Why teach traditional low-tech visual communication processes?

Whether creating user interfaces, illustrations, web pages or magazine layouts, students often want to create digital work using image manipulation processes. Lecturers often suspect the drawbacks of spell-checking software and the effects this has on students’ ability to spell. In the same way, with such easy access to images online, students increasingly bypass the process of actually creating their own source material for their work.

In many ways, using what you can find shows adaptation and flexibility, but it also risks compromise with the quality of work. It seems a real shame to make that kind of compromise when a wide range of mark-making, techniques and processes are so easy to learn. Not only can it improve productivity, but it can also result in work that shows more discrimination and control with specifically made marks instead of compromising with what can be found in image searches or using pre-determined filters.

For lecturers with constrained guided learning hours, bypassing traditional graphic and image production processes is appealing. If images are created on the computer, at first sight it appears that the process is quicker, but is there a false economy taking place?


Case study

I taught students returning for their second year learners for the first time. Whilst their software Photoshop skills were adequate, the techniques they used became repetitive and relied heavily on filters. In many ways, what the whole group was creating looked very similar and lacked the uniqueness they had enrolled on the course to develop.

It turned out that some of the images they were using from the internet had been made using techniques that the students had never even tried themselves and I wondered about the impact of this kind of learning. The next year, we piloted a test where the students would engage with a wide range of traditional low-tech experimental mark and image making from the outset and then move on to digital processes. Essentially, we were hoping that the time we would lose from learning how to use software would be paid back by more inventive productivity.

There were two kinds of experimentalism that we wanted to encourage:

  • The first, how to create images they could use in their own products, this might include things like marks, scratches, drips, textures and surfaces.
  • The second, how to learn traditional techniques that had direct correlations with processes they would need to perform on the computer, for instance collage and typography.

The idea was that by trying these out in traditional ways the students would be able to work more creatively. Initially, students were reluctant. Many of them had fantastic software skills before they even started. The way the initiative was sold to the students was through comparison with learning how to drive a car. At the start you can make the car move, but it is quite hard to make it do exactly what you want, through practice you become the master of the car. In the same way, we didn’t want the computer to be in control and for that to show in their work. The kinds of processes we tried are outlined below.


Who benefits most from using low-tech processes?

This is really useful for any course that want to integrate visual communication and uses computers. The students that benefit the most are those who normally wouldn’t expect to work traditionally. It is also these kinds of students that will present the most resistance, but if they can see the relationships and can produce work rapidly that incorporates the skills developed then it becomes second nature. It is very easy to find Units to assess against this kind of experimentation across a range of levels and courses. Almost all courses contain Units that are about experimental techniques and processes and these are the easiest to use.


Great low-tech visual communication techniques



Without a doubt, one of the most important graphic and new media processes is collage. The simplicity of combining images, especially photographic, using image manipulation software means that students can easily jump straight into using the computer without ever using a scalpel. Of course there are some ways of selecting using Photoshop that can’t be replicated traditionally, such as magic wand or feathering, but there are many fantastic techniques that appear obvious traditionally with paper. Here are some examples of images that students created using traditional collage techniques. As they moved on to the computer the kinds of

Cutting Following Lines Traditional Skills for Graphics Students

Cutting following lines found in the image and adding shapes.

Cutting one image out of another Traditional Skills for Graphics Students

Cutting one image out of another.

Layering the image Traditional Skills for Graphics Students

Layering the image to be cut on top of coloured paper and getting duplicate silhouettes

Creating a sense Traditional Skills for Graphics Students

Creating a sense of space using small parts and not filling the image

Combining negatives Traditional Skills for Graphics Students

Combining negatives and positives and not throwing them away.

Layering the image Traditional Skills for Graphics Students

Cutting out images and then turning them over and using the white like a masking effect



A cornerstone of design for any new media is the use of text. There are some fantastic sites out there that allow free download of amazingly designed fonts, such as www.dafont.com. The numbers of available fonts is absolutely outstanding, with every conceivable style to suit all projects it is easy to simply rely on an amazing font that someone else has created. The question remains, whose creativity is being evidenced? By trying out some typography techniques using traditional processes, the students can produce work that presents more of their own creativity:


Stencils with spray

Cut out copy Traditional Skills for Graphics Students

Letter cut-outs

Letraset copy Traditional Skills for Graphics Students


Stamps copy Traditional Skills for Graphics Students

Letter stamps

Dymo copy Traditional Skills for Graphics Students

Dymo Label-Maker

Sewing copy Traditional Skills for Graphics Students

Sewing machine

Scratches Traditional Skills for Graphics Students

Scratching words

Typewriter Traditional Skills for Graphics Students




A cornerstone of how things look on the page or screen, layout depends on many factors such as legibility, accessibility, composition and flow. There are many programs that make this easy for students, but it is easy to forget the days before computers that paved the way for some of the rules most designers still use. Testing out designs using traditional techniques can generate highly inventive designs, while also contributing to understanding of the issues facing information graphics.

Traditional Skills for Graphics Students

Traditional Skills for Graphics Students

Traditional Skills for Graphics Students

Traditional Skills for Graphics Students

Traditional Skills for Graphics Students

Traditional Skills for Graphics Students

Traditional Skills for Graphics Students



Marks, textures and surfaces are increasingly used to lend high-tech work a sense of authenticity, urban-ness or age. These might include drips, scratches or defects and look deceptively simple to create. Trying to create them digitally is almost impossible, which is why this is an area of traditional processes that doesn’t necessarily have a software generated twin. Engaging in activities that generates these kinds of marks doesn’t really have a substitute. Moreover, a by-product of experimenting with this kind of mark-making is that results can be gathered and digitised by the student for future use in all sorts of commercial new media products, like animation or title sequences.


Mark making Traditional Skills for Graphics Students

No substitute: While there are many filters with artistic names, there is no substitute for trying out the tried and tested traditional techniques. Classics like mono-print, gouache resist or blotting are quick and easy to learn.

blobs Traditional Skills for Graphics Students

Blobs: Making lots of marks that stay clear of the edge of the paper means you can build up a library for use throughout the course. We have a “blob” folder on the shared network for easy access.

Digital blobs Traditional Skills for Graphics Students

Digital/Traditional sketchbook: While this whole sketchbook was created digitally and then printed out, all of the marks were made traditionally.

mark making Traditional Skills for Graphics Students

Mark Palette: A fun lesson is to set a target of how many kinds of marks and to reflect on the feelings they suggest or what they might be used for.

textures Traditional Skills for Graphics Students

Texturizer: By spending some time adding materials to paint helps generate all sorts of inventive textures. Here students used materials like pasta and seeds, but you could also try anything small like glass, sand or staples.

home made pigment Traditional Skills for Graphics Students

DIY Medium: Making your own colours out of anything from berries to kitchen condiments develops learning about colours further than any colour wheel could.

Other Areas – How far can this idea go?

The techniques and their digital twins outlined give a sense of how to underpin creative new media processes with hands-on understanding. While some parallels that are commonly used have been touched on, there are certainly further opportunities available. Animation, for example, could start with flick books or photographic stills. 3D modelling could start with clay or wire frame modelling to give a sense of form to the students. What is clear is that spending a little time at the start of the course demonstrates the false economy of diving straight into the computer.


Daniel Freaker Daniel Freaker Educational Consultant, Painter, Writer, Designer danfreaker@processfreaks.com