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Using Visual Design to Improve the Online Learning Experience: A Synthesis of Research on Aesthetics

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There is an abundant amount of literature on visual design principles, graphic design theory, and media theory. Yet very little is discussed, at least in a systematic way, about the process of making online courses aesthetically pleasing. A major obstacle to gaining such knowledge is the lack of understanding of applied definitions, conceptual ideas, and methods of creating online learning interfaces. In this chapter, the authors seek to clarify the process of using visual design to improve the online learning experience. The chapter concludes with strategies on how colleges and universities can help faculty and instructional designers learn visual design skills through the creation of a design studio.
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Learner Experience
and Usability in Online
Education
Imed Bouchrika
University of Souk Ahras, Algeria
Nouzha Harrati
University of Souk Ahras, Algeria
Phu Vu
University of Nebraska at Kearney, USA
A volume in the Advances in Educational
Technologies and Instructional Design (AETID)
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Names: Bouchrika, Imed, editor. | Harrati, Nouzha, editor. | Vu, Phu, 1979-
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Title: Learner experience and usability in online education / Imed Bouchrika,
Nouzha Harrati, and Phu Vu, editors.
Description: Hershey PA : Information Science Reference, [2018]
Identifiers: LCCN 2017030383| ISBN 9781522542063 (hardcover) | ISBN
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Chapter 1
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-4206-3.ch001
ABSTRACT
There is an abundant amount of literature on visual design principles, graphic design theory, and media
theory. Yet very little is discussed, at least in a systematic way, about the process of making online courses
aesthetically pleasing. A major obstacle to gaining such knowledge is the lack of understanding of ap-
plied definitions, conceptual ideas, and methods of creating online learning interfaces. In this chapter,
the authors seek to clarify the process of using visual design to improve the online learning experience.
The chapter concludes with strategies on how colleges and universities can help faculty and instructional
designers learn visual design skills through the creation of a design studio.
INTRODUCTION
We see with our brains, and therefore the more visual an input, the more likely something will be
recognized and recalled (Medina, 2008). Thus, vision is in many ways the most powerful tool humans
have for learning (Medina, 2008). But while a great deal of time goes into designing modern education
buildings and classrooms, both in terms of form and function, minimal effort is dedicated to the “look
and feel” of online courses. This lack of visual design in online courses exists primarily because most
educators, course designers, and developers have no background in visual communication design (Lohr,
2008; Metros, 2008; Braden, 1996). At the same time, though, even trained graphic designers—while
underrepresented on most college campuses—struggle when designing for online learning environments
(Malamed, 2009; Karabeg, 2003) that take place in predesigned or established interfaces, interfaces de-
signed and developed by technologists. The lack of attention to the visual design of online courses is also
Using Visual Design to Improve
the Online Learning Experience:
A Synthesis of Research on Aesthetics
Jason D. Bader
Mt. San Jacinto College, USA
Patrick R. Lowenthal
Boise State University, USA
2
Using Visual Design to Improve the Online Learning Experience
problematic because students make judgments about an institution or a course based on how a website
looks (see Szabo & Kanuka, 1999). Further, aesthetics matter! Traditional practices of design—like ar-
chitecture, graphic design, industrial design, and digital media design—focus on both the functional and
the visual aspects of design. The authors contend that the field of instructional design and technology,
and specifically online course design, has largely ignored the importance of aesthetics.1 Aesthetics are
what make creative experiences, inclusive of user-generated content and mass media, unique, personal,
and memorable (Manovich, 2017; Margolin & Margolin, 2002).
While research on visual design and learning is nascent (Kimball, 2013; William & Stamitz, 2005),
the authors posit that colleges and universities have a responsibility to focus on aesthetics and how online
courses are visually designed if they are to improve the overall learning experience. In the following chap-
ter, the authors synthesize literature on visual design, illustrate how these ideas can be used to improve
the visual design of online courses, and conclude with strategies on how colleges and universities can
help faculty and instructional designers learn visual design skills through the creation of a design studio.
PROBLEM
The first online course was offered over 30 years ago. For decades, though, online learning was just an
extension of distance education used by a small minority of teachers and learners. During the past 5–10
years, however, this has all begun to change. Online learning is no longer a fringe activity in educa-
tion taught only by early adopters. Today, to meet the increased demand, all types of teachers end up
designing and teaching courses online, most with minimal technical or design experience. Recognizing
this problem, colleges and universities have developed multiple approaches to train and support faculty
to design online courses from an instructional perspective, but very little effort has focused on how to
help faculty improve the visual design of online courses. Given this, the authors questioned, what are
the essential activities and knowledge in graphic design that can be useful for learning skills in online
course design? This chapter explores pertinent knowledge to support faculty in the development of visual
design awareness for online courses.
DESIGN PROBLEMS
The two most basic components of any visual design are the functionality and the aesthetic of the prod-
uct. Many designers consider the functionality the primary concern and the visual appeal a secondary
concern, while others consider the two intertwined (this is discussed in more detail in the form follows
function section), but all designers consider the activity of design as the development of a creative solu-
tion for heuristic experiences. In other words, all designers consider visual design as a process of solving
ill-defined design problems, otherwise known as wicked problems.
Rittel and Webber (1973) define wicked problems as ill-formulated and complex problems that involve
clients and decision makers with conflicting values. In many ways, online course design—especially
visual design—involves solving extraordinarily wicked problems. However, adherence to established
visual design theories, rules, and principles makes the process of solving these wicked problems more
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Using Visual Design to Improve the Online Learning Experience
comprehensible. Figure 1 is a visual representation that compares simple and wicked problems. In a
simple problem, the solutions will typically yield the same result. For instance, when letters and back-
grounds have similar values they cannot be easily read. Creating more contrast between the background
and text can easily solve this problem. The solution will have the same effect on all participants; they
can now read the text. However, the contrast between black and white is binary and straightforward.
If low contrast exists due to the values of two colors being similar, the solution becomes much more
complicated. An adjustment of the hue without knowledge of color may adverse effects of creating a
visually unappealing environment, color discord, unintended cultural implications, or color contrasts
that make it difficult for color blind viewers. The decision of what color combinations to choose thus
becomes a wicked problem.
While knowledge of design principles may transition the functional design problems from wicked
to simple, the aesthetic development of visual design will always remain a wicked problem. Buchanan
(1992) describes a wicked problem as a design problem that has “no special subject matter of its own
apart from what a designer conceives it to be” (p. 16). In other words, designing visuals is not only about
functionality; it is just as importantly about the human experience. Each experience of a single visual
design can be unique for each individual who interacts with it. Table 1 compares every criterion of a
wicked problem and relates it to an activity in the visual design process.
Facing wicked problems in any design is commonplace. The activity of design is to plan for events
with unknown results. Usually, this type of planning happens in a process known as brainstorming.
Figure 1. A comparison of the application of visual design processes to simple and wicked problems
and the respectively expected and unexpected results
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Using Visual Design to Improve the Online Learning Experience
Robson (2002) associates the activities of brainstorming as conception or building up ideas with few or
no limits (i.e., thinking outside the box). With wicked problems, designers may have a general idea of
the problem, but a significant amount of time and effort goes into the analysis portion of design think-
ing (Beyer & Holtzblatt, 2009), including activities such as requirement gathering, problem definition,
and problem shaping.
Online course design thus entails solving wicked problems. In a practical sense, the course must
function serendipitously for navigation to be intuitive (Krug, 2000). There must be visual cues given to
the organization of the material if the user is to be able to act (Austin & Doust, 2007; Norman, 1990).
But because this is a wicked problem, even a well-designed visual does not guarantee consistent results;
nonetheless, knowledge of visual design can reach a desired result in larger pool of users than an unin-
formed design decision.
Table 1. Comparison of visual design to wicked problems
Wicked Problems (Rittel & Webber, 1973) Visual Design
There are no definitive formulations of a wicked problem.
There is no defined visual design problem to solve. A solution
needs to work visually, but what works in one context does not
necessarily work in another.
Wicked problems have no stopping rules. The visual design is never final; circumstances always resurrect the
visual design process.
Solutions to wicked problems cannot be true or false, only good or
bad.
The perception of a visual design solution is, “I like it.” or, “It
doesn’t work for me.”
There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a
wicked problem.
