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To my husband, Matt, and our beautiful boys, Jacob and Evan — I could not have done this without you. Your love, support, and belief in me meant more than words could ever express. It was a long, arduous, extraordinary journey... and you were there every step of the way. Thank you.

Copyright Š Elizabeth Welch 2017. All Rights Reserved. Photographs by Author / Deanna Spivey Photography / Louie Favorite (used with permission)

Contents 4 • Introduction 7 • Location 8 • Preparing the Exhibit 10 • Overview 12 • Creating Context 16 • The Sum of its Parts 25 • Location, Location, Location 39 • Haven’t I Seen You Before? 49 • Mixed Messages 56 • 1,000 Words 64 • Audience Response 66 • Next Steps

Introduction Most graphic designers have been asked, “What does a graphic designer do?” The answer is usually some variant of “being responsible for shaping messages,” or “influencing people’s perceptions,” often in the service of advertising a commercial product or advancing a social cause. Many would agree that to achieve those goals, graphic design practices create myths which are repeated and expanded until naturalized and accepted as fact. My thesis contends it is possible to create and propagate these myths because the public is not visually literate. The role of visual literacy in American society and the necessity of pedagogical changes for the 21st century are explored. Also discussed, are the underlying reasons for the public’s current lack of visual literacy skills—including the erroneous, but pervasive, attitude that using visually-oriented media equates to understanding them. A case study of a popular brand of granola bars serves as a real-world example of myths about healthfulness, demonstrated through a deconstruction of the packaging design—analyzing elements such as color, imagery, texture, and typography. Then, by placing that design in context, it becomes clear how myths transcend individual artifacts to become widely held beliefs. —from my written thesis presenting research, theory, and case study examples




Location When considering options for the visual thesis, I decided that creating a body of work for a gallery show would be the best way to explore the themes presented in the written thesis and extend the discussion to a broader audience than just the academic community. For the location, I chose Gallery A210, a large exhibition space on the campus of Lawrence Technological University. I have been on the faculty at LTU for more than a decade and have wonderful support from my

colleagues in the College of Architecture and Design. The campus is well-situated, in an area with business and residential properties, and is close to both the newly revived downtown Detroit and the well-established metropolitan suburbs. This location provided a great opportunity to invite the community and offers easy access to a wide audience: students, faculty, businesses, and the general public.


Preparing the Exhibit When putting the exhibit together, there were many additional factors to consider besides just producing and installing the individual pieces. I worked with many new vendors while designing the pieces and relied on their expertise in materials such as acrylic, sheet metal, wood, and vinyl. For the opening, it was necessary to plan the event—ordering tables, linens, food, and flowers, as well as design and print postcards, posters, website, maps, and signage for those who were unfamiliar with the campus. Besides friends, family, and colleagues, I also invited members of the art and design community and local SCAD alumni. I came up with the title, “Constructed Truths: Myth-Making & Visual Literacy,” and promptly went to work designing the “look and feel” of the show, creating the postcards, posters, and setting up an online presence. This was an important early step because it set the tone and gave the audience an idea of what to expect. However, it was critical to keep it somewhat mysterious; to pique people’s curiosity and entice them to come to the opening event. I achieved this by taking one of the pieces in the show, which consists of multiple distinct images, and “splicing” it together to create something new—a separate piece that is not actually in the show itself but which creates a mood and gives viewers a taste of what they will see.


Co n st r u c t ed T r ut h s : Myth-Making & Visual Literacy

Libby Welch • MFA Thesis Show •

MAY 24 – JUNE 10

Weds. May 24, 2017 • 6:00– 9:00pm Lawrence Technological University • A210 Gallery


Overview The exhibit ran from May 24–June 10, 2017. It was important to me to create work that would appeal to many different people of various ages, backgrounds, and familiarity with my topic. Therefore, the exhibit had to be family-friendly and employ a range of emotional notes. This resulted in a mix of styles and materials; some of the pieces are serious and thought-provoking, one is physically and digitally interactive, one is overtly humorous, and one is of a quieter, more personal nature. While still creating a cohesive show, each piece is unique and highlights a different aspect of visual literacy and myth-making in graphic design. I worked with commercial images from advertising and packaging, addressed the compounding effect of myths over time, and explored the meanings of non-commercial images, using a photograph taken by a photojournalist. The show works on many levels and attempts to reach people through a variety of channels. One particular piece may speak to a certain viewer, whereas another piece might resonate with a different viewer, which was the intent.



Creating Context I knew that many in my audience would be unfamiliar with the terms “visual literacy” and “myth-making” and some may not even understand the role of a graphic designer. To provide some context for the exhibit, I wrote an introduction which I had lasercut in vinyl and then installed on one wall in the gallery.



