Instructional designers are responsible for creating situations where learners spend a considerable amount of time in the pursuit of the learning for which it was created. The quality of the experience of the learner has an impact on their interest in the subject matter, their motivation to continue with the materials, and their level of engagement with the content (Järvelä & Renninger, 2014). An aesthetic experience is known to be of the type to maintain the deep engagement of an observer to a work of art (Dewey, 1934) and is recognized as being autotelic, in that the experience itself becomes its own reward (Csikszentmihalyi & Robinson, 1990). If such aesthetic qualities could result from a learning experience, then increased focus on cultivating an aesthetic experience in instructional design may provide a foundation for increased learner engagement, which could improve learning outcomes. If the value of instructional design is ultimately to improve learning outcomes, and if aesthetic qualities can enhance learning experiences, then instructional designers might do well to be attentive to the aesthetic qualities of their designs.
This qualitative study endeavors to gain insight from the experience of a specific instructional designer that has specialized training in graphic design. By its very nature, graphic design is a practice that is intent on inducing aesthetic experiences. Insight into how such an instructional designer approaches the work may prove insightful for other instructional designers for ways to work so that the culminating product can produce an experience that may be characterized as aesthetic.
In this hermeneutic study guided by the philosophy of Gadamer (1998), I endeavored to be thorough with my dialog with the participant and the text as I reflected on my own prejudices in an attempt to be clear to the reader where there is and is not agreement. As I came to understand the participant, and they understand me, I hope that the reader may come to an understanding as well that may be illuminating for their future practice.
This research study used as its framework the five-stage methodology set forth by Fleming, Gaidys, & Robb (2003): “deciding upon a research question;” “identification of preunderstandings;” “gaining understanding through dialog with the participant;” “gaining understanding through dialog with text;” “establishing trustworthiness” (pp. 116-119). In the sections that follow, I will elaborate on how I attempted to fulfill each of these five stages.
This study sought to answer the question of the instructional designer trained in graphic design, “what aesthetic qualities of the learner experience do you consider in your work as an instructional designer?” As the interviews progressed, the theme evolved into a holistic view of the instructional design process, that includes aesthetics but encompasses the entire user experience and engagement with the materials and environment of instruction, as well as this instructional designer’s interactions with other non-graphically trained instructional designers.
As a trained graphic-designer-turned-instructional-designer, I place a value on aesthetics by virtue of career-formed practices. The above question that guided this study is the product of a tacit opinion that I have on the inherent value of the relation of aesthetics to the quality of an experience, whether or not instruction is involved. As a learner I am critical of training that is poorly composed and not aesthetically appealing, and as an instructional designer I place a great deal of attention on the “look and feel” of the final product. My purpose in seeking another designer in a similar situation as myself is to look for commonalities and differences in our outlooks and values to see how much of what I assume about learning experiences may be a result of my own prejudices, and how much are views that may be commonly held by others, and could be taught to others.
As I met with the participant via two separate video conference sessions to discuss the research question, additional unanticipated discussions took place relative to the question at hand. Some of the questions included:
- Can you tell me a little bit about your transition from being a graphic designer to pursuing the career of an instructional designer?
- Were you pursuing an education as a teacher?
- Do you think that [your ability to produce visually appealing materials] helped you in the process of getting your job [as an instructional designer]?
- What kinds of things did you can you remember doing with your graphic design that specifically you think made [your instructional design work] better?
- What is your perception of [the work of] instructional designers, as coming from someone with a visual design background?
- How receptive do you find [other non-graphic design trained instructional designers] are [in attempts to improve the visual quality of their work]?
- Can you can you think of an experience that you had with someone who expressed that that that they didn’t care [about aesthetics in instructional design]?
- How would you describe what aesthetics is?
- [When you receive user feedback] what are their general responses? Is it about the content? Is it about the experience? About the interface? What do they tend to focus on more, would you say?
These and other related topics were discussed in the two interviews.
The video conference sessions were recorded and transcribed through a digital transcription service. I then reviewed the transcripts to add punctuation and paragraph breaks, correct errors, and added codes as I perceived the development of themes (discussed in the Findings section).
