Everyone tells you not to judge a book by its cover but we often do so anyway, even if we’re not aware that we’re doing it. There’s something about good graphic design that naturally attracts the eye, holds the reader’s attention, and increases comprehension. So when you’re creating resources, assignments, presentations, and assessments for your students, it’s important to be mindful of graphic design. We’re not suggesting that you need to spend hours creating intricate, sophisticated works of art, but there are elements of design that would be good to keep in mind to help your students as they learn. We’ve put together these graphic design tips for teachers to ease the learning process and help you ensure your students are understanding the material.
For starters, how do we learn?
To understand why graphic design is important in educational materials, it’s important to first understand how we learn. At the most basic level, the way we process and store information can be split into two main categories: working memory and long-term memory. Working memory is limited, as it is the part of our brain that consciously processes information in real time, but long-term memory seemingly has an unlimited capacity. Long-term memory stores information in mental structures that we use to organize and categorize knowledge.
The interaction between these two aspects of memory is a two-way street. We construct new mental structures in working memory so they can be integrated into long-term memory, and the existing knowledge in long-term memory is regularly brought into working memory to help us understand the world around us. (Without these interactions, we would constantly feel overwhelmed because everything around us would be perceived as new information!)
With a basic understanding of how memory interacts with itself, let’s take a look at how it specifically works in relation to learning new information, which typically requires great effort for most people. (Reviewing previously learned information can require a lot of effort, too.)
Learning something new requires a lot of effort from your working memory, which is extremely vulnerable to overload. When your working memory tries to process too much information at one time, it can lead to confusion and poor comprehension, thus obstructing the learning process. Think about times when your students—or you!—have been presented with a brand new concept, and immediately think, “I’m never going to understand this.” That’s when your working memory is beginning to feel overloaded. This is why it’s important for educators to work to deliver information in a way that doesn’t immediately bombard students. And graphic design, among numerous other elements, plays an important part in presenting such information.
Graphic Design Tips for Teachers
Utilizing graphic design in learning is a powerful tool for establishing focal points, communicating key concepts, and engaging your audience. On top of these benefits, there are a number of design elements you can implement to maximize the impact of your lesson and ease the strain on your students’ working memory. There are lots of graphic design tips for teachers out there, like the Contrast, Repetition, Alignment, and Proximity design principles (typically shortened to its acronym) or these tips from Canva, a free graphic-design tool website. (These are great resources to check out later!) But here, we’ll focus more on a few less-obvious elements you may not even think about when designing pieces.
Decades ago, educational psychologists developed a cognitive theory of multimedia learning that has been rigorously tested time and time again. One principle from this theory tells us that words should be placed near their respective graphics. This helps students focus on what is immediately relevant and reduces unnecessary processing from the working memory. Below you’ll find a few graphic design tips for teachers that focus on employing this principle in the materials you create for your students.
1. Keep Labels Close to Their Parts
We often feel the urge to keep resources neat and clean, but this sometimes leads information to be arranged in a way that actually inhibits learning.
When labeling parts of a whole, you may be tempted to label those parts with numbers only, and then provide a legend for students to refer to when identifying the numbers. While this looks clean, it separates the words from the image and causes students’ eyes to dart back and forth between the legend and the image. This unnecessarily increases the amount of mental effort needed to determine what is important and makes the working memory work harder.
By placing descriptive labels next to their graphical counterparts instead, you’re making it easier for students to manage their attention and focus on one thing at a time. The same guidelines are applicable when pairing a graphic depiction of a process or procedure with descriptive text.
2. Provide Hyperlinks Only When Necessary
If you’re creating pieces your students will access online, it’s important to be careful of how you link to outside content and resources in your piece. While it’s great to provide students with a wide variety of information and resources, before doing so, ask yourself, “Is this something I want my students to click on right now? Is everything in this resource completely relevant to my lesson and my students, or will it distract from my main point?” If it’s a lengthy article or paper, or if it’s something with lots of unrelated links, buttons, etc., your students may be pulled away from their actual coursework for longer than needed.
It’s most beneficial to put the most important, relevant information in your own words for your students, and perhaps link to those outside resources at the end to give your students further learning opportunities should they want to read more. That way, your main point gets across first before they have the chance to get distracted by outside interruptions.
3. Minimize the Need to Look at Multiple Pages
Oftentimes, we separate practice questions and learning exercises from their corresponding feedback onto different sheets or screens. Doing this makes sense with assessments, but if the purpose of the activity is to improve learning, then this separation can impose unnecessary extra work on the working memory. Instead, it’s better to include a brief explanation on the same page so the student doesn’t have to flip back and forth between your feedback and the questions/exercises to understand why they missed something. Just like labeling parts of a whole, the less unnecessary back and forth students have to do, the more focus they can give to what’s most important.
4. Keep It Simple
One of the best ways to not overload the working memory is by keeping things simple, so:
- Don’t force unnecessary elements into your piece. Only use the most important and relevant information so your students are not being pulled in multiple directions.
- Try to use as few colors, shapes, and fonts as possible. You can certainly make it visually appealing, but that doesn’t mean you have to use several different fonts or multiple bold colors to get your students’ attention.
- For presentations and online activities, you can use animations and images, but limit their presence. Having multiple interactivities on one page or on every page can decrease their importance and meaning.
- Don’t bulk up paragraphs with lots of text. When a student sees a page full of words all blocked together into large, lengthy paragraphs, it’s very intimidating. (Really it can appear daunting to anyone, not just students!)
We’ve all fallen victim to rough graphic design, whether in advertisements, websites, or newsletters, and its impact on learning can be significant, especially for students who may already be struggling. Without a carefully constructed layout, your students are at risk of an overwhelming—or, at worst, ineffective—learning experience. Give them information in a way that makes sense, doesn’t require them to jump between different sections, and is to the point. The less work their working memory has to do, the more easily it can interact with and store information in long-term memory, which is what learning is all about.
Here’s even more tips and resources for creating relevant assignments that compel and engage your students in the online and blended learning classroom.
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