There is no mechanism to verify if a visual design correctly
functions, as there will always be subjective criteria by which to
analyze a visual design solution. We can examine the perception
or feelings that people get from a design, but even this cannot be
standardized.
Every solution to a wicked problem is a “one-shot operation”;
because there is no opportunity to learn by trial-and-error, every
attempt counts significantly.
When a visual design is released to the public, only then can the
result be analyzed for its actual intent. These results can vary
significantly from those of focus groups.
Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively
describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described
set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the
plan.
The methods that visual designers use to create ideas vary
according to the designer’s preference. Also, a number of drafts or
final solutions presented to the client may change as well.
Every wicked problem is essentially unique. The content, purpose, and audience of every visual design is
unique.
Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of
another problem.
When using visual design within a scenario, new problems
may arise. Information may not be communicated as intended.
Technology may not work as planned.
The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem
can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation
determines the nature of the problem’s resolution.
In the case of visual design, discrepancies may be explained
in terms of the visual objects, principles, or properties used.
For instance, users may choose not to read material because of
typeface, line spacing, contrast, length of passage, lack of visuals,
or any combination of these.
The wicked problem solver has no right to be wrong.
The visual designer is ultimately responsible for the success or
the failure of the reception of the work. They are responsible for
understanding the concepts needed to solve the wicked problem.
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Using Visual Design to Improve the Online Learning Experience
DESIGN PROCESS
Experienced designers do not begin with a preconceived idea or solution (Rand, 1985). Rather, design-
ers typically progress through a series of self-defined activities, which generally can be categorized as
a process of looking, thinking, and doing (Pentak & Lauer, 2015). A typical design process involves
redefining the problem, experimenting with media, generating graphic styles, adjusting the visual com-
position, revising the content, interpreting the visual results of prototyped outcomes generated during
the design process (Noble & Bestley, 2016).
New designers, though, need to learn the typical or basic design process. Solving a visual design
problem, or any design problem, typically requires a dynamic, iterative approach rather than a sequential,
linear approach (Lauer & Pentak, 2016; Meinel & Leifer, 2011; Buchanan, 1992; Rittel & Webber, 1973).
This design process usually involves looking, thinking, doing, and critiquing (Pentak & Lauer, 2016).
Figure 2 illustrates the iterative design process. In theory, the process appears as a sequential cycle, but
in practice, the design process is non-sequential.
Buchanan (1990) argues that the oversimplified linear outline of the design process is far from standard
practice. Designers operate in an intricate social web, where individuals communicate in specialized
terminologies and logic; this web is a product of the relationship between their areas of conceptual and
technical expertise (Buchanan, 1990). Furthermore, designers also apply unique cultural or intellectual
models that inadvertently inform (or elude) their perspective of a particular design situation (Manzini,
1989).
A designer operates using personal frameworks with a unique process model that influences all those
involved with the design process (i.e., the design team, the clients, and the users). Furthermore, based
upon the desired media output, the design process evolves towards the medium in which the designer
operates. Table 2 presents an overview of conventional design methods that the authors have found in
textbooks. Each textbook’s related field heavily influences the proposed set of design activities. Despite
Figure 2. Visual mapping of the basic design process
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Using Visual Design to Improve the Online Learning Experience
this, one can see similarities between each of these design processes. For instance, planning and thinking
primarily refer to the same activity. Pentak and Lauer’s (2015) simplified verbiage describing steps of
the design process remains an excellent foundation for new designers, since those activities (looking,
thinking, and doing) are ambiguous enough to relate to any discipline.
Design disciplines also emphasize forms of collaborative design that focus on brainstorming, cri-
tique, and iteration. In most colleges and universities, these activities take place within a design studio,
a workspace with extended time blocks for ad-hoc instruction. The learning activities in a design studio
are characterized by one-on-one, small group, and large group work on design problems reinforced by a
periodic public and individual critiques (Cennamo & Brandt, 2012). The typical design studio contains
many people working toward similar design processes, so design becomes a heuristic process that enables
practice in the refinement of production skills paired with the application of new knowledge and prior
knowledge. In other words, this type of environment helps create well-designed products that are vetted
by peers, as opposed to unorganized, uninformed, and random design solutions.
Table 2. Common design processes
Book Design Process
Design Basics (Pentak & Lauer, 2015)
Used in introductory studio art courses as a foundation for two-dimensional
design, this is an extraordinary textbook to use in the development of a visual
language for any visual discipline.
1. Looking
2. Thinking
3. Doing
4. Critiquing
The Design Method (Karjaluoto, 2014)
This is a small personal reflective text that creates a discourse on functional
design and application. It goes beyond the visual solutions and also discusses
client relationships upon deployment of deliverables.
1. Discovery
2. Planning
3. Creativity
4. Application
Design thinking: Understand - improve - apply (Plattner, Meinel, & Leifer,
2011)
This book describes the interactive environment that promotes learning,
remarking on traditional learning design (as opposed to visual design)
through rapid conceptual prototyping within technical and human aspects.
1. (Re)define the problem
2. Needfind and benchmark
3. Bodystorm
4. Prototype
5. Test
Graphic Design Basics (Arntson, 2011)
This traditional textbook on the process of making graphic design solutions
is geared towards the student in higher education. The projects described are
grounded in real-world problems.
1. Research
2. Thumbnails
3. Roughs
4. Comprehensives
5. Presentation
6. Production/Distribution
New Media Design (Austin & Doust, 2007)
This text summarizes the duties of a graphic designer who works in the field
of new media, as opposed to print media. The focus of the book is primarily
on the real-world operations of a practicing designer.
1. Strategy
a. Experience Analysis
b. Branding
c. Market Research
2. Architecture
a. Conceptualization
b. Content Strategy
3. Design
a. Visual Design/Prototype
b. Style Guides
4. Production
a. Front-End
b. Back-End
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Using Visual Design to Improve the Online Learning Experience
DESIGN THEORIES
Because the real-world application of design is categorized as an industrial practice, graphic design
programs rarely have courses dedicated to theory (Blauvelt, 1998). Designers must consider the audi-
ence, the stakeholders, the methods, and other practicalities rather than relying on ambiguous theories
(Crow, 2016; Noble & Bestley, 2016). However, Armstrong (2009) suggests that visual design methods
focus on three domains—the process of conceptualization, the process of construction, and the process
of context—that can help new designers think about design. Design theories drive the conceptualization,
specifically its relationship to construction and context. Design theory is the answer to why humans
make design decisions (Lupton & Miller, 2006). In the following section the authors describe the relevant
theories, rules, and fundamentals that can help those involved in online course design. In each section,
the authors also suggest possible studio questions. These questions are used to guide criticisms within
each theory or principle.
The Bauhaus Philosophies
At the end of the 19th century, the Bauhaus School of Design sought to build aesthetically pleasing,
functional designs due to Germany’s industrialization having created poorly crafted, ugly, mass machine-
produced utilitarian artifacts. Two theories sum up the functionalist Bauhaus movement, and they are
still ubiquitous in all design disciplines: less is more and form follows function.
Less is more is a philosophy of minimalist design that emphasizes efficiency (Galitz 1997; Nielsen,
1993; Mullet & Sano, 1995; Norman, 1990; Schwier & Misanchuk, 1993). The early masters of design
(e.g., Lissitzky, Rodchenko, Moholy-Nagy, and Beyer) perceived old art as egotistical works constructed
for elitists (Lupton & Miller, 2006). They believed that subjective, bourgeois visions tarnished society.
They instead explored the innovation of form that was “inspired by the machine—functional, minimal,
ordered, and rational” (Armstrong, 2009, p. 9).
Schwartz (2004) argues that choices in society can be overwhelming and that the availability of more
options does not equate to higher satisfaction; on the contrary, more options can lead to anxiety and
stress that cause decision-making paralysis. Schwartz aptly advises that a social perspective on what is
“good enough” should supersede what is “best” (p. 5), since always searching for something better can
impinge upon other aspects of design like time management.
While human consciousness has an extraordinary ability to filter out extraneous information (Tufte,
1990), this does not mean that online courses should include copious amounts of data. The Online
Course Workshop (n.d.) suggests that “talking too much or doing too much” and “assuming students
should know that” are some of the worst things teachers do. In online learning, this creates a problem
for the designer, as there must be enough information presented without it being overwhelming, making
the idea of less is more a concept that any educator should consider when returning to the evaluation
inflexion point of the design process.
