Is Art & Design Needed in Digital Learning?

We’ve all been there – you’ve created an amazing piece of digital learning that’s going to nail the learning objectives. But it looks a little… plain. So what do you do? Do you reach for the clip-art? Do you trawl the stock-libraries? Or do you enlist the talents of an artist for something a little more bespoke?

Before we can answer these questions, we probably need to understand what the point is of having art and design in your digital learning. Is there something more to it than choosing a colour scheme, a typeface and interspersing the text with some off-the-shelf illustrations of heads with cogs in?

The quick answer is YES! Not only will an appropriate and consistent art and design approach make the experience more enjoyable for the learner, but it can actually help them to recall the information once the course is complete – and as we all know, this is the common objective shared by all learning content.

Before we discuss how good art and design makes content memorable, let’s look at a lesson from the past.

“Good design will enhance clarity”.

From the renaissance onwards, there have been a set of rules when it comes to laying out text. There is a widely-understood visual hierarchy that are used to help guide the reader – we all know the difference between the heading and the lowly footnote. So it makes sense that if there a set of rules for text, there is a similar set of rules and principles for page layout and design too. And there is! In the same way that a heading focusses your attention and leads your eye to the body text, good page layout utilises things such as negative space to further focus your attention. We’re all used to reading from left to right, and as a result, our eyes naturally rest on the right hand side of the page. This is the reason why newspapers charge more for adverts on the right-hand pages than the left. Similarly, if there’s something really important that you want to direct your learner’s attention to, it’s better to position it on the right of the screen.

Looking at lessons from the past is useful, but it’s also important that we keep an eye on current design trends too. Even spending a small amount of time on social sites such as Twitter and Instagram will give you design pointers such as having limited text on screen, punchy headings and using beautiful imagery.

So good design will enhance your content and learner experience without distracting from it. But what of the art? Is it just the icing on the learning cake? A throwaway garnish on the quiche of knowledge?
It should definitely not be a garnish – more a holistic artistic approach woven throughout the learning you are delivering. It should also be sympathetic to the subject matter and your audience. This approach should then be echoed through all aspects of the course, from animations and filmed content to printed materials and downloadable PDFs.

A strong and integrated visual aesthetic affects the observer in a subtle way. The old saying suggests that ‘we should never judge a book by its cover’, but if this were to be taken literally then every book ever written could just be sold with a plain white cover with the title and author conservatively written in the centre. The truth is that the cover gives us a vital glimpse as to what the book is about, and whether we might like to read it. It gives the content a tone of voice and sets the scene before we start to read anything. In many ways, art in learning should serve the learner as a good credit sequence would serve a film – preparing for the content to follow.

And when it’s done right, the results are amazing. If we were to make you sit and take part in a piece of learning about fish and plastic bags, you’d probably be either looking for the exit button or a short-cut to the quiz. But how many of us willingly gave up our evenings watching Blue Planet 2? And not only was it entertaining, but it was hugely educational too. As a piece of learning, you can definitely give it a big tick next to ‘was the learning effective?’ In fact, it was so effective that it’s started to massively change how we think about plastic.

People are better at memorising things when there is an emotional connection. This could be when they are doing pleasurable things like watching beautiful films of whales and albatrosses while listening to Sir David Attenborough’s voice, or, it could be when they are looking at a piece of art. Art is amazing at capturing and conveying emotion. It’s the reason why we so often pop an emoji in a text message.

So the use of art helps create emotion in learning. But how does this actually help us to remember things? Well, neuroscientists agree that something that’s more inviting is much better received by the recipient – they enjoy it more and they remember it better. This is because the brain releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter which stimulates the memory centres and promotes the release of acetylcholine, which increases focused attention. All that attention on production values pays off in cognitive effects. Art really does help learning transcend to another level.

And who ever said that art should stop at a single, stationary image? When the course content is punctuated with carefully styled animated or filmed video that reinforce the learning, something wonderful happens.

When someone watches a video, up to 70 percent of the cerebral cortex could be involved at any one moment – although only if the conditions are right. You’d expect the brain regions responsible for processing sights and sounds to be busy, and they are. But so are completely different parts of the brain, including those involved in forming memories and attaching emotional content to them.

In summary, to say that having effective art and design within your digital learning course is important is an understatement. It’s the glue that binds it all together, engages with your learner and helps to form that all important emotional connection. What’s more, in this age of knowledge on demand and instant gratification, the art and design of the course can be what makes or breaks it. We all judge books by their covers. The art and design that you use within your course will be what your learners use to make that critical decision: do I want to work through this in detail, or give it a cursory glance before turning my attention to something more captivating?

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