In establishing trustworthiness, I followed techniques established by Lincoln and Guba (1985) for naturalist inquiry. These techniques have been modified due to the singular nature of my participant; therefore, no triangulation was performed. But the modified techniques include:
- “Activities increasing the probability that credible findings will be produced” (p. 301). The activity I was able to perform for this study were prolonged engagement, which was accomplished through two interviews on different days with the subject. These interviews were performed with semi-structured questions which allowed for the dialog to flow naturally. As my preunderstandings are well established as the motivation for this study, I was open about my history and biases with the participant only after the subject was breached by the participant.
- “Peer debriefing” (p. 308). I used opportunities to discuss the subject of my study with members of the Qualitative Research class this study is being conducted for, as well as discussions with and feedback from the instructor on my strategies. While this is not as thorough and deliberate as Lincoln and Guba recommend for peer debriefing, it was effective in at least clarifying my approach strategies for pursuing these interviews.
- “Negative case analysis” (p. 309). One of the goals of conducting this study was to accomplish this purpose. My bias towards aesthetics in instructional design, I fear, may be the source of a blind spot in my priorities. In my questioning I drilled down into instances where the participant felt or perceived apathy from others regarding the visual aspects of instructional activities.
- “Referential adequacy” (p. 313). This is accomplished by including in an appendix to this paper, the transcript for the two interviews I performed, along with some journal notes that I took in between sessions. As Lincoln and Guba wrote, those “not associated with the inquiry can use such materials to satisfy themselves that the findings and interpretations are meaningful by testing them directly” (p. 313).
- “Member checks” (p. 314). The intention was so have the participant review the transcripts as well as the themes derived from our interviews, but as revealed in the interview transcripts, the workload of my participant has increased dramatically lately with the current worldwide pandemic in such a way as to limit his availability for such reviews. The member checks I was able to perform were limited to asking him clarifying questions to allow him an opportunity to correct me if my interpretations of what he was saying in the moment were innacurate.
Furthermore, in my findings I attempted to be open with my prejudices and how I interpreted this dialog from my horizon. I endeavored to illustrate where my prejudices were challenged or modified by the information I received from the participant.
The participant is an employee of the Missionary Training Center for The Church of Jesus-Christ of Latter-day Saints. He is pursuing a graduate degree in Instructional Psychology and Technology from BYU. He has a prior career as a graphic designer but views his primary career currently as an instructional designer. He was chosen specifically for this study because of this background as it closely parallels my own personal history. This is an attempt to see if there is common ground on our perspectives and priorities when it comes to the aesthetic qualities of the instructional design work we do and experience. I was also interested to see what other insights could be gained through this dialog.
Through the two semi-structured interviews performed with the participant, herein referred to as SR, a number of themes emerged that provide insight into the view of instructional design through the lens of a graphic designer. Additional theoretical concepts were suggested by SR that I had either not known previously or had not thought of in this framework before. A summary of the themes and findings follow.
As the procedure for coding the transcripts of the interviews evolved, the codes that were emerging began to show up as themes that were either repeated a number of times in various ways or stood out as significant insights in single instances. The themes were divided into three main categories: aesthetics, usability, and design practice. Each theme also has sub-themes that illuminate each theme in different ways. The quotations have been edited for clarity, but an attempt has been made to capture the substance of what was said.
The main purpose of this study is to explore the value placed on aesthetics by instructional designers, so it should be no surprise that it is also one of the primary themes that arose from these interviews. In the first interview, however, I avoided introducing the concept of aesthetics to the participant for the first 21 minutes of the interview in an effort to see if it would naturally arise. The first section of the interview that I coded as “aesthetics” was a comment made by SR in reference to one of the first instructional design projects he worked on where he commented “my graphic design really was helpful in making that product better.” That comment was made, unprompted by me, within the first seven minutes.
Quality Perception. One of the most prominent sub-themes that emerged regarding aesthetics is the concept that there is a real perception of quality when the aesthetic characteristics of a project are attended to. This is reflected in some of the feedback he gets from his co-workers where they say, “your stuff always looks really nice!” and “we would love that to be a part of what we’re doing!” In his experience with learners, he feels that “people seem to be drawn to things that are [visually] designed better.”
