Appealing to the Viewer

In this post, I’m going to touch on something that has become an integral part of my teaching: effective presentation. I’m going to focus on visual presentation but I do realise that not every student can see to the same degree as others. However, the majority of most of our audiences can see and benefit from time spent on visual design. That doesn’t diminish the requirement to cater to universal accessibility.

Over the past year I’ve been thinking a lot about graphic design. How can I produce images that convey knowledge so well that people can’t help but learn from it? A successful piece of design is a transforming medium for the message that it carries. It enhances. It clarifies. It elevates.

The design of this blog is deliberately easy on the eye. I’ve used straightforward typefaces, soothing colours and a slightly ambiguous main image. (Am I the water or am I the rock? For reference, I am the rock but I’m laminated. Long story.) The mobile device version uses an orange-based theme, with Helvetica, because it’s a different space, less cluttered because most mobile devices only show one surface (hence I can use brighter colours) but readability is crucial, so I used straight-forward, classic, typography.

A year ago, I wouldn’t have done that. But, between now and then, I’ve been exposed to a whole range of really good books that look at data visualisation, graphic design, typography and colour. I’ve started painting in oil colour, which has ramped up my appreciation of colour, contrast, warmth and texture. I’ve started developing postcard and t-shirt designs, messing around with typefaces, started really taking notice of how colour, shape and face are used to manipulate the way that we think. I’ve redesigned an entire course with a uniform design template, as I’ve mentioned before, and seen the benefits of it.

I’m sure that some of you are already mumbling about “content trumps presentation” and I would be the first person to agree that a content-free presentation is useless, no matter how beautiful. However, if I can make my content more appealing, more focused, more engaging and easier to understand through the use of good design – why shouldn’t I? In fact, let’s make a stronger statement – I should use as much skill as I can to make my presentation of my material as good as it can be.

Our students are surrounded by good design, all the time. That’s how people sell things to them. That’s what their magazines and web experience looks like. That’s why TV looks the way that it does. Did you like the typeface used on the Obama campaign? That typeface is called Gotham and is so ‘on message’ in terms of the campaign it’s bordering on hypnotic. That’s what our students see every day. Those “Keep Calm and Carry On” signs that are being riffed on all over the place? Hand-drawn lettering, beautiful in its simplicity, clear in its message. (Just to geek out for a moment, the closest approximations to that typeface we have are probably Avenir or Gotham. You can forget that information if you like.)

Good design. Convincing design. Strong colour cues. Heavy image association. Making knowledge transfer better.

I’m an educator. I try to leave branding to my marketing department. However, if I can make my knowledge transfer devices (slides, presentations, movies) look reasonable then, and this is important, my lessons will not be the dullest things that my students see all day.

Here’s a slide that I inserted into the first lecture of one of my courses. Yes, it breaks my negativity guidelines but the overall message is strong and it resonated with the students:

If you don't do the work, you won't have the knowledge and you won't pass the course.

What leaps out at you? What’s the simple message? How can you do it? There are many ways to address this problem, here’s another that  iamfatamorgana developed as a desktop background (I believe, feel free to correct me):

Do your work. Don't be stupid.

The second is fine for personal motivation – we can all be this harsh with ourselves – but this is not, in my opinion, the right approach for students. It’s interesting to look at the two of them side-by-side.

If you’re interested in reading about these things, then you can check our Information is Beautiful, Doug McCandless’s site (or you can buy the excellent book). I also have a book, at much higher level, on European commercial design for data representation called Data Flow: Visualising Information in Graphic Design, which is far more detailed and really good (there’s a good review of it, if you’re curious). If you’re wondering about how to make colours work better together, you can buy colour index or palette books from art stores. Different ways that we can communicate scientifically or mathematically? Try Bret Victor’s site. Go to FlowingData or buy Nathan’s book “Visualise This”, which will also give you a good grounding in R. Want to get into typography? Go to your bookstore and see what you can dig up. The AVA library series are all pretty good, or you can pick up reprints of books by Goudy, or read books that will help you to “Stop Stealing Sheep”. Art galleries almost always have a lot of good books on this. I picked up “The Artistic Licence” at SF MOMA and I’ve never looked back.

You’ll start looking at the world through different eyes. After a while, you might realise that Arial really doesn’t look as good as Helvetica. Comic Sans really isn’t that funny (nor is it that truly awful). Papyrus is about as Egyptian as pizza. IMPACT IS LIKE SHOUTING. S p a c i n g i s i m p o r t a n t. The medium matters. The message matters more, but the medium matters.

Fall in love with it, if have the time. Try other templates. Try other programs. Keynote and PowerPoint take very different approaches, as does Beamer under LaTeX (you old school presenter, you). Find like-minded people who aren’t too smug or arrogant and share some ideas. Try stuff. Ask students. Try again. Use coloured paper if you like. Draw freehand curves of great beauty and fill them with water colours. Find a graffiti artist to generate a tag for the front of your book of notes – no, you’re not cool (and I never have been) but it will probably raise a smile or two.

The greatest thing about this whole design journey that it will open your mind to how heavy the influence of good design is on the viewer. Once you understand that, you understand why good design is now essential to teaching material design – because anything else will look bad when our students look at it.

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