which seemed ideally suited to art and design courses. One of the first systems to be tried at Coventry was Filevision which is essentially a graphics based multiple linking system. Later Guide provided similar characteristics but was specifically dedicated to text handling. More recently students have been using HyperCard which permits the author to modify the system through its built-in programming language, HyperTalk. The following examples give an indication of the capabilities of the three packages referred to and illustrate some of the possibilities for their use in projects where students are taught to relate theoretical concepts and text to pictures, charts, diagrams and maps.

Filevision (Telos Software Products)

Filevision is a flexible graphics-based data-base package designed for use on the Macintosh computer. The system's special feature is that it allows the user to put pictures and diagrams together with attached data fields. It thus encourages the user to organise data by means of graphic displays. Filevision helps the user to visualise ideas and bodies of information. It integrates graphics and information management.

The Filevision system enables the user to create, manipulate, store and retrieve information through a picture or syrnbol of what that information means in visual terms. Students learn to design a networked data-base or filing system through a picture, diagram or visual model of that information. The data is thus structured in the system in a way which represents, to the author, a recognisable aspect of the real world.

Guide (OWL)

Guide is essentially a text based system which runs on the Macintosh computer. It has been described as a 'three dimensional outliner'. Although Guide allows a user to to browse through documents following individually determined routes the studenVauthor must pay considerable attention to the design and construction of the document.

Potential 'meaningful' routes have to be structured in advance of text production in order to allow the user to brows' through the finished document. Guide can be used to create research presentations, proposals, instruction manuals, reports, works of fiction, poetic and dramatic narratives or any document where information needs to be communicated in some structured form. It is this process of designing and structuring which, from an educational point of view, can provide insights into the conceptual and intellectual problems associated with the development of an idea into some communicable end product.

HyperCard (Apple)

HyperCard is an authoring system and an information organiser designed by Apple for the macintosh computer. The author generates 'stacks' of information. HyperCard can be used to create, store and retrieve information - words, diagrams, charts, pictures, digitised photographs, statistics, etc., - on any subject the author decides The 'stack' consists of any number of electronic 'cards'. The card is screen size and can hold graphics or text. Any of the elements of infommation on a card can be connected to any other piece of information (another card in the same stack, a separate stack or a document produced in a different application by means of 'buttons'. It is through the use of buttons that the author designs and generates the network of routes and pathways through the information system. It is possible for users to plot their own routes through a body of information based on the network of routes made available by the author of the document.

The key to HyperCard's authoring environment is 'Hypertalk'. This is a simple programming language built into the HyperCard system. HyperTalk will permit students who have little or no programming skill to design and build information systems which meet their particular needs or research requirements. In this way HyperCard can draw upon and develop the non-computing expertise of the author. It allows the studenVauthor, trained in visual image manipulation skills, to construct elaborate knowledge structwes relating to both visual and theoretical research projects.

It is now possible to use relatively inexpensive computer systems to design non-linear knowledge structures combining text and image within the one document. Hypertext is beginning to permit the introduction of such systems into education allowing students to engage in the visual mapping of specific bodies of research material. What remains is to examine carefully the real benefits of this electronic medium. Filevision, Guide and HyperCard are systems which have been the subject of the research work described in this case study. They have been examined for their appropriateness to the organising of theoretical material in art and design education. Currently numerous other examples of hypertext software - Intermedia, StrathTutor (Mayes, Kibby & Anderson 1990); Leaming Tool, Semnet, FrameMaker(King 1994); ToolBook (McKenna 1994) - are being examined by other researchers for their special authoring characteristics in the education field.

Thesis writing

Theoretical studies departments in colleges of art and design, as with many humanities courses, usually demand that students present their ideas, and the results of their theoretical research by means of the stricti linear narrative of an essay or thesis. However, as described above, with the advent of electronic interactive documents opportunities are available for the studenVauthor to develop approaches to knowledge manipulation and presentation which can draw upon non-linear modes of thinking. The construction of documents in hypertext systems develops students' visualisation and design skills in ways that are not encountered in the conventional essay or thesis.

