The language of design. Understanding how to speak it and knowing what makes a design good.

With any piece of e-learning, there are two parts to the story; what you say and how you say it. A good story pays equal attention to both. Spend all your efforts in crafting the message, but present it poorly, and the solution looks clumsy or cheap. Spend all your efforts making it look amazing, but without paying sufficient attention to the message, and it’s unfocussed, all glitz and no substance.

We communicate using language, but language doesn’t have to mean written words. There are visual languages as well, ranging from the icons through imagery, colour palettes and frames. Black and white is more formal, primary colours more basic, some colours are strong, others weak. Some colours come with associations, red, amber and green have been precoded to have specific meanings, whilst other just clash or don’t ‘match’. Complementary colours or clashing ones can all be used to good effect where appropriate.

Organisations generally adopt their own pallet of colours, theming them through everything that they do, but this in itself can be problematic for communication and learning. Colours become associated with formal messages or spaces, meaning that there is a risk that the medium and the message become confused. There is a difference between branding something, framing it with the organisational pallet, and just swamping it with branding, infusing the pallet throughout everything and just making it all generic. In training, organisations often want to brand the solution, which can be the worst thing to do. Making everything the same is not engaging or interesting. It’s better to give the learning it’s own identify, using branding to position it at the start, but breaking out of the brand once you are within the learning itself. You don’t wan the message to be confused with the brand.

Even icons have their own language, being representative (a podcast microphone) or expressive of actions (a no smoking sign). Frames can support icons. A circular red or black border makes it an instruction, whilst a line crossing through it makes it forbidden. This grammar and structure of visual language isn’t native, it’s learnt, and we need to be aware of it when designing something to ensure that we speak it clearly and don’t mix languages or confuse messages.

Photography is often used within learning design, but it can be particularly problematic. The semantics of photography are complex. Choice of subject, style, colour, granularity, framing and clarity all contribute to an image that come pre imbued with meaning. it’s impossible to have a neutral photo. It’s pre-filtered by all of these choices to make a statement; the subject matter, how that subject is framed, what is included, what is omitted, a photo is a story that is already written. Trying to subsume it into your own work can come with specific risks.

Good design will enhance and complete a learning solution, bad design with actively destroy it. The skills of good writing do not necessarily go hand in hand with good design and it’s important to choose a design partner carefully as the skills of print design are different than those of the web.

As with any language, learning design takes time, and there is a difference between being ‘getting by’ and being fluent. Bringing all the elements together can be challenging, but when it works, the results speak for themselves.

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.
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