Con str u ct ed T r uths : Myth-Making & Visual Literacy Libby Welch Graphic Design MFA Thesis MAY 24 – JUNE 10


the images that surround us everyday are not created by accident.

Whether it is an advertisement for a new product, a public service announcement, an idyllic scene or a poignant image, the visual world is not neutral or passive. It is a living, breathing, evolving language— and it is incredibly powerful. visual literacy

is the ability to read and understand

Graphic design influences people’s perceptions. When those perceptions are reiterated often enough, over a long enough period of time, they eventually become beliefs—personal and cultural. This is the principle of myth-making in design… 1. Designers carefully and deliberately craft messages promoting specific perceptions. 2. That myth is propagated—widely distributed

this language. Unfortunately, we are not taught how

and repeated—working its way into the cultural

to deconstruct, analyze, or evaluate images. We are

consciousness while becoming normalized.

not encouraged to question the visual world or to search for encoded messages and inherent biases. Make no mistake, becoming visually literate requires training and practice. Simply being surrounded by— and interacting with—images is not enough. We live in the most visually saturated and media-rich era in human history. However, we are as susceptible to manipulation as we have ever been. Using technology does not equate to understanding it or its effects. “Living in an image-rich world, however, does not mean that [people]…naturally possess sophisticated visual literacy skills, just as

3. Over time, the myth is accepted as fact—a truth that has always been. Visual literacy comes into play between steps two and three. A visually literate person sees how a message was constructed, can discern its persuasive intent, and chooses whether or not to accept its validity. The pieces in this show are visual explorations of these themes, drawn from extensive research for my written thesis. I hope you find the work eye-opening, thought-provoking, and an invitation to examine these ideas further.

continually listening to an iPod does not teach a person to critically analyze or create music.” Peter Felten


The Sum of its Parts This piece is freestanding in the middle of the gallery. To address visual literacy and demonstrate graphic design’s ability to create and propagate myth, I deconstructed the main visuals of a box of granola bars. I created a fictional brand, Miller Farms—for which I designed an original logo—and based on my research, I imitated the visual style of popular brands currently on the market. The design consists of eight separate panels, or “layers,” showing how individual images (e.g. raw oats, fresh berries, pure honey) are used together to create a whole visual message that adheres to a myth, in this case, “wholesomeness.” Graphic designers are skilled at arranging these images to create the desired effect. However, the viewer has no idea how the design was constructed, or that it even was constructed. Each element of the design is on its own physical layer, printed on transparent film and sandwiched between two pieces of clear acrylic. One panel shows a blurry green, leaf-filled background, the next has a wooden slab at the bottom, then one with a jar of pure honey, a pile of raw oats, the granola bar, fresh berries, the branding/logo and finally, the typographic elements like the flavor name and all other required text. The eight panels are displayed vertically with space in between. The viewer can walk around the piece completely and, when standing at either end, he/she can “reconstruct” the design from the disparate parts. A custom pedestal was built with tracks to hold the panels upright and also house a light box which illuminates the panels from underneath.



final flattened artwork (all layers together)






My goal was to show people that the end result is greater than the sum of its parts; that a designer makes a tremendous number of conscious choices about size, color, texture, etc. By creating the piece in layers, it was also my intent to show the process of designing something, to visually explain that these and other designs do not just appear out of nowhere, but are carefully crafted and considered. Visual literacy begins when the viewer understands that there was a real person responsible for creating the image to which they are being exposed.

layers in order

1. typographic elements 2. branding (logo) 3. fresh berries 4. granola bar (product) 5. raw oats 6. pure honey 7. wood table 8. natural/leafy background











Location, Location, Location This piece addresses and challenges our preconceived ideas, or more accurately, what we have been conditioned to believe through repetition of visual myths. There are four images providing different environments as backdrops. Two of the images are exterior scenes and two are interiors. One of the exterior scenes is rugged with mountains, rocks, and a river; the other is a suburban scene with a typical upper middle-class home, driveway, and paved road. The interiors are kitchens and they represent different socioeconomic levels—one is upscale and sleek with high-end finishes and the other is mainstream suburban. (The interior scenes could also be interpreted as urban vs. rural, although that would be the viewer’s personal perspective, not a point explicitly stated anywhere.) Each of the four images is very large, measuring 36" wide by 24" tall, and is printed on vinyl, adhered to stainless steel sheet metal, and then mounted on the wall. In between the exterior and interior environment panels are a collection of other images, an array of items such as people, flowers, food, vehicles, etc. that are the correct scale for placement on the backgrounds. These items were printed on PVC, cut out via router, and magnets were attached to the back. There are instructions telling the viewer to place the magnetic items “in their locations,” photograph their interpretation, and upload it to social media. There was a large television screen showing the photographs in real-time as they were uploaded during the opening event. I used a social media streaming service called Strea.ma to accomplish this. The piece is both physically and digitally interactive. Viewers got excited about picking the pieces up and