[Less is More Studio Question: What can be removed without destroying the visual structure?]
Form follows function is a classic design theory. The original quote, “Form ever follows function”
(Sullivan, 1896, p. 408), was intended to mean that in cases of life, function and form are inevitably
intertwined, and neither can change without the other being changed. Many writers and designers have
viewed this redacted aphorism in different philosophical perspectives. Some interpret form follows func-
tion in a verbatim and linear way. Husby (2014) describes the theory with this logical conclusion: a cup
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Using Visual Design to Improve the Online Learning Experience
cannot perform as a cup unless shaped in a way to hold liquid, whereas if the cup cannot hold liquid, then
it is not a cup. Karjaluoto (2014) argues that when a design looks good but the object does not achieve
its objective, the design is a failure. In this case, the idea of form is a subset of the functionality. Figure 3
illustrates this literal definition of form follows function as a graph where there is a higher-order design
at the point where the highest quality of form and function intersect.
There are some that offer a different viewpoint, arguing that within a design, the visual form drives
function. Sullivan (1896) asserts, for instance, that architects manifest functionality from within the form
(e.g., various levels of an office building can take on different uses). Following this logic of form fol-
lows function, an altered visual appearance can change the functionality of the design, creating a more
sophisticated interpretation of form follows function. Rand (2014) points out that in an ideal case, visual
appeal and utilitarianism are “mutually generative” (p. 10). Figure 4 represents Sullivan’s elementary logic
of form “ever” following function as a critical way of evaluating work: the best designs are the solutions
that have both high style and high functionality, and the two design criteria are intertwined. Expanding
on this logic, Dewey (2005) explained quite eloquently that to experience an object aesthetically is to
experience such things as the application, utensil, and technology in the “degree of completeness of liv-
ing” (p. 27). Functionality in design may be critical to the achievement of a particular output, but when
the audience experiences the artistic interpretation of the designer, the designer furnishes an enriched
life—a hidden, subconscious relationship between the audience and the ingenuity of the creator.
Even though philosophies differ, they all point to the need for any design to carry practical use, vi-
sual appeal, technical proficiency, and expressive qualities. Online courses, which are built for human
interaction, would need to follow this same logic: the visual appearance of the course’s navigational
system, the content integration, the emotional tone, and the intuitive layout have a direct impact on the
functionality of the course.
[Form Follows Function Studio Question: Do the design properties capture the essence of the
content?]
Figure 3. Perspective of form follows function as functionality having priority
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Using Visual Design to Improve the Online Learning Experience
Design Thinking
Design thinking analyzes and questions both familiar and uncertain aspects of ongoing circumstances to
uncover limitations and alternative possibilities that lead to desired outcomes. While the development of
aesthetics is important, it takes much more than knowledge of beauty and refined style to create successful
designs. The audience and the system must also be part of the plan. This section focuses on the heuristic
and systematic components of design. Meinel and Leifer (2011) identified four rules related to this type
of design thinking: the human rules, the ambiguity rules, the re-design rules, and the tangibility rules.
The human rules relate directly to ethnography in social activities, specifically in communication. As
Ireland (2003) points out, design requires a “keen understanding of people, cultures, and belief systems
that may seem completely foreign and unintelligible” (p. 22). In human-computer interaction, the primary
purpose of design is for users to be able to achieve objectives intuitively and efficiently (Karjaluoto,
2014; Krug, 2000); however, when addressing issues of self-identity, culture, or expressiveness in design,
another mindset is necessary (Shedroff, 2003).
While aesthetics make visual information emotional, beautiful, creative, and interesting, under cer-
tain conditions, culturally oriented aesthetics have the advantage of reaching into cognitive traits such
as interpretive effects and accessibility (You, Kim, & Lim, 2016). Cultural reflexivity is the ideology,
culture, and gender identity that drive visual preferences and interpretations (Armstrong, 2009; Mills,
2006); that is, designers must simultaneously express their self-identity while also creating a design that
is accessible, inviting, intuitive, and efficient. In a multicultural space, like a web space, design objects
and elements like colors are interpreted differently (Cyr, 2013; Smith et al., 2004; Marcus & Gould,
2000). The variance of perception or visual bias amongst different cultures makes critique of visual
solutions from multicultural perspectives important.
[Human Rules Studio Question: Can the content be understood by the greatest number of people?
Does the course design reflect a unique self-identity of the creator?]
The tangibility rules are the interaction between digital and physical worlds through the integration
of computations within physical artifacts and environments (Shaer, Horn, & Jacobs, 2009). Conversely,
Figure 4. Perspective on form follows function as form and function interrelated
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Using Visual Design to Improve the Online Learning Experience
this could be defined in the inverse as physicality within a digital realm, as guidelines that dictate how
physical interactions become relevant in a virtual world. Shaer et al. (2009) concluded that “designing
tangible interaction is a complex process that encompasses multidisciplinary knowledge including en-
gineering, art, and the social sciences” (p. 260).
[Tangibility Rules Studio Questions: Do the chosen buttons, links, and navigational layout enable
the proper action of interactivity? Is the content accessible?]
The re-design rules are profoundly rooted in efficiency. They are the result of individual modular
components that make up a long-lasting functional design, rather than a finalized product with a single,
limited use. Meinel and Leifer (2011) point to the continuing human needs of this rule; for instance, for
online learning systems to be made more efficient, they must be recycled and redesigned. Even institu-
tions are using templates in courses with multiple sections, enabling others to recycle the content en
masse. Lowenthal and White (2009) refer to this as a standardized course design within an enterprise
model of online learning.
It is easy to see how an enterprise model works from a visual design standpoint, but online learning
can quickly become sterile without a human element to visual design. Duarte (2010) emphasizes the
importance adding a human element to the system. Therefore, it is imperative that an online course de-
sign be refined on the first deployment of the course so that others can personalize the content without
losing the course instructional design structure. In other words, there must be a middle ground between
standardization and personalization.
[Re-design Rules Studio Questions: Will the design be able to be modified by others without losing
its instructional essence? Will the design still be usable five or ten years from now on a different content
management system?]
The ambiguity rules allow for various interpretations. In many fields, specifically learning theory and
social interactions, there is support for complexity over simplicity (Rowland, 2003; Wilson, 1996). When
an enterprise model for online learning is used, it may be common sense to believe that less ambiguity
is better for learning interfaces, and this is true regarding the visual design for interaction. However,
the design of course modules that allow for ambiguous relationships is more versatile than those with
univocal relationships (Figure 5).
For instance, in a univocal relationship, module A depends on module B. When module B is modi-
fied, module A must also be modified similarly. Conversely, in an ambiguous relationship, if module
B is modified, then module A will not need to be modified. From a standpoint of visual design, the
introduction of a few design elements, like a two-color design, may bring about some advantages over
a one-color design. In this case, adjusting the color within a single page will not violate the consistency
of the visual design throughout the entire online course. The course author will not need to adjust the
design elements on every page to match.
[Ambiguity Studio Question: Do the introductory title pages give enough design variance to allow
subordinate pages to use varied design attributes?]
Remediation
Remediation, from a media theory perspective, is the idea that culture desires to expand its media while
simultaneously erasing all traces of mediation (Bolter & Grusin, 1999). Thus, there are two logics of
remediation: hypermediacy, where the technology is purposefully apparent, and immediacy, where the
technology becomes transparent. It is interesting to note that with each new technology people become
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Using Visual Design to Improve the Online Learning Experience
aware of the medium because they focus on the technology rather than just the content. In this case, the
immediacy of the design manifests hypermediacy in the design. While media technologies incorporate
networks that are specific to physical, social, aesthetic, and economic terms, humans and computers
are not separate entities that control relationships. Rather, human-computer interaction is the result of
human-human and human-computer relationships; whereby, human practices are cyclically shaped and
shaped by these relationships (Bolter & Grusin, 1999; Verbeek, 2010). For instance, the desktop interface
superseded the command line protocol for computing back in the 1990s. Conversely, the design of online
courses hides the internal code, turning the process into what Seigel (2006) calls “the templated mind”
(p. 116). Templates and toolbars force the developers of online courses to work within a constrained set
of commands that limit the possibilities of design, negatively shaping the way in which online course
designers can use creativity.
