English for art & design : Collaborative design projects (1997)

R.J. Preece (EFL)
English for Art & Design 1 July 2010
This article was previously published in The Journal of Imagination in Language Learning in 1997, 4, pp. 108-10, with the title "Modelling language instruction on collaborative design projects". Click to see the English for Art and Design overview page.

Different techniques have evolved in English for Academic Purposes (EAP) to address the specialized language and communication needs of the medical, law, business, and science student. Accordingly, students in studio-based art and design programs have also received much-needed attention. Generally, developments in the Language of Art and Design (LAD) [1] do not seem to have occurred at universities and colleges with diverse program offerings, but rather at independent art and design schools where all of the students are preparing for one primary area of study: art and design (Preece, 1994). Within this visual arts environment, creativity, imagination, and problem-solving skills are important tools for the practice and learning of the language of instruction. [2]

In these specialized situations, language teachers are confronted with issues on how to best prepare students for their studio and non-studio classes, which usually include visual arts history, criticism, and theory—and a varying number of classes outside of the visual arts. Matters are complicated somewhat because art and design are not primarily linguistic, and because reading requirements are often minimal. As a result of these conditions, students can initially perform more or less satisfactorily despite a low level of English proficiency. Within this unique context, two kinds of college-level language preparation occur: the more traditional pre-service instruction before content classes are taken; and in-service instruction, when students are actually enrolled in such classes.

Preparing students for studio presentations

One challenge that we teachers face in these specialized teaching situations is how to help students prepare for presenting studio projects for studio classes. In in-service teaching, having them talk about these projects, either completed or in-progress, is perhaps the most relevant possibility: the language practiced in the language classroom will directly prepare them for the studio presentation. However, this does have limitations. First, for completed projects, students are talking about works that they have already presented, and often, that other students have heard about before. Second, for in-progress projects, two problems emerge. First, visual arts students often don’t finish a project until the very last minute before a studio deadline. As a result, scheduling classes or tutorials to directly support the specific presentation can be very tricky. The second problem is very much present in competitive programs, where students can be reluctant to talk about the details of the final stage of their work before the studio deadline. If they give away their "surprise" in the public forum of the English support classroom, it will have considerably less impact when it is presented in the art or design classroom.

An option is offered

As a means of addressing these problems and of offering diverse options, I incorporate what I term "Collaborative Design Speaking Projects" into my syllabus when teaching English support classes. I have found them relevant to students in a first-year studio foundation program as well as students in higher-level specialisms, such as fashion design and product design. Further, I have used these projects as a means of helping studio and non-studio students practice art language (e.g., as illustrated in Jansen, 1986) in preparation for a course entitled Visual Experience at Temple University in Philadelphia. (See Gilbert, 1995 for the target situation textbook and Preece, 1994 for a description of this precourse). Lastly, I believe that with slight modifications, these techniques can prove useful in virtually any language classroom where utilizing one’s imagination is encouraged .

What is a collaborative design speaking project?

My inspiration for developing the approach originates in my observations of collaborative design projects in the studio where students work together in teams. In these courses, the students are given a project brief or outline and are asked to explore certain ideas. They are also given certain restrictions such as a specific material that must be used in making a sophisticated mailing carton, and objectives such as: Transform a two-dimensional form into three-dimensions. They are assigned a set time period for information-gathering, brainstorming, explorations, discussions, and a deadline for final presentation.

The procedures and activities that I have evolved in a collaborative design speaking project follow similar lines. As a means of providing and emphasizing language practice, I try to create an environment whereby artistic knowledge is utilized, practiced, and reinforced, but does not become the focus of the activity. Only rough sketches are requested—not fully developed works or illustrations. Within an agreed-upon set time period, usually anywhere from 25-45 minutes, students follow an accelerated version of the kind of language used to communicate ideas for a collaborative studio project. Students soon realize that the focus here is creating and expressing ideas in language, not necessarily in art products. The set time period has other advantages as well. For example, it makes classroom time very productive as students need to think, act, and speak quickly, and it provides practice with organizing ideas for their presentations, sometimes "on their feet." This is a critical concern for studio students given that time restrictions in content classes are often demanding. Again taking my cue from collaborative projects, the speaking project stresses interaction, negotiation, and decision-making, all of which stimulate lively discussion.

In practice, I usually alternate between two formats: students read a newspaper article or a controlled essay (written by me) approaching some topic, or they are given a basic project outline directly. Following comprehension and inferencing activities, the speaking project is introduced. I incorporate these projects into a presentations skills development agenda, which includes organizing the presentation, strengthening introductions and conclusions, supporting assertions with clear examples, and gesturing to an image when appropriate.

Description of specific projects

The following provide a sample of specific projects that I have used:

In Highway Sculpture Project, students practice the language and concepts associated with the artistic element of motion by creating informal plans for a sculpture that expresses motion in some way, as it relates to people driving on a highway. The collaborative teams describe the sculpture and the experience of the driver, drawing rough sketches on the board to help communicate their ideas.

