26 April

Aesthetic Techniques To Guide Digital Learning Design

Branding and experiential design expert, Sumedha Sharma, discusses why aesthetics are important to learning, teaching, and development materials and how to start enhancing your designs.

We as humans are deeply attuned to aesthetics. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines aesthetics as: “a particular theory or conception of beauty or art: a particular taste for or approach to what is pleasing to the senses and especially sight”. 

Abstracting from the theory, in daily life, something aesthetic is a combination of things that is pleasing to look at. In nature, visual expressiveness is brought to life with the help of light and shadow. Photographers make use of it to compose frames and draw your eye to create points of interest. Think of the enjoyment you feel looking at breathtaking landscapes or exquisite architecture. So how do we evoke that same feeling in instructional design?

Aesthetics In Design And Impact On Learning

Design aesthetic is beauty that’s more than just a superficial strategy: it is tightly coupled with performance. Modernist graphic designer, Massimo Vignelli, believed that the beauty of a design was an excellent guide to how well it would perform.

It was his guiding principle in developing the New York City Subway map, widely admired for its aesthetic appeal.

Aesthetics have the power to stimulate our senses, having a profound influence on how we process information, judge the credibility of sources, and ultimately assign value to an experience. Product developers and graphic designers strive to evoke that aesthetic pleasure in every product they create. In digital learning, this includes things one may not immediately think of as beautiful: presentation slides, online courses, textbooks, workbooks, manuals, etc.

Combining function and aesthetics in design may be challenging given the varied target audiences and taste preferences. While instructional designers may not view themselves as graphic designers, attention to basic principles of aesthetic design and remaining consistent with details such as typography, colour schemes, and imagery will go far in encouraging deeper learning, higher levels of engagement, and increased course completion rate.

This article provides initial guidance in creating such learning, teaching, and development materials.

Font Family

Using clean, readable fonts go a long way in creating easy-to-understand materials. The font selection has to be careful and deliberate. If possible, it is ideal to use the font family set by your organisation’s brand guidelines. 

If a brand guideline is not available, pair two or three fonts throughout your entire course. Certain fonts can be hard to read across devices, especially on mobile, so use a font generator or accessible fonts popular for digital learning such as Tahoma, Calibri, Helvetica, Arial, Verdana, and Times New Roman.

Colour Palette

Similar to font style, ideally go with your organisation’s brand guidelines. In the event that you’re creating a colour palette from scratch, choose two or three colours at most and use those throughout your entire course.

To make sure the colours have a cohesive flow, try using smart colour palette generators like Coolors, which provide stunning palettes to make your instructional material pop or use you brand colours as a guideline. Pick one colour as your primary colour, coupled with a white, cream, or light grey for backgrounds, and then only use one to two accent colours.

Imagery

Remember the cheesy business images from the 90s? The one with the man with a megawatt smile, glowing in office lights in a stiff suit, sticking his thumb up? Steer clear of stock photo clichés such as those.

Think of stock image selection as a marketer does, keeping it modern, on brand, and purposeful. You want to select images that your audience will relate to, which translates to images that actually look like your audience. When possible, choose close-up shots of people in your course to help learners identify with the message you have for them. Unsplash, Pixabay, Pexels, Canva have a wide range of options to choose from.

Graphics

According to a study by psychology professors Rolf Reber, Norbert Schwarz, and Piotr Winkielman, aesthetic pleasure can be derived from the perceiver’s ease-of-processing. In other words, the easier your graphics can be processed, the more receptive your learners will be to it.

We’ve all seen a Powerpoint presentation with complex graphs and charts that no one understands. Any content a novice in that subject cannot understand, fails to get its point across. 

Graphics should be simple and support instructional courses, instead of complicating or overwhelming it. One way to ensure it is the 5-second test. Show your friend or co-worker only the graphic. If it takes them more than five seconds to understand, consider simplifying further. Five seconds is all your learners will give you before they move on.

Whitespace

A common mistake of instructional design is to fill all of the available space with text and graphics. But remember, white space is your friend – embrace it.

White space is defined as the empty, or negative space in design. Visual messages and cues become powerful when your screen is less cluttered, say with bullet points, shorter paragraphs, and well-padded page margins. When used properly, it can lead a user’s eye to information that is important, boosting overall interaction and comprehension.

Keep It Consistent And Minimal

Humans love consistent patterns. When the design isn’t distracting, our brains can actually focus on the important things – the content of your course. A helpful aid is to create a mood board with your aesthetic elements. It can be a single-page of your font family, colour palette, and a few sample images that pull it all together. Visit it before designing your next instructional material and keep referring to it to ensure consistency.

Minimalism in design and simplicity in content is key in designing materials. Ultimately, it can make or break a learning experience. Design principles and aesthetics in digital learning create a fluid learning experience, one that is easy to follow and simple to navigate. When done right, it guides learners, providing clear instructions, aiding in a deliberate and well-planned path to course completion.

Sumedha Sharma is a branding and experiential design expert with over 11 years in tech, education, ICT, and industrial automation across North America, Africa, and the Asia-Pacific region. She is passionate about creative industries and organisations that support it, providing consultancy services as founder and CEO of Monter. You can connect with her on LinkedIn at @missharma