Moholy-Nagy, one of the professors at the Bauhaus, argued in his writings that artists of his day could
find no active use for a man on a stage stating that, “artists and theorists still struggle to develop truly
interactive—rather than only participatory” (Prager, 2006, p.202). Following Friedrich Kittler’s dictum,
Moholy-Nagy was aware of the profound effect of technology on society, arts, and pedagogy: “It is we
who adapt to the machine. The machine does not adapt to us” (Latourelle, 2015, para. 2). Adapting to
Figure 5. Visualization of ambiguous relationships compared to univocal relationships
Table 3. Examples of the process of remediation
Images
Engravings: Etching in stone
Painting: Pigments on a surface
Photography: Light on a surface
Motion imagery: Light in a box
Interactive images: Dynamic images in a virtual environment
Augmented space: Dynamic images in a physical environment
Educational Media
Textbooks: Textual content with images and illustrations for the individual
Transparencies: Static visual content coincided with lecture for the group
Video: Dynamic visual content in linear form for the individual
PowerPoint: Text, image, and movies coincided with lecture for the group
Online: Text, image, and movies in an interactive interface for the individual
Augmented: Text, image, and movies in an interactive format, anywhere.
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Using Visual Design to Improve the Online Learning Experience
new technology is a similar dilemma that instructors have today, as they become both designers and
facilitators of blended and online courses. Educators must adapt pedagogical styles and content to the
machine, as the learning management systems will not adapt to them.
There is a constant remediation of the practice of education, specifically in physical, social, aesthetic,
and economic terms, with each available new media. Remediation in web-based applications has enabled
most laymen to become designers, specifically in educational mediated spaces. Learning management
systems in the early stages clearly involved hypermediacy as a navigation structure, using a navigational
design that mimicked the interfaces of most websites. For instance, navigational bars were the focal
point of interaction and human-computer interaction. In more modern iterations of LMSs, focus is on
the linear layout of pages, thus containing immediacy in the experience through segmenting content by
allowing the user to click a “continue” button (Clark & Mayer, 2016, p. 207).
[Remediation Studio Question: What can be done to make the experience more intuitive and trans-
parent? What technical abilities, beyond the default tools, are there in the system or modify the visuals?
How are they used?]
Gestalt
The phenomenon known as gestalt is a part of visual psychology and has a longstanding scientific and
technical background in research studies, but it is also beneficial to the visual arts (Pentak & Lauer,
2015). Gestalt is a theory that directly drives some of the design principles like unity, where the brain
attempts to find a coherent pattern. Under gestalt, the removal of extraneous information allows the
viewer to process only the correct information (Malamed, 2009). Figure 6 shows that even with a mini-
mal amount of visual information, an audience can subconsciously fill in the blanks through familiarity
(Solomon, 1994).
A few of the Bauhaus faculty—Klee, Kandinsky, and Albers—attended lectures in an emerging science
of gestalt psychology by gestalt theorists, including Rudolph Arnheim (Behrens, 1998). The correlation
between the Bauhaus philosophies and gestalt is uncanny, but the two are not directly related (Boudewi-
jnse, 2012). The teachings at the Bauhaus focused explicitly on the nature of objects, but gestalt focuses
on the relationship of objects that determine the resulting object’s function. Also, gestalt theorists were
interested in perception of physical stimuli, whereas, the Bauhaus philosophy was interested in beauti-
Figure 6. Imagery that is still recognizable after removal or abstraction. (a.) Using abstract lines in a
facial proportion. (b.) Distorting pieces of a photograph. (c.) Removal of letterforms.
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Using Visual Design to Improve the Online Learning Experience
ful functionality (Boudewijnse, 2012; Lupton & Miller, 2006). While gestalt can be applied in multiple
ways visually, Tufte’s (1990) notion of 1+1 = 3 (Figure 7) is the simplest to understand.
In online learning, gestalt manifests in many parts of the design such as web pages, titles, infograph-
ics, and movies. The many unique parts that make up the image are consolidated down to a single sum
or design, thus giving the viewer the maximum amount of ideas in a consolidated time and surface space
(Tufte, 1990). Seven main visual ideas describe gestalt (Seeker, 2016):
1. Similarity: Assigning similar design properties to objects
2. Proximity: Placing objects close together.
3. Continuity: Aligning objects to follow one another
4. Closure: Creating a shape using the negative space and implied line
5. Symmetry: Creating sets of symmetrical objects and grouping them together
6. Prägnanz: Seeing the group in its simplest form
7. Common Fate: The brain anticipating movement through multiple images, or when objects move
in simultaneous motion, like a flock of birds
The gestalt principle is useful in online interfaces for differentiating aesthetic properties through con-
trast while simultaneously unifying content. Figure 8 shows difference in shape yet perception through
various techniques to regroup the objects by form, scale, or value. Gestalt when used correctly can create
visually appealing, intuitive visual interfaces.
[Gestalt Studio Question: How can the content be simultaneously integrated and differentiated through
the transformation of visual properties?]
Figure 7. The 1+1=3 visualization of the prägnanz gestalt theory using circles
Figure 8. Gestalt principle of similarity using three different design properties
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Using Visual Design to Improve the Online Learning Experience
DESIGN FUNDAMENTALS
Online course designers should be aware of three fundamentals of design: design objects, design principles,
and design properties. Design objects are ultimately the media used in an interface, design principles
are the psychological result of the observed arrangement of the design objects, and design properties
are the alterations of the appearance of the objects to make each instance unique. Each of these will be
discussed in more detail in the following pages. The knowledge of the effects of each of these will help
inform the studio questions generated from the design theories.
Design Objects
Any design object is a graphic representation of an idea; it is always an attempt on the part of the designer
to make reality intelligible (Massironi, 1937/2010). Design objects related to online courses include
font, image, and shape. Of course, the possibilities for fashioning design objects to integrate within the
learning interface can seem overwhelming. A shape can take on many forms, such as a line, a square,
a circle, an oval, or an organic splat. A square with an outline could contain typefaces in its interior,
thus highlighting the type. Conversely, a long line could separate information into sections to chunk the
information. An image can be an array of sizes, static, dynamic (video), interactive (link), transparent
(background or texture), or opaque. The image can also act within a multitude of learning functions:
decorative, interpretive, representative, organizational, or transformative (Lohr, 2008). Lastly, the font
based on the chosen typeface is used for such things as body copy, titles, section heads, and hyperlinks
(Bringhurst, 2002).
Design Principles
As Pentak and Lauer (2015) aptly note, design is “basically the arrangement of shapes” (p. 152), but the
arrangement and treatment of those shapes, or design objects, does influence how the viewers perceive
their relationships. Design principles are the way in which design objects interact with each other, the
background, and the viewer. For instance, value and contrast are two different things. Value is a design
property, while contrast is a design principle. A solid square, for example, is a design object that can
increase or decrease darkness, a design property of value. Contrast is the result of the interaction between
the square’s value and its relationships to other objects in the working space. To describe this distinction,
consider a black square on a black background that produces low contrast. This resulting similarity of
value creates low or no contrast. It is the consequence of the value quality of black on black. If either
the square or background has its value adjusted to white, the result would be high contrast. Kimball’s
(2013) research listed the following characteristics of a design principle (pp. 35-36):
Generalizable: It can be applied to many situations
Heuristic: It helps guide decisions and determine paths of action
Grounded: It is more than simple preference; it is based on organized experience, whether devel-
oped through practice or research
Meaningful: It helps designers communicate ideas to real people in rhetorically effective ways
Contingent: Its application depends on local conditions
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Using Visual Design to Improve the Online Learning Experience
Using these guidelines, the authors traverse through Kimball’s frequency list (Kimball, 2013, p.11)
and categorize design principles and design properties that pertain only to the visual design for online
courses. For instance, conventional graphic design verbiage like perspective, radiation, and ascension
are likely not relevant to the visual design of most online courses. Table 4 shows a consolidated list of
relevant terms in which the authors have identified design principles and, by association, the regularly
taught design properties in the field of visual design that are also related to online course design, namely,
structure, rhythm, unity, hierarchy, contrast, and gestalt. Duplicated terms that are associated conceptu-
ally have been consolidated into single terms for simplicity (e.g., difference, similarity, and contrast have
been combined into the single term contrast).
