What makes a good design? Considering the relationship between Functional, Graphic and Learning design.

What makes a good design? Hard to say really. I know what i like and i know what i don’t, but it’s not always easy to quantify the difference between the two.

Working on the design for a new ‘learning burst’ this week, which has gone really well indeed. In fact, yesterday i found myself saying to the designer ‘this has matched not my expectations, but my aspirations’. He had managed to hit not just the brief that i’d given him, but had somehow managed to match the design to the ephemeral image in my head, the hazy picture of ‘great’ that i had half imagined.

This doesn’t happen very often. I know that i’m a notoriously difficult client, not least because i have done a lot of design myself, so fall into the annoying category of ‘half competent’, the very worst class.

In the context of e-learning, good design falls into three areas: functional design, graphic design and learning design. Individuals, with individual specialisms, often focus on just one of these areas, but to be successful we need to get all three right.

Functional design is about what makes a solution work properly. It’s about ensuring that the ‘next’ and ‘back’ buttons work, ensuring that data flows to the Learning Management System correctly and that the thing works on PCs and iPhones. Functional design is often tackled through the use of templates; get it right once, then build a template and copy it. Templating is good, because it means you have the hygiene factors right, but can be poor as it can stifle creativity and can lead to the churning out of many iterations of the same solution. On the down side, not using a template, or good functional design standards means that you lose good practice.

For example, in videos, we tend to have a play and pause button, fast forward, rewind, next and previous chapters, volume and a playhead that scrubs back and forward on the timeline. This is ‘standard’. It’s usually included in the template. Several times in the last year i’ve worked on solutions where parts of this are missing. Maybe the volume control or the ‘next chapter’ button. It’s not that anyone is deliberately reducing functionality, it’s jut that it gets missed off. The net results of these things changing is variation that does not necessarily enhance functionality. Or worse, variation that enhances functionality this time around, but the learning gets lost next time.

So, templates in themselves are probably not the answer, but good functional design guidelines and a process that ensures they are implemented probably is.

Graphic design is the most obvious of the ‘design’ area, and the area that people often focus on. It’s good to focus on graphic design, but not to the exclusion of the other areas. It’s no use having a solution that looks great, but functionally doesn’t work well, or something that looks great and works well, but that nobody learns anything from.

Graphic design is highly personal affair, but there are many obvious considerations that can be applied; is there a good enough contrast between text and backgrounds, will the solution be projected, does it have coherence? The approach i find works best is to have initial storyboards, a mood board, where we capture ‘ideas’ and colours, then try to work through from three initial designs, to two second stage designs, through to the final design. Well, that’s the way the theory works anyway!

The lessons that i’ve learnt most strongly are that someone needs to lead design and take decisions, you can’t do a final design by committee, and to always iterate downwards; three, two, one.

Different people will always like different things, so someone has to make a decision.

Learning design is the thing most often missed out. It should come first, but often comes as an afterthought, if at all. Learning design should take account of things like ‘who is the audience’, ‘what is their everyday reality?’, ‘where will they use the solution’, ‘what is their motivation to use the solution’ and, of course, ‘how will we know if it’s been successful’? There are many questions that can be asked here, but all of them will inform the learning design. If people will use the solution at home, on a bus, in the office, in a call centre, all of these things will affect both learning design and graphic design.

Underlying the learning design is the learning Methodology. Setting a context, demonstrating good practice, allowing learners to explore, to reflect, to retell the story to us and to be evaluated. The learning methodology should inform the graphic and functional design. How are you going to demonstrate a concept? Functionally, how will this work? How does the design reinforce, not detract from the concept?

Ultimately, getting the functional design, the graphic design and the learning design right is challenging. It needs to be driven and it needs to be supported by standards. When it all works out well, it’s great, but it’s not guaranteed and we need to consciously consider all the elements. 

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
This entry was posted in Design, Functional Design, Graphic Design and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to What makes a good design? Considering the relationship between Functional, Graphic and Learning design.

  1. Great post Justin! You have clearly defined each concept of design. As for me, I endeavor to develop technology that is designed for human connection, design to empower us, and designed to be beautiful.

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