Threshold Concept – Transmission through Design

          Martin Creed. No. 1092 (2011)

“An Olympic marathon: the glow of a letter (…) passing from runner to runner, the heart of the message laying precisely in its transmission”. The glow of a letter, the transmission as the heart of the message… “ Regis Debray – Socialism a Life Cycle

British Design was borne out of a socialist context, a pursuit bought about by the drive of a craft based network of makers, to provide the people of modern day society a voice. Design of the 1900s presented itself as a vehicle of ‘mass’ communication for the common good, a voice for the people and alongside this, a reliable distribution of the ‘truth’, predominantly by messenger ( see Clarions – Fellowship is Life)

In his essay ‘Socialism a Life Cycle‘ Debray describes the versatile subculture of printers, typographers, librarians and publishers that turned out to be the cradle of socialism. and it is not hard to see that the not-named-yet heart of this “craft-based network” (as Debray himself describes it) as what later became widely known as ‘Graphic Design’.

‘Socialism a life cycle’ wins hands down the title of ‘best article’ about Graphic Design that I have read in a very long time, taking into consideration that Debray nowhere actually mentions the word ‘graphic design’. Throughout the article Debray demonstrates the many ways in which socialism grew from a particular ecosystem, an ecosystem consisting of printing and typography. Debray calls this system the ‘graphosphere’, and situates this sphere in the period running from 1448 to 1968. In Debray’s ‘graphosphere’, ideology is a product of Design, rather than Design being a product of ideology, which is an exhilarating revelation and definitely a defining ‘Threshold Concept’ Moment.

Debray’s enthusiasm throughout this essay is contaminating, revealing socialism as the political manifestation of Graphic Design, and modernism as the social manifestation of Graphic Design.

Design as presented in Darbys ‘graphosphere’, is not a tool to spread ideology; it is the other way around. To put this simply, Design doesn’t follow what people think, but what people think follows Design, and this is a very liberating proposition and clearly demonstrates the communicative potential and power of Design.

What this essay reveals is that all designers are ideology creators. every designer is ideological, whether he/she is aware of it or not.

140 years has passed since the rise of this left field movement and modern day Graphics Design now reigns superior, underpinning the visual identity that has come to be known as the world of commerce, economics & politics.

To enter into the design industry having grasped this key threshold concept, enables Designers to engage with this medium as a tool for social good, and with a thirst for continual enquiry. For those that have formed an understanding of design through an acknowledgement of its heritage, the world of advertising is a industry within which they can assist in the redesigning of ideologies and redistribution of ideas and wealth, akin to those key principles which first informed the growth of the discipline.

So for Graphics Design, I would propose that its key threshold concept would be to look to the past for the answers of today, and through so doing, come to a self realization of the relevance of, and power of design and the printed, distributed word. Words are a designers medium and that is a very powerful force to wield, and one which asserts more influence than to be used for those aesthetic considerations made on the side of a tetra pak or jiffy bag.

“The greatest modernizers inaugurate their career with a backward leap, and a renaissance proceeds through a return to the past, a recycling, and hence a revolution. Behind the ‘re’ of reformation, republic or revolution, there is a hand flicking through the pages of a book, from the end back to the beginning. Whereas the finger that pushes a button, fast-forwarding a tape or disc, will never pose a danger to the establishment”.        – Experimental Jetset


Threshold Concepts an Introduction

Shana Moulton. Whispering Pines 2010

My introduction to ‘Threshold Concepts’ has been informed by the reading of Chapter 18. from the publication by Osmond, J., Turner, A., & Land, R. ‘Threshold Concepts and Spatial Awareness in Transport and Product Design’ and through the article ‘Threshold Concepts and Transformational Learning‘ By Jan H. F. Meyer, Ray Land and Caroline Baillie (2010)

As well as the above publications, I also accessed the vast online resource of essays, notes, podcasts and power points on the subject (Administered by the UCL Department of Electronic and Electrical Engineering)

‘Grasping a threshold concept is transformative because it involves an ontological as well as a conceptual shift. We are what we know. New understandings are assimilated into our biography, becoming part of who we are, how we see and how we feel’    

Threshold concepts as an approach to student learning, was first introduced into the world of economics almost a decade ago, the above quote was originally presented to Earth Scientists by the academic Glynis Cousin in her essay An introduction to threshold concepts.

Meyer and Land propose that students repeatedly have difficulty with certain areas of their academic practice, and that the understanding of Threshold Concepts at an early stage in their development can radically alter all subsequent perceptions and understandings of their chosen discipline. Once ‘mastered’, Meyers and Land suggest the student is unlikely to return to previous perceptions and understandings. This concept therefore is incredibly powerful and one not without dangers or as cited, without ‘troublesome knowledge’.

With the resulting new cognitive powers surging through a students mental state and the student engaging with unfamiliar and new territory, threshold concepts often require a passage through what is called a ‘liminal stage’ where a degree of difficulty is involved and the student has to address approaches to their practice and conduct which can easily be perceived as counter intuitive from the norm.

Characteristics of a Threshold Concept have been perceived as manifesting through a series of transformative features and may be considered to be “akin to passing through a portal” or “conceptual gateway” that opens up “previously inaccessible ways of thinking about something” Meyer and Land

Threshold Concept Characteristics

Transformative: Once understood, a threshold concept changes the way in which the student views the discipline.
Troublesome: Threshold concepts are likely to be troublesome for the student. Professor David Perkins has suggested that knowledge can be troublesome e.g. when it is counter-intuitive, alien or seemingly incoherent.
Irreversible: Given their transformative potential, threshold concepts are also likely to be irreversible, i.e. they are difficult to unlearn.
Integrative: Threshold concepts, once learned, are likely to bring together different aspects of the subject that previously did not appear, to the student, to be related.
Bounded: A threshold concept will probably delineate a particular conceptual space, serving a specific and limited purpose.
Discursive: Meyer and Land suggest that the crossing of a threshold will incorporate an enhanced and extended use of language.
Reconstitutive: Understanding a threshold concept may entail a shift in learner subjectivity, which is implied through the transformative and discursive aspects already noted. Such reconstitution is, perhaps, more likely to be recognised initially by others, and also to take place over time.

Fascinating stuff! In my next post I will consider Threshold Concepts in relation to the practice and teaching of Graphic Design, with an emphasis on Graphic Communication.