Structure
Structure refers both to the container and to how the content is held together. Three key terms of structure
are framing, balance, and alignment. A web browser or device usually predetermines the framing, but
static framing is possible using tables whose size is defined by pixels. Most might argue against using
a table to frame the content, as the content management system is built to handle various devices, each
with a unique aspect ratio to display content, for example, iPad (4:3), iPhone (3:2), and widescreen
display (16:9). This concept shows the need for prototyping the result on multiple systems to see the
various ways that a final layout is structured. Checking the final view on a computer screen, tablet, and
cell phone will usually cover the range of possible devices that a viewer would use.
Balance is an interesting concept of structure because designers typically consider horizontal page
balance; however, in the case of web pages, balance is also vertical. In a single page, placement of all
resource videos at the top and the supporting text below can create asymmetry. In this case, it is a good
practice to balance all media objects logically and coherently. This method of consistent layout should
also properly align media. There is one suggestion that the authors can associate with the alignment of
type: Do not use the center command unless necessary. Centered text is difficult to read due to the eye
needing to find the start point of each line. The only text that should be centered is short bits of information
for an aesthetic purpose, like a header or a pull quote (Bringhurst, 2002; Lupton, 2009; Williams, 1996).
Rhythm
Rhythm in visual design describes repetition of visual elements either on the same page or throughout
multiple pages. In music, rhythm comes from an equal timing of beats; in poetry, rhythm is apparent
in a cadence of the constant flow or sounds of syllables. In online learning, this concept is highly rel-
evant. Chunking, for instance, is a form of rhythm in which the learner experiences a limited amount of
Table 4. Design principles and properties relevant to online course design
Design Principles (Associative Terms) Design Properties (Associative Terms)
Structure (Framing, Balance, Alignment)
Rhythm (Chunking, Consistency)
Unity (Proximity, Repetition)
Hierarchy (Focal Point, Emphasis, Subordination)
Contrast (Similarity, Difference)
Color (Hue, Saturation, Value)
Form/Typeface (Scale, Shape)
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Using Visual Design to Improve the Online Learning Experience
content, so the brain is not overloaded (Clark & Mayer, 2016). Consistency is another term to associate
with rhythm, as the design properties, objects, and actions need to be consistent throughout a CMS.
Otherwise, the learners may become confused about how to act.
Unity
Unity creates a psychological congruity amongst the elements in the design; without unity a design be-
comes chaotic (Pentak & Lauer, 2015). It is essential that a designer compose design elements in a way
that visually organizes the media. According to Pentak and Lauer (2015), there are four ways in which
the online course designer can create unity, as demonstrated in Figure 9: (a) proximity, the closeness of
the objects; (b) repetition, the repetition of the design properties; (c) continuation, an arrangement where
objects are aligned from beginning to end; and, (d) continuity, the alignment of the objects.
Hierarchy
Hierarchy dictates how a viewer will navigate a page visually and understand what information is primary,
secondary, and tertiary (Landa, 2014). Typically, the designer chooses what will be the focal point of the
content, after which the developer applies design properties that emphasize the focal point, simultane-
ously using subordination techniques to the surrounding objects. A good way to evaluate hierarchy in
the design studio is do the following: (1) identify the information that is important for viewers to see,
(2) order the information from most important to least important, (3) observe the designed space, (4)
order the observed points of information from most important to least important, and (5) analyze the
important content values with the observed design values.
Contrast
Contrast is a continuum that exists from low to high and speaks to how similar or different the contrasted
objects are; however, there are many design properties, each with its unique continuum, that affect the
contrast level. Figure 8 illustrates this possible dilemma. What aspects of contrast make the most dif-
ference?
The most common design properties in which course designers control contrast are scale, value,
color, and form. The scale is the size that ranges from small to large or in the case of a line, thick to
thin. Value describes the level of lightness and darkness, with white on one end of the continuum, black
on the other, and 50% grey right in the middle. Color has unique properties of contrast that the authors
Figure 9. Ways to create unity with multiple objects
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Using Visual Design to Improve the Online Learning Experience
discuss below, but for the purposes of this paper, saturation is the most evident in contrast of color. A
pure hue exists on one end of the continuum, while a desaturated hue, which results in a grey, exists
on the other end. The form that shapes an object is a little more complex: an organic form will contrast
with a geometric form, a rectilinear form will contrast with a circular form, and sans-serif typefaces with
vertical stress will contrast with old-style typefaces with diagonal stress. It is important for a designer
to control contrast because if there are too many contrasting elements, both hierarchy and unity can be
destroyed, and the viewer experience will be chaotic.
Design Properties
Within each design object there usually exist ways to modify it; these modifiable characteristics are the
design properties. For instance, in shapes the color, size, shape, texture, rhythm can be altered in almost
infinite ways. In fonts, multiple type families and properties can be selected.
Form
In art class, the term form only means shape, but it can also more broadly refer to color, texture, and
composition (Pentak & Lauer, 2015). When it comes to online learning, the term form also relates to the
visualization of information: images, tables, illustrations, and infographics (Lohr, 2007; Lupton, 2016).
These characteristic properties are controlled as shape, scale, and position. But the most ubiquitous use
of a form in online courses is fonts. Font families, or typefaces, are designed in visually different shapes,
weights, x-heights, and the like, and are therefore considered form.
Typography
Online courses can be best thought of as interactive documents. The inherent nature of a website includes
a modular grid that generates content layout resembling magazines. In print, the modular grid system
systematically arranges images, graphics, and typography, but for the web, the system gives objects the
extra ability to be dynamic and interactive. In both print and web, the correct use of typography is highly
multimodal (Lupton, 2014; Norgaard, 2009; Van Leeuwen, 2006). While LMSs may not have the range
of fonts that are at the disposal of the designer, they can still manipulate the typefaces’ properties in ways
that communicate clear ideas and directions to the user. For instance, a blue underlined typeface would
indicate that it links to further information or an interactive command. A declaration of a header <H2>
tag with a bold, larger, or modified typeface may indicate a new section of text.
The computer has changed typography from a unique craft to one of a designer’s necessary skills
(Heller & Fernandez, 1999). While there are still people making a career of creating fonts (Heller &
Fernandez, 1999), the use in practice now falls under the purview of the creator of a digital or printed
artifact. Typographers always aim to maximize the two primary uses of text, readability and legibility
(Williams, 1996). These are the functional aspects of textual communication: readability applies to how
smoothly the body copy reads, and legibility applies to the clarity of the section titles. Lupton (2015) lists
the uses for screen-based type as body copy, heads, block quotes, lists, and captions; it would be prudent
to add hyperlinks to this list. Educators in a dynamic classroom typically must make design decisions for
these instances of typographical uses. “It is important to make each function distinct through the choice
of type styles but not so far as the digital classroom loses its cohesiveness” (Bader, 2015, para. 8). Van
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Using Visual Design to Improve the Online Learning Experience
Leeuwen (2006) infers that the majority of us, as producers of text, only see binary choices of typeface
manipulation: bold or regular. Limiting the selection of design properties makes creating an aesthetically
pleasing experience challenging, but when typographical elements are varied too much, unity within the
meaning of letterforms erodes (Bringhurst, 2002; Garfield, 2010; Lupton, 2014; Lupton, 2010; Williams,
1996). Too many changes to typographical properties within a document can make it more difficult for
the reader to associate typographical elements with one another; however, Macario (2009) suggests that
combining opposite typefaces with dissimilar form between headlines and body copy helps to enhance
hierarchy in the content. For example, Constantin (2013) showed that most online news sources selected
sans-serif fonts for headlines and fonts with serifs for body copy, but as Lupton (2014) says, “At the end
of the day, these judgments are more subjective than scientific” (p.20).
According to Williams (1996), extensive studies have shown that today in our society, typefaces with
serifs are easier to read, but many others have stated that the typeface does not matter (Carter, 2014;
Norgaard, 2009). But most critics agree that certain fonts or unusual arrangements of letters can be dif-
ficult to read. For example, bold fonts, very few words per line, too many words per line, script fonts,
grunge fonts, extra-small typefaces, inconsistently spaced words, and other arrangements can be difficult
for the eye (Lupton, 2010, Williams, 1996).