Aesthetics in Writing. Aesthetics is not limited to the visual aspects of a design. SR identified the need for aesthetic attention to be applied to writing for instruction. He described the need to avoid a “sea of snippets of text or bland content that’s produced by someone who is just getting content out there, so I think it’s important.” He also personally noted that he is drawn to writing that is “aesthetically thoughtful and [he] can engage with them a little bit easier” and that he retains the information better than a bland document.
User Experience. One of the most important benefits of aesthetics emerged as what it can bring to an overall user experience. SR’s design background brought him to “think about experiences” as he approaches instructional design. That it’s important for teachers to be “really passionate about improving the experience of their learners.”
Another interesting concept related to the experience of the learner is how they relate to the environment that the learning is taking place in. He noted that when they use an LMS system that is common to high schools and universities, “turned off” the MTC students who would have a negative reaction due to the association.
Spatial Memory. An illuminating concept that came from SR is that of “spatial memory,” which is a concept I had not considered as an important aesthetic concept. To explain, SR said:
We find ourselves in space and time, and we grow up in a very space-oriented world. A child learns only to read… when [they are] three to five years old. They enter the two-dimensional space pretty late. Late in their life, compared to all the experience that [come] beforehand and, yeah, you read a book to a kid. But how many hours a day does… an infant experience space versus, you know, three-dimensional space? And I… feel like aesthetics as an attempt to reintroduce or to bring that space to a person that’s not just two dimensional
SR described spatial memory as a learning method that instructional designers can use as they use the visual layout, images, fonts, columns, and all other visual aspects of the media that is conveying the content to create “anchor points” that can “spark a memory” later on. He concluded by saying “our instructional materials can really be limited in accessing that aspect of our memory if we don’t create good aesthetics.”
Emotion. Emotion can also create an “anchor in your memory” with “good aesthetics.” As SR described the procedures for creating “journey maps” for their learners, he described “touch points” where the learner is engaged at various parts of their journey. The key point that they emphasize is what they want the learner to feel at those moments. Once they identify the emotion, then they work to reverse engineer the elements that could be developed to produce such reactions.
Communication. SR placed great value on the communicative aspects of instruction. “I would say how you communicate something visually matters.”
Aesthetics as Substitute for Human Instruction. In our second interview, this became a key topic of discussion. SR functions in a learning environment that primarily makes use of in-person instructors working directly with groups of learners. When learning is evaluated, the in-person instruction is always preferred. “There are, kind of, two different paradigms that we are going to have to figure out how to bring together,” SR said, those paradigms being the quality of personal instruction and the quality of virtual or asynchronous instruction. Aesthetics can be a bridge that can close that gap to some degree.
When it comes to experience design, in which aesthetics plays an important role, an important aspect or result is determined by the perceived usability of the interaction. This theme was apparent, not only in learner reactions, but in also the reactions of co-workers who interacted with project management materials he created that were enhanced with colors or other elements that made them seem “more usable.”
User Feedback. Perhaps the most important part of knowing how to create positive experiences for users is to gain their feedback early and often. “You can really be attuned to what the learner needs, then that can help you shift your approach.” When reflecting on his dealings with a co-worker with a “massive tolerance for significant amounts of information” who neglects parsing down the content into smaller snippets for his learners, SR suggested that “maybe getting real feedback from the learner” could help him “know how the learner feels.”
Accessibility. Part of being able to learn from instructional materials is simply being able to access them, and not only from a disability perspective. Design is “not only making something look good, but it’s making it accessible too, you know, and understandable… to make the flow clear” with a hierarchy that makes it “very clear what’s most important, what’s least important.” Making things structured and laid out well can aid the learner in accessing the information to be learned.
Advantage. Having a background in graphic design presented an advantage in a variety of ways for SR who observed that in transitioning to the role of an instructional designer, he felt that he “had a leg up on a lot of [his] fellow designers.” In addition to producing materials himself that were of a higher quality, he was able to give “feedback to the designers on how something could be better.” He even felt that it aided in getting the job that he has now when he could show samples of the work he had produced, even as far as jobs, as he said that he felt he “wasn’t as qualified for as [he] would have liked to have been, but [he thought] that having a really well.. laid out instructional pieces helped people to have confidence in [his] ability to do instructional design as well.”
