Sense of Place project encourages exploration of new perspectives among first-year design students

Case Study by Terry Hill RGD and Jessica Glemnitz RGD, Sault College

Image: A Sense of Place by Kinsey Smith Student RGD


The goal of this project is to encourage deeper understanding of design problems and help students move beyond surface-level observations by exploring elements of their own community. Students are asked to examine familiar surroundings in new ways to discover alternative perspectives and new ideas. 


Sense of Place by Kinsey Smith Student RGD: 



An important skill for first-year graphic design students is critical observation, thus this project was designed to develop students’ visual literacy and formative research skills.


The project tasks students with visiting a new location of their choice and recording observations photographically and in written form. In addition to the research element, students must develop page layouts to communicate an emotional reaction to the location, experimenting with different typographic treatments and type/image balances to reinforce their message.


The challenge for students is to observe not only with their eyes but also with all of their other senses (sound, smell, touch and taste) in order to gain a more complete appreciation of the area they choose to observe.


For the final piece, students must think beyond the letter or tabloid sized papers in an average printer. They are required to create a 7 panel accordion style book, creating an unusually long landscape layout that must also work as individual 6"x9" panels. 


A Sense of Place by Matt Alexander Student RGD:




Part 1/ Research & Observation
Students choose a location in the city that is relatively new to them. For one hour they observe and record observations using a camera and notebook (or recording device).


Students then write three paragraphs and take 30 photographs for each of the following categories: 

  • What they see
  • What they hear
  • What they smell
  • What they taste / what they imagine the place would taste like
  • The tactile qualities of the place 
  • Their emotional reaction to the place 

In addition to written responses and photographs, students are also asked to create a series of small illustrations to represent their experience with the place in the medium of their choice.

Part 2/ Exploration & Analysis
Students are required to find examples of typographic arrangements that represent the emotional reactions identified in part one and explore these representations further by creating five of their own typographic layouts. 


Part 3/ Experiments with Type & Image
Students use the photos they took in part one to create 10 image-based page layouts using Adobe InDesign that express their emotional reactions to the place they visited. They are encouraged to experiment with layering and transparency techniques, and modular / columnar grid arrangements in imagery and page layout.


After completing the initial 10, students must create an additional 25 layouts by the next class.  


Part 4/ Experiments with Multipage Documents

Students select their best layouts as a starting point for the final 7 page booklet, keeping in mind that they must be consistent in their design approach while also thinking about how each page will be portrayed individually. 


Initially students are evaluated on the quantity of work delivered. Once layouts are incorporated, students are evaluated on both the quantity and quality (i.e. Does the work express the emotional qualities of the described place?) The final presentation is a printed booklet of the design and final critique which takes into consideration quality of printed material and presentation.



Initially the assignment was delivered to a more senior level class, however we have found it to be more successful in a junior level class. Delivery of this assignment earlier in the curriculum has helped the students develop more productive research and project planning skills early on, resulting in stronger senior level student projects.

By asking students to explore areas of their community that they haven't visited before, this exercise can be valuable in providing a new perspective on the city. It also helps students learn how to examine design problems by looking beyond the surface, so that they will be better equipped to interpret future design challenges in deep and meaningful ways. 


"Recording my emotional responses to the neighbourhood helped me explore different perspectives and understand the subject on a deeper level. It encouraged me to consider the social structure of city, visualize the space in new ways and engage with my surroundings." — Gabrielle Fogg, Student


A Sense of Place by Gabrielle Fogg:


Students are often surprised by the positive end results of this project. While initially some can find the amount of photographs and written paragraphs daunting, it teaches students to push themselves when working with both type and image.


In the future it may be beneficial to explore other media to deliver this project. The unusual format (the accordion book) works well, but websites, digital film or multimedia displays could also be used to generate a tangible final product. The initial process would likely remain the same, the difference being in the final artifact, which could be presented as a slideshow or short film incorporating sound. Students could use a variety of motion graphics related software to produce their final work such as Adobe Premiere and After Effects. To meet the requirements of this new format, students would also need to capture sounds  from the location and use audio and moving type and image to communicate their emotional and observational reactions. This delivery method of the assignment would most likely be  more successful in a more senior level class once the student is familiar with motion graphics concepts


Educator Takeaways:

  1. Encouraging students to explore new perspectives is key to achieving the learning objectives in this project. It is important to emphasize how design can be used to highlight places that are under-appreciated and instil a sense of pride and ownership. 
  2. This project can also help drive home the broader impact of design - i.e. what might the outcome be if community leaders were provided with new insights into these places? How might your design help shape the city / how it is perceived? 


Student Takeaways

  1. It is important to think beyond two dimensional representation
  2. Observation, discovery and concept development are essential elements for creating a cohesive and impactful final project


Additional Comments: 

  • Remind students this project spans a few weeks and to choose a location they will enjoy exploring.
  • Ensure students are working in locations that are safe. Students may travel together in groups (yet work separately) if in remote locations.
  • The weather isn’t always cooperative for the duration of this assignment. Invite students to think creatively about locations to explore.


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