Some research has shown that certain fonts under certain circumstances have a higher reading ef-
ficiency. For instance, Bernard et al. (2002) looked at the reading speed of online fonts and found that
Arial and Times were read about 10% faster than Courier, Schoolbook, and Georgia; however, Georgia
received a 4 out of 6 in attractiveness while Arial received 3 out of 6 (Bernard et. al, 2002). Is the dif-
ference in reading speed great enough to warrant using a particular font, like Arial over Georgia? If a
white shirt gives the most significant amount of heat resistance on a hot day, why do people wear shirts
of various colors or patterns instead of plain white shirts? The likely answer to this rhetorical question
goes back to the form follows function theory, as the slight increase in heat is worth the aesthetic ap-
pearance of the chosen outfit or, most likely, people do not even consider the problem.
The limitations of fonts in the LMS interfaces also limit possible mistakes in type, but they also make
it harder to create aesthetically unique typography experiences. Figure 10 demonstrates one such expe-
rience, the creation of emotion or feeling through the form of the typeface (Bringhurst, 2002; Lupton,
2010). In this case, the typeface is used as semiotics. (Which version of “Warning” would scare you
Figure 10. Using a typographic image as semiotics to show emotion
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Using Visual Design to Improve the Online Learning Experience
the most?) It is possible to both create aesthetically unique typography experiences and create emotion
through the form of the typeface in a learning management system. Typefaces can be exported as images
and placed into the online learning system; however, this may destroy accessibility based upon available
technology, since some programs rely on inline tags (H1, H2, etc.), which determine hierarchy for the
visually impaired. Since display fonts would require conversion into an image, the image alt tag may be
functional enough to make the decision viable without hindering accessibility, as shown in this image
tag: <img src=”warning.png” alt=”Warning in a psychotic killer typeface”>.
Non-designers who design are going to ask what font works best. Unfortunately, there are not any
studies that show definitively what font works best for every situation. In a class exercise on leading and
kerning, students would adjust a font’s size, tracking, and leading to determine what settings were nec-
essary to make fonts more readable for print and more readable on the screen. Out of over two hundred
observations, no two students returned the same settings between sets, meaning that the nuancing of font
settings is subjective. But Bringhurst (2002) suggests creating a textual layout using many suggested
rules; here are the most relevant to content management system pages layouts:
1. Be aware of the typeface’s intended medium. Consider fonts that were designed to be read on screen
and that scale appropriately with various devices and window sizes. Simply choosing fonts that
have traditionally worked in printed texts may not be best.
2. Change one design property at a time. If the body text is set in 12pt Arial, it is not necessary to
change size, weight, and style to 24pt bold italic all at once. Choose and change only one of the
three.
3. Restrain the foreground from hogging line space. Within the body copy, use bold only for what
should be bolded, and no more; that is, do not make such things as commas and periods bold.
Consider other possible solutions like italics or small caps instead of bold. “Get my pencil, paper,
and crayonsis correct; “Get my pencil, paper, and crayonsis incorrect; “Get myᴇɴɪʟ, ᴇʀ,
andʀᴀʏɴs” is optimal.
4. Make the introductory page a dignified symbol of the typography. This may be the place to identify
the structure of your typographical systems. Also, the content fills a blank page that exists within
a LMS. Preserving some background space is a good thing. Nobody likes a space hog.
5. Do not permit the text to be overwhelmed by titles. The titles should point to the hierarchy to the
text, not be a point of emphasis in the design. Beware of the level of contrast that is applied. When
changing a property, it may be prudent to set one property in the inverse of the other. For instance,
TITLE (Bold, 100% grey) could be diluted to (Bold, 70% grey).
6. Set titles and headings using design properties that conform to and support the overall design.
Design properties should associate with the rest of the system. They should never be randomized
choices. If they are random and work, then make the design properties a part of the system by using
them elsewhere so that they belong.
7. Only use levels of headings that are absolutely necessary: no more, no less. This follows the less
is more and gestalt theories, making the organization of text concise and clear.
Color
The choice of color is not only one of the most subjective choices, but also one of the most destructive.
Landa (2014) states that the designer has two challenging responsibilities for any given design solu-
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Using Visual Design to Improve the Online Learning Experience
tion: selecting color and composing color. There is some truth to Landa’s logic. But after the designer
understands how color works visually, the larger choice typically boils down to preference, especially if
the work is with color as a visual representation, as opposed to symbolic or emotional meaning (Pentak
& Lauer, 2015). This statement does not mean that colors should be selected at random. There must be
knowledge of how the colors operate and interact.
Color can be broken down into three components: hue, saturation, and value. The hue is the placement
on the color wheel; the saturation is the purity of the color, and the value is the lightness or darkness that
is added to the color. Also, colors are wavelengths, so improper mixtures can create discordant experiences
(Albers, 2006). Color schemes that are discordant can create a lively, energetic, tense aesthetic (Pentak
& Lauer, 2015; Pentak & Roth, 2003) or vibrating boundaries, where two colors become three (Albers,
2006). While color can create lively experiences, improper use of color creates visual distractions that
can be disastrous (Tufte, 1990). Colors are typically used for three artistic purposes: visual, emotional, or
symbolic (Pentak & Roth, 2003). It is highly unlikely that the design of online courses will demand the
use of color with an emotional or symbolic approach, so this section is only dedicated to the visual use
of color. Color helps us separate visual cues (Malamed, 2009; Thompson, 1994; Tufte, 1990); however,
to separate visuals by color, the design principle of color contrast must be understood. According to It-
ten (2004/1961), there are seven types of contrast, each being unique in aesthetic and expressive effect:
1. Hue: The difference of pure colors
2. Light-Dark: The difference of the value of the colors
3. Cold-Warm: The difference of the temperature of the colors
4. Complementarity: The difference of colors opposite from each other on the color wheel
5. Simultaneity: A dull tone surrounded by an intense hue slightly changes the hue of the dull tone
6. Saturation: The dilution of the hue with white, black, or grey
7. Extension: The relative power of a certain hue to dilute contrast when the correct proportion is
used
Aside from contrast, colors can create unity in content through “systematic color relationships
capable of serving as a basis for composition” (Itten, 2003/1961, p. 72). These systems are known as
color schemes or color harmonies, all determined by relationships of colors on the color wheel. Cur-
rently, there are many applications on the web that help a designer determine a color palette using color
schemes; however, due to the complexity of choosing colors the authors suggest and give examples of
the following order of color schemes in online learning:
1. Monochromatic (1 hue): Green, dark green, and light green
2. Complimentary (2 hues): Purple, yellow
3. Analogous (many hues): Orange paired with any hue between red and yellow
4. Triadic (3 Hues): Red, yellow, and blue
5. Split-Complementary (3 Hues): Yellow, red-purple, and blue-purple (purple split into two hues)
or purple, yellow-orange, and yellow-green (yellow split into two hues)
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Using Visual Design to Improve the Online Learning Experience
SOLUTION: ONLINE COURSE DESIGN STUDIO
The authors have identified design process, theory, and fundamentals that can help improve the visual
design of online courses. The question remains, what is the best way for faculty and online course design-
ers to learn how to apply these principles? The authors posit that the answer lies in the design studio.
A design studio is not just a place where students learn how to do things; rather, it is a conceptual and
theoretical workshop for solving visual design problems. It pushes the boundaries of each participant’s
ideas of what is technically possible, and it offers multiple perspectives on the contextual interpreta-
tion of the design process and a reflection on the final product. The design studio will optimally lead
to a learning space that promotes an individual’s visual identity through aesthetic while simultaneously
providing instruction in technique. Using a rigorous visual design process like one shown in Figure 11
is a procedure that would be best developed in a design studio, which provides maximum feedback at
every stage of thought.
Development Process in Studio
While the authors have analyzed many processes that contribute to design and have found that the design
process itself is incredibly dynamic, they believe that there can be some rigor to the process. When repeti-
tive inflexion points of evaluation are used at each step, with practical ways of prototyping the result, the
Figure 11. The studio process of creating a visually appealing online course
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Using Visual Design to Improve the Online Learning Experience
final design will excel both functionally and visually. Borrowing from Pentak and Lauer (2015), which
outlines the most basic process of design, the authors have developed an example of ordered studio
activities for creating online learning environments, as shown in Figure 12.
It has been suggested that non-designers who attempt to design should follow four primary rules:
contrast, repetition, alignment, and proximity (Lohr, 2008; Williams, 2004). Kimball (2013) argues that
these are oversimplifications because there are many other elements to consider by saying:
Design principles can also guide the development of subsequent prototypes. Sometimes the results from
usability testing a prototype can give us only a hazy sense of direction; design principles allow us to
explore that direction efficiently, by developing another prototype—or three—and testing them quickly.
