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California Institute of the Arts

The Language of Design: Form and Meaning

California Institute of the Arts via Coursera


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In this course, critique is defined as a detailed, objective analysis of a work of graphic design and its effectiveness. Critique is an integral part of the making process for designers: it’s not just how we determine if a work of design is or is not successful, it’s how we move our work forward. Critique is also where other voices and opinions can be brought into the design process. This course will introduce a lexicon (or vocabulary) in order for you to demonstrate clearer and more considered ways of talking about graphic design in the context of critique. Through this lexicon and a provided Critique Framework, we will model and then practice objectively describing how well a work of design functions based on specific, clearly articulated criteria. By refining this skill, you will enhance your ability to communicate about design with peers, colleagues, and clients. This course is essential to anyone looking to develop and refine a critical vocabulary around talking about art and design, such as: - practicing graphic designers at all levels - future and current students of art or design programs - teachers teaching visual art, design, or related subjects - any stakeholder in a design project that needs to communicate effectively with designers on their team. This course is recommended to learners enrolled in either the Graphic Design Specialization or UI/UX Design Specialization on Coursera to further develop their skills in graphic design. You may take this course before, during, or after completing either Specialization. Note this is not an art appreciation course for a general audience. While no prior experience is required to begin, the knowledge and skills taught in this course is useful only if you have some relationship to design in a professional context, i.e., practicing, studying, or teaching design, or working directly with designers. No specific software or tools are required to complete this course.


  • Week 1: Course Orientation and Overview
    • In this module we'll explain what this course is about and share guidelines surrounding our expectations for course communication and assignment submissions.
  • Week 1: Audience/Context/Culture
    • This module provides an introduction to the larger ideas and cultural discussions that graphic design work inhabits, and some terms and ideas used within graphic design. We won't be covering a comprehensive dictionary of graphic design terms, but rather introducing a functional language used in the discussion of graphic design in a critique context. We will also discuss and analyze specific works of design and how they relate to the larger cultural context in which design operates, and why this is important. We will also learn about critique culture, and the importance of analyzing work based on subjective criteria rather than personal taste or subjective opinions.
  • Week 2: Basics of Form
    • In this module we will introduce key concepts and terms used in the critique of visual form in design work. We will cover basic terms used in the discussion of visual contrast, composition, and hierarchy. We will also discuss how to establish a vocabulary for the evaluation of visual form, and use that vocabulary in conjunction with the designer’s intention and the function of the work to build a framework to structure critique.
  • Week 3: Meaning and Concept
    • In this module we will focus on ways to describe and evaluate meaning in works of visual design. Using connotation and denotation as a foundation, the lessons in this module explain a range of approaches for creating meaning, from visual metaphor to cliche and parody. By building cultural literacy and developing research skills, we will practice identifying themes in design work and interpreting design concepts.
  • Week 4: Synthesis: Critique and Effective Design
    • In this final module, you will synthesize all of the skills you have acquired in the previous modules into a structured critique of graphic design work. As you will see, this module is weighted much more heavily toward assessment and practice than previous modules. Assessing the success of a finished piece of design is difficult because there are so many variables to consider at the same time. You have learned the basic lexicon and syntax for talking about design. Now is the time to put all of these skills together to talk about a piece of design in a holistic and effective way.

Taught by

Yasmin Khan Gibson and Randy Nakamura


5.0 rating, based on 2 Class Central reviews

4.7 rating at Coursera based on 797 ratings

Start your review of The Language of Design: Form and Meaning

  • Anonymous
    Amazing course!
    It teaches you basics of design and a framework to criticize and discuss a piece of design. Lots of great examples and challenging assignments!
    Really loved it
  • Profile image for Millie Houston
    Millie Houston
    I already knew the language, but I had to teach my friends, so I let them use my account. I hope my friend is ok with the language!

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