UW–Madison graduate student proposes unique augmented reality design course for undergrads

By Kari Dickinson

UW–Madison graduate student Tamara McLean describes augmented reality (AR) as “the future” of graphic design.


AR refers to interactive experiences that combine the real world with computer-generated content. One example of AR in action is the popular game Pokémon GO, where users “catch” virtual Pokémon characters that are overlayed in real locations.

But AR is not limited to mobile phone games. Increasingly it is being used in a variety of fields, including education, retail, tourism, health care, and advertising.

“Graphic design has moved from print to the web, and with that, it’s moved into motion design, which is a complement to video,” says McLean, a master of fine arts candidate with the School of Education’s Art Department. “And now with the invention of the Vision Pro (mixed-reality headset) by Apple, it’s going to be layered onto reality.”

To be job and career ready, McLean believes that undergraduate graphic design students should know how to design for AR. She recently presented a paper, “AR for the Graphic Design Classroom,” at the prestigious Society for Experiential Graphic Design (SEGD) Academic Summit 2023 in June, which explores how AR can be integrated within graphic design curricula.

“This is historic art and design research for the Art Department and the School of Education,” says Yeohyun Ahn, an assistant professor in the Art Department. “I appreciate Tamara McLean for this research contribution to UW communities. It is also the first time a graduate student in graphic design in the School of Education has published a research paper in the SEGD journal, Communication + Place, which was founded in 1973.”

McLean’s “Landed“ (2023) is an example of a design that incorporates augmented reality (AR). The piece, which was exhibited at UW–Madison’s “Total Tolerance” group show at the Backspace Gallery, was created using Apple Reality Composer Pro and NASA animated assets.

In her paper, McLean proposes a four-week hybrid summer course to introduce AR to undergraduate students who are studying graphic design, including study of the history, process, and best practices of designing AR experiences for mobile devices.

McLean received a School of Education Course Development Grant for her course proposal, which she will teach in partnership with the School of Education’s graphic design faculty during Summer Term 2024.

McLean says she is excited to share “ ‘Aha!’ moments” with the undergraduate students who take the course. “It’s always interesting when students move from traditional software programs like Illustrator, InDesign, and Photoshop, to some of the other software programs that incorporate motion and interaction,” she says. “When they realize how easy and seamless it is, it really boosts their design confidence.”

McLean adds: “The Graphic Design area in the Art Department is preparing students to be ready for their careers on day one.” She notes that along with AR students have opportunities to learn techniques in 3D printing and designing for accessibility, taught by Assistant Professor Taekyeom Lee, and coding for design, taught by Yeohyun Ahn, which can give them an edge in the job market. 

“Incorporating skills like augmented reality and motion design is going to be the difference-maker when they start their first job,” she says. “I try to approach teaching graphic design from all angles.”

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