(p. 37)
A synthesis of the important terminologies relative to online learning is listed in Table 5; it is ap-
parent these terminologies extend well beyond CARP (which focuses primarily on design composition
using design principles). Within each solution, the following aspects should be part of the language that
justifies the decision of how to compose media through visual design.
Figure 12. Studio-based learning process for online course visual design
Table 5. Taxonomy of terms for visual design in online learning
Design Theories Design Objects Design Principles Design Properties
Less is more
Form follows function
Cultural reflexivity
Human rule
Re-design rule
Tangibility rule
Ambiguity rule
Remediation
Gestalt
Font/Paragraph
Image/Video
Vector/Animation
Contrast
Hierarchy
Unity
Structure
Rhythm
Form/Typeface
Color
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Using Visual Design to Improve the Online Learning Experience
A design studio serves as an integral part of the design process, enabling participants to understand
both what design is and how design can contribute to the process of research, collaboration, and enlight-
enment of alternative perspectives, especially through culture (Niederhelman, 2001). By facilitating the
application of the looking-thinking-doing-critiquing process of design, the studio becomes a suitable
space to build rigorous and appropriate solutions. To demonstrate the power of the design studio, Table
6 shows a cross reference of each inflexion point of the looking-thinking-doing-critique process with
the infusion of research, collaboration, and culture.
Conceptual Research (Looking)
Research in solving visual problems is radically different from traditional research but still boils down
to a process of analysis and synthesis (Nobel & Bestley, 2016). While a designer must be able to operate
under an ontological philosophy, considering infinite solutions in design problems using design objects,
the developer must simultaneously practice pragmatism, ultimately deciding what works (Karjaluoto,
2014). Creswell (2013) states that the pragmatist’s philosophy of methodology uses multiple forms
of research and ultimately chooses one that best suits their inquiry. One of the most effective ways to
plan a design is to integrate familiar design objects into conceptual ideas. As Noble and Bestley (2016)
point out, to make a design innovative is not to create something unique, yet it is to construct intimate
visual relationships and use them in fresh and exciting ways. In this case, innovation of visual systems
is another form of remediation.
Part of using pragmatism to solve wicked problems is the realization that the problems cannot be
permanently or universally solved. Any solution is at best provisional; however, this shows the need for
persistent visual research to improve design. The researcher must be aware that the well-constructed
beautiful visual designs can become undesirable over time. Even more frustrating is implementing what
would seem to be a well-thought-out solution when the actual results are not what was anticipated. Rittel
Table 6. the integration of the design studio properties and the design process at each inflexion point
as displayed in Figure 2
Process Research Collaboration Culture
Looking Discover what is possible and what is
aesthetically pleasing.
The information that one person
finds may be relevant to another
collaborator’s idea.
Varied perceptions that would be
impossible for one designer to see based
upon their background, e.g., hidden
cultural knowledge of information
design (You, Kim, & Lim, 2016)
Thinking
Plan how the user will use the design;
also, explore new stylistic possibilities
and possibly reinterpret the design.
Reflection on plans may cause
alternative thoughts that result
in combination, reworking,
innovation, and new ideas.
A clearer picture of the socio-cultural
“complexification” (Findeli, 2001, p.
11)
Doing
Learn how to complete technical tasks
or experiment with new ways to get
things done.
A collection of technical
knowledge makes the
affordance of possibilities larger
in scope within the system.
An alternative perspective on making
or shared making, “concurrent design”
(Julier, 2008, p. 33)
Critique Collect feedback from the users and
develop a new iteration of the product.
Sharing multiple instances of
results creates a larger picture
of feedback from users and
designers.
Well-rounded discourse on the
epistemological nature of human-made,
social, and symbolic world views
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Using Visual Design to Improve the Online Learning Experience
and Webber (1984) explain that sometimes in wicked problems the researcher cannot validate results
unless the solution is applied to the real-world scenario and that application is the only way to investigate
a solution’s usefulness. Real-world testing means that design research operates within the framework
of social constructivism which requires methodologies such as interviewing, observing, and analyzing
narratives (Creswell, 2013). A critical method for the application of the social constructivist framework
as research is the analysis of visual design in the studio prior to deployment.
Exploring Variations (Thinking)
Since the focus of the studio for research is the deconstruction and analysis of the designed artifacts
(Noble & Bestley, 2016), prototyping is used widely in the studio as a form of testing ideas or iterations
of design that are close to being finalized. New media systems and software allow the creation of mul-
tiple versions of the same object (Manovich, 2000). This process makes it possible to discover what may
work or not work or possibly be used in some other application. Schön (1984) creates a discourse on the
necessity of reflection in education and industrial practice, specifically mentioning the complementary
roles of reflection in action and reflection on action. Analyzing variations is important to the analysis
of wicked problems, as variations create a vicious circle in which the planner must continually reflect
on their process and those affected by it at all points throughout plan and implementation. Reflection in
action is an evaluative process in which the planner considers available information for in-the-moment
decisions; on the other hand, reflection on action is deliberate action, as the director formally scrutinizes
an implemented experience or process (Schön 1984, 1987).
Prototyping helps the designer make decisions that cannot be described within design parameters
through (a) decision making from instant feedback using educated choices from others aware of similar
problems and criteria, (b) focus on feedback of all senses through real experience of the design, and (c)
parallelism that links the many aspects of the design process in which even initial brainstorming could
be evoked and new ideas, unthought-of earlier in the process, are reconsidered (Cao, 2015; Van Allen,
2011). Prototyping can sit on a continuum of low to high fidelity, where the low fidelity versions focus
primarily on the user experience of the interface. In high fidelity prototyping, the iterations focus on the
aesthetics, semiotics, and content interactions. Conversely, in low fidelity prototyping, obvious mistakes
like a lack of contrast between a title and a background, or missing learning objectives within an assign-
ment as required by administration, can be gauged.
Technical Execution (Doing)
Part of the studio process of doing is the development of the ability to execute a task. People are not
born with an innate ability to code HTML, compose pages using design principles, or even manage files
properly. The ability or inability to construct a solution may move the designer back to the thinking or
looking inflexion points; however, a designer must work within their technical limitations or expand
their skills. Fortunately, the systematic approaches and experimentation in the studio environment fosters
such an expansion of production ability, thus, opening new visual design potential. Noble & Bestley
(2016) use the phrase form follows technology, summarizing that new technological capabilities enable
new aesthetic possibilities for the designer; however, it should be noted that design options can also be
limited. Designers are at the mercy of the possibilities or the limitations of the software that they use.
The range of options that a construct offers is its affordance (Gibson 1979). Most learning management
25
Using Visual Design to Improve the Online Learning Experience
systems, for instance, do not allow the visual flexibility of cascading style sheets (CSS) that is available
in HTML. The design properties or styles are limited in learning management systems making construc-
tion within a design studio an enlightening experience. Leaders and peers in the workshop can positively
affect technical skills through advice in the possibilities and affordance of their institution’s LMS.
It is important to note that affordance is not just limited to the technological aspects of the system:
the perception of the user must also be considered (Noble & Bestley, 2016; Norman, 1990). The concept
of affordance in online learning relates to the user’s interaction with hyperlinks. Figure 13 demonstrates
the way a user could traverse through an interactive timeline: the next button moves the user forward, the
back button to the previous page, the assignments button to a list within the system, and the hyperlinks
to entirely different web spaces that have relevant information.
A counterpart of affordance is accessibility, which allows affordance for those with disabilities;
however, according to Lidwell, Butler, and Holden (2010), the implementation of accessible designs
became beneficial for everyone. For institutions that require accessible content, the parameters can be
confusing. The studio would allow discourse on the development of content that is compliant to code or
law through an informal, open setting instead of a mandated evaluation.
Evaluating (Critique)
The process of criticism is integral to the design studio and the larger practice of design. Within the
design studio, it becomes possible to critique action to generate a more mature and efficient process of
action (Barnett, 1997). When a plan that is part of the looking and thinking process materializes into a
tangible product or multiple prototypes, it is constructed. The critique is the antithesis of the construc-
tion process; it is the deconstruction.