Following the advent of recent debates on research methodology arlsing out of the conferring of PhD awards on art and design practice the place of theory, written documentation and research presentation has become highly topical. To what extent should practical work be accompanied by text based documentation? Do models for text based research presentation in art and design have to be imported from other disciplines whose models might be inappropriate for research in the visual arts? Can research presentation models be found which are sufficiently sensitive to art and design methodologies to enable the practitioner to engage in genuine research activity while still retaining the integrity of art and design practice?

It is not the aim of the research informing this case study to suggest that hypertext provides an authoring and presentation model which answers all these questions. Nevertheless, it is an ideal that art and design research practitioners should avoid drawing upon the potentially inappropriate discourses of other disciplines and should try to develop their own discourses and presentation methodologies which arise naturally out of the discipline itself - that is, the research and presentation models should have features in common with the basic characteristics of art and design practice.

Hypertext authoring is not seen as a replacement for traditional art and design media or the standard essaythesis. However, its ability to bring together the qualities of a number of different media in one piece of work makes it exciting to students. There have been numerous instances where students who have already come to appreciate the potential of this new medium in the studio have asked if they could submit a hypertext document in place of an essay or thesis. It is evident from their work that analytical and theoretical work can be contained within hypertext, but no clearly established criteria currently exist for the assessment of such documents. Figs 1 and 2 are examples of different structural models devised by students in the production of hypertext-based essays.

It remains to be seen, as more art and design students are introduced to this new medium, whether it will indeed form a bridge between two and three dimensional image manipulation practices and the accompanying historical theoretical research components of courses. In the meantime it must be noted that the application of hypertext systems to theoretical research presentation raises some interesting problems for the assessment of students' theoretical research presentation.

Notes for Guidance

Having looked at the institutional and educational context within which hypertext systems might fruitfully operate and having looked briefly at examples of available hypertext packages it remains to describe the way in which these systems might be made available to students through the devising of carefuny prepared project guidelines. The following 'Notes for Guidance' model proposes a framework within which students might adopt a hypertext based model for the production of theoretical work.


Although many features of hypertext authoring in an academic context are now relatively unproblematic the particular characteristics of the software throw up some interesting issues which are currently the subject of ongoing research. The capacity of hypertext as an authoring medium, to bring together graphic visualisation skills and theoretical text management skills, is well recognised particularly in the design of interactive multimedia documents. However, the traditional research thesis, as evidence of individual scholarship, assumes the establishment of a 'point of view' or an 'argument'. In other words a thesis should be a uniquely authored and logically unfolding narrative. Since Hypertext documents specialise in multiple routing and are often designed to transfer control of narratives to users, difficulties may arise when attempting to assess quality of research in hypertext documents through evidence of personal authorship. The ESRC quidelines on research thesis writing state: (my underlining)

Clearly the guidelines refer to features of research presentation which have much in common with the material outlined in this case study. Terms such as 'map', 'design' and 'shape' are part of the vocabulary of the designer and call upon basic visualisation skills. However, the same guidelines state that:

The thesis as a whole should be organised as a connected argument. Such a model suggests a high degree of authorial control over the reader and the designing of a logical and linear narrative thread by means of which the argument with supporting evidence is unfolded from initial aims to concluding proofs. Perhaps the presentation of the 'research thesis' demands a form of authoring which cannot be non-linear, involving multiple routing and the transferring of route selection to the reader. Alternatively, the particular characteristics of hypertext documents might be highly appropriate to other forms of research presentation where the single linear narrative is not necessarily the norm. The author's research to date has shown, however, that the management of text and image in hypertext documents is ideally suited to the visualisation and design skills of the graphic artist.

A.Dyer November 1994


ESRC The Preparation and Supervision of Research Theses in the Social Sciences Economic and Social Research Council, 1984, 1986

King, T. Authoring for distance learning. The CTISS File 17 (July 1994)

Mayes, J.T., Kibby, M. R., and Anderson A. Signposts for conceptual orientation: some requirements for learning from hypertext. In R. McAleese and C. Green, (eds), Hypertext: State of the Art. (Oxford: Intellect, 1990)

McKenna, P. A hypermedia wasteland. In Computers and Texts CTI Centre for Textual Studies & Office for Humanities Communication (Newsletter No.7: July 1994)

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