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C2C Digital Magazine (Fall 2015 / Winter 2016)

Colleague 2 Colleague, Author
Cover, page 11 of 28


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Making Your Classes Pop with Innovative Visual Design

The path less traveled is one of consideration.

By Caleb Wilson, Wichita State University

Making your class stand out from the rest is simpler than you think. In examining my process for sprucing up online courses, I have found a pattern in how I go about quickly getting results that make classes more visually appealing, content more digestible, and subjects more engaging.

Though my process is a bit messier in practice, I always have the following in mind when approaching a new project:

Figure 1:  The "Realize-Consider-Create-Repeat" Approach to Innovative Visual Design for Learning

1.  Realization

Your content is the soft and delicious nougat at the center of the delectable dessert that is your class. BUT, adding visual design will give your students another perspective and help them better appreciate the class. 

Realization is the first step in adding great visual design.

Repeatedly reviewing your content is crucial to finding opportunities. Take notes when you feel like something is missing or if the content seems to drag. Avoid trying to solve this problem for now, mark it and move on.

Give your content to a trusted colleague with fresh eyes and ask them to make their own notes. Discuss them and create a list of the opportunities for visual design that also add value to your content.

2.  Consideration

It’s easy to fall into the trap of stock imagery. In the Realization phase, we find areas that would be helped by visual design.

Those areas stick out for a reason.

It could be that a complicated concept can be clarified by a simple image, students need a visual break because of a long stretch of text, or perhaps you can think of a video that brings relevance to an idea that needs to move into the real world. Whatever the opportunity, it is rare that a free, unedited stock photo will fill that need.

Our office recently received a request to create a video for a class. Immediately, I thought, how great! They realized the concept being taught could be better understood with a short video! In preparation, we talked about creating a montage video of real world scenarios that would sum up for students what this concept was about in a way that they could walk out and see in their own communities.

However, after further discussion, it was revealed that the course already featured real images, in slideshow format. What we would be creating would just be a video version of a slideshow the students were already seeing. It meant our project would simply be dressing for the class, without adding any value.

So, we presented a new idea. Why don’t we engage the students with this content?

Instead of simply showing the students what they had already seen, we developed a 30 second, animated video of a neighborhood. In the scene, we hid examples of the concept for students to find on their own. It was also designed so that the student would find more examples upon re-watching the video. This project, which was originally intended as a simple, visual break for the students, ended up achieving its goal, but also engaged the students in a new way and reinforced ideas by making them seek out examples of the concept being taught.

By considering the goal of the content and the reception of our audience, we developed a unique experience that added value to the student.

3.  Creation

You’ve Realized the need, Considered the content and the audience, but how should you get started once you have a basic idea of what you want to design?

Informational Hierarchy will decide your Visual Hierarchy.

What does that mean? Let the information you want to get across be the guide to your design. Prioritize the most important parts of your message, then make the first item on that list the most visible, and work backwards from there.

Occasionally, I will get a request for graphics or art related to a class, but the request will ask to shove too much information into one graphic, defeating the purpose of the design work altogether. If you can simplify your visual design content into one message, the most important item in your Informational Hierarchy, then creating the art will come easier, the message will be much clearer, and your students will take more from it.

4.  Repetition

Like anything, this will take a little time to get used to. It’s important to force yourself to be consistent in looking for opportunities for visual design, as well as implementing a strategy to fulfill those needs. Though, once you get going, you will find that there are some things you do that you really like, and you’ll want to include similar design to other classes. At that point, it’s time to design templates.

We use templates for graphic design, video, podcasting, and much more. When you get those creative juices flowing, you don’t want to spend precious energy looking up dimensions for an image, scouring your computer for the logo you always put on all of your images, or finding the theme music for your podcast. All of that can be pre-made, saved, and stored neatly away as a template.

If you already have template ideas for design work you think you will need, make a list. Find everything you need to get those created, and make them!

If you’re not quite sure what templates you’ll need yet, that’s fine too.

Start designing elements yourself, or have someone else design them for you. Then, think about how you might use similar items again for different classes or other content. Just make sure your finished art is different enough that you aren’t simply cloning old work.

Realize, Consider, Create, and Repeat:  Simple words that will put your course on a path destined for innovative visual design and engagement!

Caleb Wilson's Design Sampler

Figure 2:  Caleb Wilson's Design Sampler (a digital photo album)

About the Author

Caleb Wilson
serves as the Digital Content Marketing Manager for the Media Resources Center at Wichita State University where he maintains the online presence for the Media Resources Center, Wichita State TV, and the Instructional Design & Technology teams. Previously, he worked as the Social Media and Marketing Coordinator for KWCH-TV and Sunflower Broadcasting, Inc., managing social media accounts for the company's many brands, training journalists and staff in digital best practices, and contributing on-air as the weekly "Tech Talk" segment digital expert. He may be reached at  

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