Feldman’s model of critique is a common framework for the critique process of art, and it comprises
four activities: description, analysis, interpretation, and judgment (Pentak & Lauer, 2015). While formu-
lated for art, these activities can be useful in an online learning studio. A description is an inventory of
what is there, listing the pages of a course and the elements on each page. An analysis is an observation
on what the designer has done to compose the course, for example, the navigation, the arrangement, the
media, the styles, and the coding. Interpretation is the use of an interpretive lens to determine the affor-
dance, effectiveness, and beauty of the course. Finally, judgment is the final reflection to how good or
bad the course is; it allows for suggestions to better the final solution based upon the synthesis of design
theories and fundamentals that the observer understands. Having knowledgeable peers in the critique
can strengthen everybody’s work, which makes the studio a mutually beneficial, collaborative space.
EXTERNAL CONTEXTS
When piecing together a usable and aesthetically relevant learning experience, the designer must con-
sider the audience or end users (Fogg, 2003). The authors offer no research to support this claim, but
Figure 13. Buttons that exhibit the concept of affordance
26
Using Visual Design to Improve the Online Learning Experience
this situation is analogous to marketing strategies: certain audiences have very different preferences that
require varying visual solutions. It is likely that interface and visual design preferences for science majors
are very different from those of art majors. Due to the dynamics of visual and usability preferences, it
is important to address design issues within end-user surveys. Research in the online digital culture is
complex. Svensson (2003) suggests some salient features that embody the shared space and so need to
be understood: cyberspace, online communication, virtual social communities, hypertext, interfaces,
digital art, and immersion. Getting a physical snapshot of the learners is a strategy for defining end-user
demographics that allows for the development of solutions that address personal needs (Don & Pettrick,
2003). Conversely, serving the needs of the majority is not the typical educational institution’s plan. Part
of the strategy of online learning is to serve students who may be atypical or those who might not have
the ability to attend a physical location.
Accessibility
Research from the 2008–2009 academic year shows there were approximately 707,000 disabled students
enrolled in postsecondary institutions (NCES, 2011). According to Edmonds (2004), higher education
institutions online courses sometimes neglect disabled students’ needs. Burgstahler (2004), suggests that
external programs for accessibility are not enough; individual courses should provide accessibility as
well. Content within courses that is not accessible to students with disabilities creates additional barriers
to participation (Burgstahler, 2004). There are many types of disabilities, but Crow (2008) divides them
all into four categories: visual, auditory, mobility, and cognitive. This chapter has already mentioned
the idea of affordance, and instructional design focuses on image tags and other features for those with
hearing and cognitive disabilities. To not deviate from the topic, this section will only focus on some
examples of visual disabilities and where shared knowledge in the design studio can positively affect
online content.
A designer, by nature, never creates solutions for a single group; they attempt instead to reach the
greatest possible number of people. Visual design for accessibility is not a frequent topic in higher edu-
cation graphic design curricula. Fortunately, there are many conceptual suggestions with functionally
sound visual approaches to be found on the web. Many people have common misconceptions about the
effects of impairment. For instance, most consider those who are visually impaired to be blind; how-
ever, there are other types of visual impairments, like color blindness and low vision (WebAIM, 2013).
Babich (2017) suggests that color blindness comes in various types anomalous conditions; therefore,
materials designed for use by color blind individuals must create contrast through means other than
different hues. Using color as the sole design property to distinguish data in charts and graphs is thus
a poor design choice. The addition of texture or pattern along with color makes the data separable by
those who are color blind. Changing too many design properties may seem at odds with the principle
of design redundancy, but under the circumstances, in this case, altering more than one design property
is a justified design choice.
According to Marks (2016), there is a push from Apple, Google, and Twitter to lower the contrast
ratio between the background and the foreground of text. Extreme contrast within design properties is
usually not aesthetically pleasing, creating as it does the appearance that the creator used default prop-
erties instead of putting thought into the design. Conversely, choosing low contrast levels, which may
be useful to those without visual impairments, can make it impossible for those with a moderate vision
27
Using Visual Design to Improve the Online Learning Experience
impairment. Marks (2016) and Babich (2017) cite a W3C guideline that gives a contrast ratio of 4.5:1
as minimum, 7:1 for those with disabilities. Therefore, a design decision should be made to never use a
contrast ratio below 7:1 so that a greater number of people can access the textual information.
FUTURE TRENDS
Predicting the status of online learning and the future is difficult at best, but design trends are typically
defined by innovation and needs. Svensson (2003) envisioned online education as teachers producing
information and the students receiving it, but fifteen years after this statement, the authors would argue
that online education is more complex. Teachers are the composers of information that embodies a vir-
tual social environment for the students. As with any technological system, it is important to push the
boundaries with new ideas, but constraints are also needed to ensure efficiency. Experimentation and
constraint provide an optimal solution for the studio: new ideas are explored, prototyped in the studio,
and then evaluated with summative surveys.
Figure 14. An illustration of the contrast ratio using achromatic text
28
Using Visual Design to Improve the Online Learning Experience
Sometimes the most inconspicuous things will become larger concerns to the learners. One institu-
tion placed its instructional videos on YouTube to save server space, but YouTube’s algorithms had
compressed the videos to where the students had a hard time seeing the finer detail in the videos. The
institution remedied the situation by placing high-resolution videos onto Google Drive, where the stu-
dents could download them. This solution was not necessary in all courses: some wicked problems are
individualized to specialized course content. Therefore, future trends will uncover themselves in the studio
though discussion, updating of technology, and regular prototyping with the actual users, the students.
CONCLUSION
Few institutions are hiring trained graphic designers to help build online course interfaces for individu-
alized LMSs. Trained graphic designers typically have a BFA degree, spending at least four years in
formal training, yet the duties of designing courses fall on individuals with little to no training in the
graphic arts. Without aesthetic forms, LMS designs become impersonal, insipid, and uninspiring. The
LMS interface is also in danger of becoming confusing, misleading, and unorganized.
Kimball (2013) identifies a proficient designer as a person with the ability to justify decisions through
rationalization of applied design principles and so to turn a dull space into a well-designed space. Figure
14 shows two prototypes of visual design in Canvas. The left image uses design principles: hierarchy
in type with minor adjustments to typefaces, an emphasis on learning objectives by isolation, and unity
of textual signifiers by repetition. The right image ignores design principles and places content into the
page with perceived arbitrary decisions in design properties, thus creating a sense of disorganization.
Figure 15. A comparison of two canvas pages with the use (left) and avoidance (right) of design principles
29
Using Visual Design to Improve the Online Learning Experience
There is a need for designers to make ambiguous choices as they use design objects and apply design
properties; that is, they must have technical skills that apply specifically to LMSs. The authors believe
that the design studio provides the optimal setting for instructors and instructional designers to meet that
need and to conduct the further research that can describe the effect of applied theories and principles.
The most common strategies for improving visual design are case studies that describe experiences,
art-based research to rationalize critical analysis, and grounded theory to develop principles. Any of
these strategies can be implemented in an open studio with developers or in the field among end users.
Furthermore, to describe effects of practice, both practical action research within the studio setting and
design-based research are viable methods for raising the standards of aesthetics in online learning.
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KEY TERMS AND DEFINITIONS
Bauhaus: A German school of art (1919–1933) that instituted workshops to create utilitarian objects
that were both functional and beautiful. The school laid the curricular foundation for the majority of the
commercial arts today.
Contrast: The difference between two extremes of a design property.
Cultural Reflexivity: Using design to exhibit the self through aesthetics; this includes ideology,
culture, and gender identity.
Design Object: The media used for content.
Design Principle: The effect based upon the interaction of chosen design objects and the chosen
design properties.
Design Property: The visual appearances of the design object that can be adjusted: size, color, thick-
ness, shape, texture, opacity, and value.
Gestalt: The sum of the parts that equal a visual whole or an image that is not physically drawn but
is optically created through the interaction of the parts.
Remediation: The replacement of an old technology with a new medium that serves the same purpose.
Similarity: The closeness of two extremes of a design property.
Typography: The art of making letters readable, legible, and aesthetically pleasing.
Wicked Problem: A problem that is extraordinarily complex, where a solution for one problem will
not apply successfully to the problem as a whole. They are usually judged on their success based upon
how good or bad the solution is.
ENDNOTE
1 Parrish (2009) is perhaps the one notable exception, though Parrish does not focus solely on online
course design. Also see Parrish, Wilson, & Dunlap (2010).
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
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