Who told you that you couldn’t?

One thing I often encounter when talking to people about designing teaching materials is that a lot of highly-qualified, sensible, smart and otherwise perfectly reasonable educators are adamant that, somehow, even a skerrick of visual design is beyond them. There are lots of good reasons why certain approaches work in certain areas, and, to be honest, sometimes black on white and simple is the way to go (like here), but I sometimes sense a resistance. This always makes me wonder “who told you that you couldn’t do this”, and then, almost immediately, “and why are you still listening to them?”

We are an amazing species. We live in so many different places, adapt so quickly and are very, very hard to stop. But, somehow, after you’ve made it through a degree or two, teaching qualifications, maybe a PhD (or two, you keen devil, you), secured a teaching spot and managed enough time to read this rant… you can’t sit back for five minutes and see which colours, typefaces and layouts make the key points stand out in your presentations?

I was having lunch with a friend and was ranting on about design, I am so much fun to have lunch with, and when I said that I thought it was an important thing for everyone to think about, he said “We can’t do everything.”

I completely agree to an extent – if we never try anything, we certainly can’t achieve it. Of course, there are degrees of all of this. Much in the same way that my oil paintings are more likely to serve as paintball targets than hang in National Galleries, there are people who have more or less talent in using visual representation to present knowledge. But zero ability? I think that there are surprisingly few of those.

But this is where you support network comes in. They aren’t a cheer squad – if something is bad they should tell you. If something is bad, and someone tells you, then you either fix it or remove it. But if something is good, or has any merit, then these external voices can help you to overcome that whole “I’m a scientist, not a graphic designer, Jim!” thing.

You don’t have to be a graphic designer. There are many tools around that, with a little thought, will help you make some interesting choices that won’t break people’s eyes. Keynote and PowerPoint have quite sensible defaults and well-designed templates. Using one of these and not jamming three million lines on to the screen will generally result in a tolerable outcome. Using the notes feature in either and printing out take away handouts for students will deal with the ‘presentation versus notes’ problem. Look at other presentations that you’ve liked and, respectfully, adopt the features that work. Learn and use some of the simplest techniques for making things look better. Things like the Golden ratio for working out relative text sizes – simple but effective. Things like checking your work for its black and white contrast or what happens if the colours change… (more on this later) Some of the big companies have spent a lot of money to hire designers to make your job easier. Don’t fight it – use it!

Ok, some of you can’t do this. I get that. If you’ve tried, and all you get is TimeCube (NOT SAFE FOR WORK IN SO MANY WAYS), then step away from the keyboard. 🙂 But if you haven’t really tried because you’re scared of getting it wrong, or because, years ago, someone put you in the box of “No, you can’t”, then try again. Get an honest mirror to look in and try again.

True confessions time: Are all of my materials at a level where I’m proud of them and think that I’ve done as much as I can? No, not yet. But I am working on them and converting them, consistently and maintaining the integrity of the course, as much as I can and as fast as I can. I am on the same path that you are and I still have a lot of work to do but sharing with my local, extended and network community makes me value my efforts in this direction more. And all my student feedback says “Not only do we like it, but we seem to learn better from it.” Maybe it’s because I like it more – maybe the materials are better. For once, an outcome will suffice.

Today’s homework, which you are so free to ignore, is to consolidate an entire lecture’s key points into one slide – at the presentation systems’s default font size (no shrinking!). Can you? Should you? Why or why not? If this slide, assuming it exists, was up the front, would it make the entire lecture easier to understand? If at the end, does it tell everyone what they should know? How has it made you think about the lecture? What would a student learn if you set this to them as an assignment?

3 Comments on “Who told you that you couldn’t?”

  1. billb says:

    Any chance you might share a couple of slides from your current materials–one each from your “bad” and your “good” sets? I suspect that having an example of actual technical material might be very helpful (as opposed to the helpful example from yesterday).


    • nickfalkner says:

      Hi Bill,

      Yes, I’d love to and I’ll get some examples together over the next day or so. Please remind me if you haven’t seen anything by Tuesday! 🙂



      • billb says:

        Cool. Thanks, Nick.

        I ask because even though we’re not an academic department, we teach a series of semester-long courses here at UT for which we try to use a consistent style. I’m not terribly happy with how ours look, though, so I’d love to see how others are doing it. Also, we use a similar template for our user training courses, so we should probably be thinking of updating those as well.



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