moving them around. The magnets added a whimsical, unpretentious quality and made the piece approachable. The social media component of this piece further encouraged active participation and allowed people to compare their interpretation to those of others. This piece appealed to all age groups, but children who attended the show were especially drawn to it, which demonstrates how effective this piece could be when teaching visual literacy skills to young people. The piece forces the viewer to decide where the items “belong” and encourages them to question why they made those placement decisions. Were their decisions based on assumptions about socioeconomic status (e.g. where to place the sushi vs. the pizza, or the orchids vs. the tulips)? Were they based on anything in the viewer’s conscious awareness or solely on images/myths they’ve seen so many times before? And how do they feel when they observe someone else placing items “incorrectly”? The goal was to bring these issues into a conscious realm where they can be examined and discussed. If we are not aware of our unconscious schemata and cognitive biases, how can we ever move past them? A side note about this piece: I did not originally intend for it to spark discussion about gender or race, but the images I chose could certainly engender those conversations. The two people I chose are a middleaged white male and a slightly younger black female. It was interesting to observe where these people were placed—separate or as a couple, which one “belonged” with which interior, etc. This could be expanded greatly to incorporate these issues, although that had not been my focus.




magnetic elements


1. luxury car

6. wine with cheeses

2. sport utility vehicle

7. cappuccino maker

3. motorcycle

8. sushi with chopsticks

4. tulips in colorful vase

9. woman

A viewer placed these items into these environments in this arrangement.

5. orchids in black vase

10. man


examples from the thesis show

page )











Haven’t I Seen You Before? This piece has two components: a grid of 36 framed images and a video slideshow of those images projected on the wall directly next to them. The images are beauty ads in chronological order spanning more than a century. The first image in the upper left corner of the grid is from the early 1900s and the last image in the bottom right corner is from 2016. In this grid arrangement, it becomes immediately apparent that they are all essentially the same ad— the same myth perpetuated in every era—and now so ingrained in our minds that it is the ideal beauty standard. The image is of a woman, smiling coyly, with her head titled slightly to the right and her hand gently touching her face or a nearby object. The accompanying plaque suggests to the viewer that they probably had no idea they had seen this image as many times as they have. By collecting these ads and displaying them together, this piece demonstrates the ubiquity of this particular myth. This highly constructed version of what constitutes beauty and desirability continues to be propagated relentlessly. Its repetition accumulates and has become a cultural norm. Only when we recognize the pattern can we start to understand its effects.

To further drive this point home, the looped video slideshow removes all the background details of the ad, focusing solely on the face. Also, the faces have been scaled so they are all the same size, centered in the frame, and a slow cross-dissolve transition effect has been applied. This allows the viewer to see each face morph into the next and see for themselves that it is basically the same image. The women’s heads are all tilted into almost the exact same position, they share similar bone structure, they are all wearing the same expression on their faces, and even their hair is not much different (although of course, there are a few exceptions to each of the elements listed). This piece has the effect of opening people’s eyes to the truth about myths and the need for visual literacy education. The comment I heard more than any other with this piece was, “Wow, I had no idea.” It was gratifying to observe people standing there and watch the video through more than one cycle and then look very closely at the original ads themselves, comparing and considering the effects it has had on them.






examples of ads in the grid First ad (left) is located in the upper left corner of the grid. The second ad (right) is located in the bottom right corner of the grid.








Mixed Messages This piece explores deeply embedded design myths and the cultural expectations they have shaped, but it does so in a humorous way. It consists of three pairs of items in which the traditional packaging styles have been switched. For example, a children’s cereal and an adult’s cereal have been paired, but the adult cereal is designed in the children’s-sugary-cereal-style, and the children’s cereal looks healthy and promotes a balanced lifestyle. This piece is meant to confuse and create a reaction of, “Wait, that’s not right...they’re backwards!” This reaction exposes the expectations people have about the way these products “should” appear. The three pairs are: sugary and healthy cereals (targeting kids/adults); large portion and diet-conscious frozen dinners (marketed to men/women); and genderstereotyped toys (doll/remote-controlled car). They have been mocked-up as three-dimensional packages and are meant to look as real as possible, however, all of the brand names and logos are fictional. The products’ names are: Lean-n-Fit and Frosted Yum-O’s (cereals), Big Dan’s and Slim Secret (frozen dinners), and Pretty Jenny and Max Rush R/C (toys).