In Bizarre Theme-Park Ride Project, students are presented with an excerpt of the surrealistic lyrics of "Tightrope" by popular performance artist Laurie Anderson (1994), followed by comprehension and inferencing questions. Students are then directed to think of the meanings in the song and to come up with surrealistic theme-park rides that represent a positive emotion, which contrasts with a ride representing a negative emotion. Merry-go-rounds, roller coasters, the Loop-to-Loop, various "tunnels," and other rides provide a structure to modify and express these emotions. All of these rides exist in the imagination and no physical models are constructed.

In Room for Art Hotel-Hong Kong Project, students read a basic description and review publicity photos of the Kunstlerheim Luise, a hotel for artists and artsy types in eastern Berlin, Germany, next to the Berlin Wall. For this project, using the Kunstlerheim Luise as an inspiration, pairs of students design 14’ x 10’ rooms, or "installations," to express their world-views and provide a conceptual experience for their guests.

Also, drawing upon the interior design scheme, Classroom to Apartment Project requests students to imagine that the school has been sold, and will soon be converted to a large apartment house. Students are asked to measure and draw floor plans of the classroom, develop a brief client profile, and to design and respond to the following issues in their presentations:

Classroom to Apartment Project
1. Who is your client? What are their needs?
2. What things should be changed in the classroom? What things should not be changed?
3. What floor plan do you propose? What rooms?
4. If your classroom ceiling is high, do you want to create lofts or different levels for the floors?
5. What colors will you use? Warm colors? Cool colors? Why?
6. What kinds of texture will you use for the walls?
7. What kind of light will the apartment have? Artificial? Natural?
8. What kind of furniture will your client need? Give three examples. Are these being designed by you?
9. Do you want the viewer to focus on particular things in the room?
10. Other ideas?
11. Why should your client like the design?

Projects can also have a camp element as well. For example, when teaching my fashion design students in a highly competitive program, they seemed to find great relief and pleasure in an experimental design project entitled Worst Design—Most Unusual Runway Show.


Collaborative design speaking projects— focusing on the process, decision-making, and presentation aspects— provide practical language training for the in-service and pre-service teaching of studio art/design students. They stress new information that has not been heard in studio classes, and don’t put students in the potentially awkward situation of having to talk about a project before the all-important studio presentation. Further, they can reinforce language and concepts in content-based visual arts classes, and can provide yet more variety to general language teaching situations whereby creativity is encouraged, facilitated, and appreciated. They can be fun and sometimes truly wild venues for students to express ideas. In short, they provide a welcome change of pace for both teachers and students.


1. Language of Art and Design (LAD) originates from the Parsons School of Design and their affiliate, the Kanazawa International Design Institute. I prefer this umbrella phrase as opposed to others, including "Art English," as it more obviously includes the designs, and includes other languages in addition to English. A similar distinction is made between "Language for Specific Purposes" (LSP) and "English for Specific Purposes" (ESP).

2. For more information about issues concerning LAD and articles applicable to this specialized EAP teaching environment, see also Guenther, 1995; Preece, 1995, 1995/96, 1996; Raphan/Moser, 1993/94; Salij, 1994; and Shier, 1990. For samples of published teaching material, see Johnson, 1978; and Preece with Tomlinson, 1995. For sample descriptions of LAD classes, also see Pratt Institute’s Intensive English Plus Studio Program (Pratt Institute: 152).

Laurie Anderson. (1994). Tightrope [Recorded by L. Anderson and B. Eno] on Bright Red/Tightrope (CD). Warner Brothers: Burbank, CA and New York.

Rita Gilbert. (1995). Living with Art. (4th ed.). McGraw-Hill: New York.

Barbara Guenther. (1995). De-Mythicizing the Research Paper. Journal of the Imagination in Language Learning, 3, 54-58.

Charles Jansen. (1986). Studying Art History. Prentice Hall: Englewood Cliffs, NJ, USA.

Wallace Johnson. (1978). An Advanced Reader in Chinese Art History. Center for Asian Studies, University of Kansas: Lawrence, KS, USA.

Pratt Institute. (1995). Undergraduate Bulletin 1995-96 (for School of Architecture, School of Art and Design, and School of Professional Studies). Brooklyn, NY, USA.

R. J. Preece. (1994). Art English. ESP News, 3(1), 1, 10.

R. J. Preece. (1995). IELP Guide for Visual Art Students. Temple University, Intensive English Language Program: Philadelphia, PA, USA.

R. J. Preece. (1995-96). Content Teachers and CBI/ESP Courses: Problems and Implications. TESOL Matters (ESP Column), 5, 6, 9.

R. J. Preece. (1996). Visual Arts Learning Opportunities for Study Abroad Students in American ESL Programs: Focus on Tours. HKPU: Working Papers in English Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics, 2(1).

R. J. Preece & Glenn Tomlinson. (1995). Philadelphia Museum of Art ESL Activity. Instructor and Student Editions. Temple University, Intensive English Language Program: Philadelphia, PA, USA.

Deborah Raphan & Janet Moser. (1993/94). Linking Language and Content: ESL and Art History. TESOL Journal, 3(2), 17-21.

H. Salij. (1994). Art and Communication: Learning to Listen the Artistic Way. The Language Teacher, 18(9), 1f.

Janet Hegman Shier. (1990). Integrating the Arts in the Foreign/Second Language Curriculum: Fusing the Affective and the Cognitive. Foreign Language Annals, 23(4), 301-16.