Aesthetics in Instructional Design
I’ve always been a creative person. In high school as the graphics editor of the yearbook I first learned some of the creative principles behind organizing content in a pleasing and clear format, and it was there that I learned that I could create art in a career that might actually be profitable. Later, as I earned my degrees—first an associate’s degree in graphic design, and then a bachelor’s of fine arts in animation—I grew to love the art of communicating ideas visually and have found that many concepts are more effectively communicated through images and animations than in words.
As a graphic designer, the term instructional design feels very familiar and relatable to much that I’ve done in the past. Any design practice, whether it be graphic, architectural, industrial, or instructional can serve a creative function. They involve a problem to be solved and a process for creating something functional for an end user in some way. As someone who comes from a creative background, my interests are heavily geared towards the look and appeal of the final product.
As I progressed in my career as a graphic designer, I had many opportunities to translate mundane, confusing messages into easy to digest and aesthetically pleasing designs. For example, I had many opportunities to work with executive officers and sales engineers at a telecommunications company who were preparing important presentations and needed help developing their PowerPoint slides. They would pitch their presentations to me and draw on the whiteboard as they communicated to me the concepts they needed to convey. I, as a lay person, would view these pitches through the eyes of the uninitiated audience. Once I was able to understand what they were teaching, I could filter their message into a form that could be easily digested by a general audience. Many successful presentations were developed this way.
Through these exercises I could simplify and focus the materials I was generating for them while making them aesthetically pleasing. Although I didn’t know it at the time, I was functioning in a form of the role of instructional designer by assignment as Merrill (2006, p. 336) has discussed. A designer by assignment is someone who has no formal training in instructional design but is tasked with the job of creating some kind of courseware because they are the designated expert on a given subject. I had taken on the role of instructional designer because my role as a graphic designer on these projects thrust me into that position. On these projects I was able to filter this complex information into understandable educational materials although I had no formal training in instructional design. My satisfaction grew by being the conduit between the subject matter expert and the student. This satisfaction has ignited my desire to explore how people learn so that I may expand my abilities and make a significant contribution to the field of instructional design.
Järvelä and Renninger (2014) argued that it is the role of the instructional designer to generate interest in learners, both those who are new to a subject as well as those who are experienced. This interest will lead to a motivation to learn and to create environments that can be engaging to the learners. This is a key function of an instructional designer that can be greatly aided by the skilled application of visual design principles. We need to engage the senses of the learner and create an emotional response to the subject matter. Such a response will not only entice the learner to see the immediate course through to completion but can inspire them to ask their own curiosity questions and continue to explore the subject independently.
Hokanson, Miller, and Hooper (2008) refer to the role I’m outlining as an instructional craftsperson. An instructional craftsperson is someone who has honed their knowledge and skills through experience and who are concerned with the technical and aesthetic aspects of a project. For there to be a benefit from having such an individual on an instructional design project, they “must have a voice throughout the design and exhibit real value in execution” (p. 40). Aesthetic improvements can’t simply be added by a graphic artist brought in at the end of the project to add beauty to it, nor should the person responsible for them be limited solely to improving the look and feel. They should be involved through all stages of development so they may influence the entire experience of the learner, similar to how an architect is concerned with interior and exterior aesthetics of their construction as well as the structure that holds it all in place.
An instructional craftsperson is so much more than one with the ability to create an instructional product that simply looks good, but the role becomes the manifestation of interdisciplinary design research, where “Engineers, developers, artists, and a range of designers interpose their own ideas and applications, which are in turn adopted and modified by others” (Christensen & West, 2016, para. 52). Parish (2009) recognized an absence of discussion of aesthetics when interdisciplinary design theories are drawn upon for insight into instructional design. Parish argued that “aesthetic principles offer more than just compatibility with existing theory– they complement and can support that theory by offering ways to embody it in engaging learning experiences” (p. 512). These learning experiences influence “the way that the learner feels about, engages with, responds to, influences, and draws from the instructional situation” (p. 512). A focus on how aesthetics can complement other design theories and methods will aid in the creation of learning experiences that will not only be accessible to the learner, but a pleasure to experience with the potential for long-lasting effects.
In conclusion, I do not diminish any of the research, theories and methodologies that have made instructional design the diverse field it is today. As I continue to progress in my knowledge of the field of instructional design, I strive to apply my my creative insights so that I may produce engaging instructional materials. Additionally, I aim to promote the expansion of creative skills and improving aesthetic standards throughout the field and practitioners of instructional design so learners may be better engaged and emotionally impacted by innovative learning environments spanning all subjects.
Christensen, K., & West, R. E. (2016). The Development of design-based research. In R. E. West (Ed.), Foundations of Learning and Instructional Design Technology. Retrieved from https://lidtfoundations.pressbooks.com/chapter/design-based-research/
Hokanson, B., Miller, C., & Hooper, S. (2008). Role-based design: A contemporary perspective for innovation in instructional design. TechTrends, 52(6), 36-43.
Järbelä, S., & Renninger, A. (2014). Designing for learning: interest, motivation, and engagement. In K. Sawyer (Ed.), The Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences (2nd ed.) (pp. 668-685). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Merrill, D., & Wilson B. (2006). The future of instructional design (point/counterpoint). In R. A. Reiser & J. V. Dempsey (Eds.), Trends and Issues in Instructional Design and Technology (pp. 335-351). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Merrill Prentice Hall.
Parrish, P. (2009). Aesthetic principles for instructional design. Educational Technology Research and Development, 57, (4), 511-528.