Support for Other Instructional Designers. SR enjoys opportunities to help others “learn some of the basic principles” of instructional design. “if the instructional designer is having a really significant challenge with their visuals, I like to just help them out and teach them some of the basics.” He went on to say, “for me it’s kind of a fun challenge…I’ll send out a how-to video…if I see some consistent issue with fellow designers.”
SR views his position as someone with the additional skills of a graphic designer as a mandate to share his skills with others. “I view it as like a kind of a responsibility of mine to help them learn what they can.” Occasionally, he encounters others who lack the confidence in their ability to produce work that is visually appealing. When that happens, he usually tries “to help them practice and succeed so that they can develop just some of those skills.” He acknowledged, though, that “some feel hopeless and then it’s like, ‘okay, well let’s find a way for you to succeed a little bit in this.’”
Empathy. Ultimately, a theme that spans most of these other themes is the concept of empathy for the learner. The desire to make the effort to learn “how the learner feels” as they engage with the materials that are produced. It’s a practice of perceiving what the reactions of the learners will be, or simply helping the learner succeed.
Instructional design, as a design practice, is a constant attempt to create experiences for others. As SR related early in our conversation, graphic design and instructional design are “almost one and the same… good instructional design principles… have to be supported by good graphic design principles too, to really be successful. As revealed in our interviews, though, design is a holistic practice that encompasses everything the user experiences. It relates to the designer’s attitude toward the learner. It is a call for passion about “improving the experience of…learners.
I approached this study as a graphic-designer-turned-instructional-designer with a key interest in creating aesthetic experiences for my learners. I believed that through a conversation with another graphic designer who has made a similar transition, I could find some common ground. Through this interview, I believe I have done so. But in the process, I have also learned a great deal that can aid in codifying some best practices for myself in my own instructional design practices, but also can guide future research that I may participate in. In particular, the concepts of spatial memory and a journey map are two concepts that I had not considered, but now I see the great value that can be gained by including them in learning development efforts.
Visual elements are not simply “window dressing,” decorations to be applied after all of the “real” learning development is completed. From my own personal experience, that is one of the criticisms I have about the ADDIE model’s implicitly linear process of analysis, design, development, implementation, and evaluation. A casual understanding of the model can assume that the practice of design only takes place during step two, when in actuality, it is an encompassing activity that is actively engaged in throughout the process. Instructional design shouldn’t be a process of cranking out instructional products like a machine, but instead it is an interactive engagement with the learners in the creation of environments and experiences for them to have as they evaluate and pursue learning that can produce the desired outcomes they seek for in their lives.
Principles of aesthetics can aid in the instructional design process as they ease the burden of the learning exercise, create visual landmarks that learners can reflect on as they learn and remember, and convey the overall message of the learning that the potential learner can evaluate to determine if they want to proceed.
It is my belief that those who pursue careers in the practice of instructional design have a responsibility to their learners to also obtain proficiency in the practices of graphic design and the principles of aesthetics. If they do so, I believe that they will be much more effective in the learning materials and experiences that they create.
This pilot study was conducted as a first look into the perspective of a fellow graphic-designer-turned-instructional-designer. I successfully dialogued with the participant, and then with the transcript to develop a variety of themes and sub-themes that can act as a starting point for future research and study. I was able to find agreement with my subject that the perspective I have on the value of aesthetic experiences in the learning process.
Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Robinson, R. E. (1990). The art of seeing: An interpretation of the aesthetic encounter. Getty Publications.
Dewey, J. (1934). Art as experience. Minton, Balch.
Fleming, V., Gaidys, U., & Robb, Y. I(2003). Hermeneutic research in nursing: Developing a Gadamerian-based research method. Nursing inquiry, 10(2), 113-120.
Gadamer, H-G. (1998). The relevance of the beautiful and other essays (R. Bernasconi, Ed.; N. Walker, Trans.). Cambridge University Press.
Lincoln, Y. S., & Guba, E. G. (1985). Establishing trustworthiness. Naturalistic inquiry (pp. 289-331). Sage Publications.
Järvelä, S. & Renninger, K. A. (2014). 2nd ed. Designing for learning: interest, motivation, and engagement. In R. K. Sawyer, Ed., Cambridge Handbook Of The Learning Sciences (2nd ed., pp. 668-685). Cambridge University Press.