The reason this piece works and the objects look so wrong to us is because we’ve seen the same styles used for the same types of products for so long that it is odd to see them designed any other way, especially when those styles are directly flipped. I used traditional archetypes to expose how much we as a society have gotten used to these products looking a certain way and how uncomfortable we are when they are “wrong.” After several more serious pieces in the show, it was important to provide the audience with a little comic relief. That does not, however, decrease the effectiveness of its message. More likely, the opposite is true and this is the piece the audience will remember most. I also noted that children were particularly attracted to this one. They thought the toys were especially funny, enjoying the Pretty Jenny package covered in diamond plate pattern and car flames next to the Max Rush R/C which is awash in sparkly pink and purple and sporting large purple flowers on the back panel.




cereals • Lean-n-Fit and Frosted Yum-O’s


toys • Pretty Jenny and Max Rush R/C


frozen dinners • Big Dan’s and Slim Secret



1,000 Words The final piece in the show is more intimate and personal and addresses visual literacy in a realm other than the commercial. Instead of using consumer-based/advertising imagery, this centers around a photograph taken by Louis Favorite for The Atlanta Journal Constitution in 2007, during the Iraq war. I received Mr. Favorite’s permission to use this photograph. The piece is based on the common expression, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” I paired Mr. Favorite’s image with 1,000 unique words which are all connected to the image in some way—as descriptors, connotations, or free associations. Yet even that many words are not enough. They are only a reflection of my views and thoughts. They do not capture the individual experiences the viewers bring to the piece. It demonstrates that words and images are different, and it is difficult, if not impossible, to capture the depth of meaning or the full range of emotion expressed in this image. The piece consists of six wood frames. The first one, farthest to the left, has Mr. Favorite’s image centered within it. The other five frames each have 250 words arranged in a block. The words were typed, printed on watercolor paper, cut apart, and placed by hand into the block layout. Each element is raised off the page by foam dots and affixed with double-sided tape.


The text on the plaque accompanying this piece at the show read: We teach children to read texts—to dissect and analyze them, to study their structure and form— but we don’t discuss the visual world in the same way, as a language, as communication. We don’t spend time critically analyzing what images are “saying” to us. This piece is an intimate look at how images communicate. It is exactly 1,000 words, each unique. And it still does not fully describe the image or account for the wide variety of possible interpretations and personal associations. Visual literacy is not just about advertising or manipulation. It is about awareness and going beyond the quick glance. This piece encourages the audience to slow down and spend time with images...and really “read” them. It is a quiet and moving piece, and it resonated deeply with the audience.




Major Terri Gurrola and her daughter Gaby, 2007 photograph by Louie Favorite






Audience Response The audience’s response was overwhelmingly positive. One of my favorite reactions was from a former student who, after viewing the entire show, approached me and said, “So, what are we going to do about this?” It was extremely gratifying to see that he “got it,” that the work spoke for itself, that the themes and concepts were easily understood, and that it inspired a desire to act. It was great to see so many of my colleagues and students contemplating the pieces, debating their favorites, and discussing the issues the being raised. Additionally, many people who came to the show were not designers or connected to creative industries. Therefore, their reactions were particularly valuable to me. If they connected with the work, it meant that I had truly accomplished my goals. Visual literacy and mythmaking are generally not new concepts to designers and creatives, however, for someone who works as a financial analyst or as an attorney, this show was an eye-opening experience.

“1000 Words hit me the hardest, emotionally. The image itself is quite evocative, but I found that with each descriptive word that I read, the impact grew. I had viewed the picture, but that didn’t mean that I had unpacked any of the feelings or thoughts it presented. It’s alarming how quick we may be consuming/defining content without expanding on it.” — Joel M. “You are always finding the most interesting and provocative aspect of design. This made me think— always a good thing.” — Avis W. “I simply loved the show; everything turned out lovely and was laid out beautifully! As a student, it is very inspiring to see such meaningful pieces, and what graphic design can do.” — Andrea H.

Here are just a few of the comments I received: “Great exhibit! Someone who experiences this will come out more aware of influences from advertising and imagery.”

“Mixed Messages particularly spoke to me. Very telling of how absurdly gendered our society is, and how quickly we tell our children which of the two they are, using the toys available to us.”

— Ron D.

— Lily B.

“The concepts of beauty, popularity, and marketing have always been on my mind. Thank you for making a public statement to challenge what we believe. I think it is through work like this that we challenge society to stretch and grow.”

“Insightful, elegant, sophisticated, fun & challenging. You’ve blessed me with a new facet/perspective on the impact of design in our world—loved it!!” — Linda K.

— Meredith H.


Next Steps The show has been packed away but hopefully not for very long. I would like to tour with it and exhibit these pieces in galleries across the country. Along with the written thesis, I plan to continue sharing these ideas as often as I can. I envision speaking to groups, schools, AIGA chapters, and anyone who will listen. I would like to develop curricula and materials to help teachers and parents understand these concepts and disseminate this knowledge to their students and children. This is truly just the beginning of a lifelong journey to increase the public’s awareness of visual literacy and the myths created and perpetuated through graphic design.



Profile for Libby Welch

Libby Welch MFA Visual Thesis  

Libby Welch MFA Visual Thesis