30 June 2005

Why visual design matters

“The current mindset in many educational institutions is to rush to host poorly designed web-sites, which instead of enhancing the learning process, may, in fact, actually impede student learning” (see reference at bottom)

It’s my own experience that, even today, too many people are ignorant of the real importance and impact of design on the effectiveness of elearning. There’s an archaic attitude that believes design is just about “making something look pretty” and not of real functional importance -- probably a relic of our traditionally arts-sceptical culture. Anglo-western cultures, have for years, (probably since the enlightenment) given preferential treatment to the quantitatively measurable domains like math and science, and often disregarded those with outcomes that we are less able to easily measure, like humanities and arts. Design, though it differentiates itself from visual art in that it always serves an explicit function, sometimes inherits this prejudice.

The irony is, that while decision makers may devalue the importance of design, users respond to their human instincts. As any designer or developer knows, you can have a feature rich application with dazzling functionality, but if it’s poorly designed, users will reject it. It’s not because users are superficial. It’s because design is a functioning part of our world and a key component of effective communication. Most of the information about our world we get visually. So of course it matters. We learn to judge, learn and understand new things based on what we see, and how it relates to what we’ve seen before it. Businesses, because of their experience with marketing psychology, image and experience design, picked up on the importance of elearning design fast. Design was always built into their process. It’s the universities that often lag behind. Perhaps their disregard is a way to rationalise leaving designers out of a very tight budget. Perhaps it’s because design was never explicitly built into the teaching process and now the acceptance that it’s required for the online environment, requires a paradigm shift.

The bottom line is that, without good informed design decisions, an elearning program risks failure and student dissatisfaction. Research into multimedia learning, cognitive load and graphics use, has shown time and again that design can drastically effect student outcomes. Whether students fail, drop out or succeed can depend, not only on instructional design, but also on visual design decisions.

“Online materials should be presented in a manner so that they incorporate, not only different learning modalities, but are capable of reducing cognitive load, increasing retention, and problem-solving transfer, facilitating the process of building internal and external connections among and between information while meeting educational objectives.”

How well students learn, is literally effected by design decisions about the placement and use of text, colour, animation, sound and imagery. There are further design issues to do with building a sense of community, encouraging students to participate, and the effects of graphics on anonymity and conviviality in a learning environment. There’s no way around it, design matters. So let’s stop wasting time arguing about its importance and move on to figuring out how we can use it best to make elearning that works.

Quotations from: The Design elements in developing effective learning and instructional websites. Christina Vogt; Dave Kumrow; E. Kazlauskas. Academic Exchange Quarterly