From seeing to feeling: aesthetics in digital learning design

In her final piece for Brightwave Group before heading off to complete an MA in 3D computer animation, our top blogger Lauren Keith looks at the current aesthetics of learning design, and how the look and feel of digital learning solutions can drastically effect learning outcomes.

Tell me if you’ve heard this one before, but apparently a picture can tell a thousand words – something product designers, marketers and advertisers have been capitalising on since the dawn of consumerism: Visuals, whether the fashion pages of a glossy magazine, the design of a statement piece of furniture, an avant-garde perfume ad on TV or simply a brand logo, can shape a huge range of affective responses to this commodity or that brand, ourselves and even the world…

So how does this relate to digital learning design, where there’s often minimal scope for visual ingenuity?

Consider the effects of visuals in learning content: On a practical level, they convey tangible and literal ideas – how to lift a box correctly, what the correct position for CPR is, how a computer system looks and so on. But when it comes to aesthetics – the way we interpret the visual stimuli as a whole, create a perception about them and form an emotional response, what’s going on is potentially much more complex.

The composition, colours, juxtaposition of images and overall look and feel of a digital course can tell learners a lot about the brand, subject or learning app itself.

Designer and theorist Donald Norman, Head of University of California-San Diego’s Design Lab, helps us break this down: he coined three levels to aesthetics in usability design, starting with visceral level.

This is how a beholder interprets visuals on a constitutional level, so in the same way some sounds, tastes, temperatures and smells are preferable over others, some designs are naturally easy on the eye, making us find them more comfortable and pleasing. This affects the way we see that product or design – aesthetically pleasing designs are also viewed as more usable, for instance.

This leads us onto the behavioural level of design, or how the product ‘feels’ when we play or interact with it. It might be how we perceive it to be (does it look welcoming and like it might be easy to use?) or how it really is (is the navigation clear and intuitive?).

The final level is the reflective level. This is our learnt impressions, based on experience. For instance, a particular style of art or drawing may have connotations of a culture, era or discipline. A font may be reminiscent of a specific brand or type of media. A colour may connote ideas about places, time of year or political or social stance. Visual elements can carry whole new layers of meaning by association – something we notice consciously or unconsciously.

Let’s apply that to a couple of digital solution designs that we’ve been working on here at Brightwave…

1. Diageo – Bar Academy

This course was a highly interactive piece for Diageo customers (bar and pub managers, or ‘mixologists’ as they’re often called!) who serve their brands. The aim was showing how to make the perfect ‘serve’ and demonstrate the benefits of Diageo drinks.

As a highly interactive piece that forms part of a larger suite of training, one of the most important things for this course was ease of use. It had to be highly usable and welcoming so the learner wouldn’t need to waste time getting to grips with the navigation and functionality. This is where the behavioural’ design was perfect: having bold images and text, regular and repetitive shapes, and lots of clean cut visuals against an unobtrusive background means it requires minimal effort for the learner to interpret and figure out what to do. Their eye is naturally drawn to the right places – the clickable items, navigation buttons and so forth, without distraction or confusion.

The visual design complimented this: crisp imagery and regular and symmetrical layout makes it easier on the eye and research shows that designs perceived as more attractive help users finish tasks quicker. A bonus.

But as well as being informative and easy to use, this course had to ‘sell’ the brand to their customers. On a reflective level, they’ve achieved this by using high-end glossy photographs placed within a deep toned background of royal purple and black, with connotations of wealth and premium quality. This works to reinforce Diageo as a highly established, trusted, premium brand.

2. University of Greenwich

This course was produced by the University of Greenwich for distribution in schools and colleges. The aim was to get more young people thinking more thoroughly about their future careers and education.

The first thing these learners come to is the rich and colourful menu. On the visceral and reflective levels, this instantly sets the tone of the course: the bold, colourful palette conveys an energized and bright look and feel. Joined with the playful illustrations and animated elements (an aeroplane flying past for instance), this establishes a light-hearted, happy feel, making the subject feel less daunting. Research shows a positive vibe makes us better at creative problem solving – something this course is trying to imprint on the young minds of those looking to shape their future.

But cleverly, when the learner opens up the content screens, in which they’re required to answer questions or be reflective, the visuals becomes very crisp, using flat design and minimal images. For a behavioural design perspective, this simplifies the visual processing and reduces the cognitive load required to ‘see’ the screen, and so aids the learner in completing the learning tasks, as with the Diageo course.

When designing any type of content there’s always going to be a lot to contend with in design, but when it comes to digital learning, where each visual has so many different purposes – from informing, to marketing, to aiding usability or creating emotion, it’s arguably even more complicated.

For good Art Directors and Graphic Designers, some of this will come naturally. They will know what’s likely to look and feel attractive on a visceral level – what’s balanced, coherent and easy on the eye, as opposed to chaotic and uncomfortable. But when it comes to the behavioural and reflective design, this takes expertise and intuition, awareness of user experience, human behaviour and outside influences – so all hail our Graphic Designers, unsung heroes of instructional design!

Click here for more on our Diageo Bar Academy course.
Click here for more on our University of Greenwich solution.

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