A Glance at the Visual Design of Learner Materials

A Glance at the Visual Design of Learner Materials

By: Anton Vegel

Controlling visual information is not easy, and design problems are not limited to designers, typesetters, or layout professionals. Even teacher practitioners need practical solutions to approach the problems that arise when making student materials (i.e., trying to limit text to one page, managing available space while maintaining clarity, keeping text large enough to be read clearly, creating distinctions without ambiguity). These considerations become especially important when creating assessments. What is being measured should not be obfuscated by unclear information resulting from bad design.

Unfortunately, there are no (good) one-off solutions that provide a cognitive style for you to follow in your search for good design. Information design expert Edward R. Tufte has long argued against these kinds of solutions and instead advocates for a cognitive-science focused concept of excellence in visual design. In the simplest sense, visual excellence is realized through “the creation of graphics that correspond with the mental tasks they are meant to support” (Zachry & Thralls, 2004, p. 448). Tufte further expands on this concept by explaining that “graphical excellence consists of complex ideas communicated with clarity, precision, and efficiency [and that it] gives to the viewer the greatest number of ideas in the shortest time with the least ink in the smallest place” (Tufte, 1990, p. 51). It is often said that—at its simplest—function should design itself. Hierarchy, balance and weight, and typography are key factors in controlling visual design to reach these ends.


Hierarchy helps us convey how various pieces of information are related to each other. At its best it helps us understand information clearly, while at its worst it creates misinformation so great as to be relevant in the inquiries of two space shuttle disasters (Challenger and Columbia)[1]. Both investigations mention that the ambiguous use of bullet points negatively affecting the take up of vital information. In Tufte’s (2003) attack on bullet points (one shared by Richard Feynman) he says that “bullet lists are typically too generic” and that “they offer a series of things to do that could apply to any[thing],” his main point being that “Bullets leave critical relationships unspecified” (p. 5). The six levels of bullet points often found in software like PowerPoint are rarely necessary (and often misused). Rather, just a few levels of hierarchy usually suffice. For example, most books (regardless of their complexity) get by just fine with only two levels of hierarchy: chapters and paragraphs. Often clear narration provides sufficient presentation of ideas to make typographical solutions (glyphs like bullet points) unnecessary to begin with. However, when absolutely necessary and appropriate, hierarchy must be presented unambiguously. Avoid over-cluttering a page with complex hierarchy that creates confusion, cognitive overload, and an ineffective presentation of visual information.

[1] Richard Feynman and Edward Tufte were involved in investigations related to the Challenger and Columbia space shuttle disasters respectively. Feynman’s experience investigating Challenger is mentioned in Tufte’s book, The Cognitive Style of Power Point, which also extensively covers how the use of PowerPoint was related to his involvement in the investigation of Columbia.

Balance and Weight

While considerations of hierarchy often focus on how pieces of information relate to each other, the way a layout is perceived holistically is also an important consideration of visual design. With this holistic perspective, managing balance and weight becomes an important issue because it helps ensure not only that the most important elements on a page are salient but also that other elements are balanced according to their importance, too. A way to test this balance is to consider how your eye moves naturally along a page. This eye movement is summarized by the Interaction Design Foundation in two patterns: the Z-pattern (common in text-light materials) and F-pattern (common with text-heavy materials).

Z pattern of eye movement
F pattern of eye movement

The Z and F patterns seem to emerge due to the left to right nature of written English and how the eye scans a page for gist. However, looking at paintings, photographs, or magazine ads quickly illuminates how similar eye movement is involved in other visual design as well. Is your eye shot off the page with nowhere to return to? Does a heavily weighted element attract your eye when it should be focused somewhere else? Controlling eye movement can be approached by considering balance within the framework of the golden ratio, Fibonacci sequence, or, at its most simplified, the rule of thirds.

Taking the example of the Z pattern shown above, we are first effectively attracted to the red banner because of its contrast with the overall white layout. We are lured by the CNN logo then the bright white search box. The bold “MATTERS” pulls our attention where our eye can linger on the headlines, but “LATEST NEWS” offers a stronger visual anchor for our eye to land on due to its typographical cohesion (notice the similar font/size). Consider how “TECH PULSE” does not have this same effect, due to its lack of cohesion. Finally, scanning left to right, our eye naturally flows through the headline towards the photo. Imagine how different your visual processing would be if all these elements were the same size!

The following are just a few examples of visual hierarchy design principles from Visme. (The link will take you to a more exhaustive list, explanations how the principles work, and real examples from the media.)

Space provides emphasis and movement
Alignment directs the eye
Odd numbered groups create focus


Typography is the way typefaces (commonly referred to as fonts) are used. Typefaces are often used in design to frame a layout psychologically (e.g., Helvetica frames a layout as clean and modern, while Garamond lends to a more old-style, historical look). The most distinct qualities of typefaces are whether they are a serif (with feet and hanging edges), like Times New Roman and Garamond, or sans-serif (with generally straight edges), like Helvetica and Optima. Serif fonts are ideal for body text as they are generally easier to be read in small sizes, while sans-serif fonts are optimized (by design) for headings as they are more simplified and overall (perceived as) bolder.

Two important issues emerge when trying to approach typography: size and variation. However, a simple “2-3” rule-of-thumb usually suffices for both: two levels for headings and body text with another for creative flair. In most cases, no more than two font sizes or two typefaces are necessary. For example, the skincare brand Aēsop uses Optima for its logo and Neue Helvetica for its body text. However, sometimes a product name or product line requires an additional typographical flair. For example, their tooth-care line uniquely accentuates the product names with their French translations in a more condensed typeface creating an almost vintage film poster look (effectively using a third typeface in the layout).

Lastly, another practical consideration of typography is textual enhancement. It is often important to emphasize a word that might be passed over, especially when giving directions or instructions. In my experience, this is one of the two biggest issues in material design (the other is very wordy sentences). Textual enhancement can clear up ambiguity even when it is at odds with low-frequency collocations. Take the common test instruction:

            Choose the one that is not correct.

This can be much more accurately understood with a little textual enhancement:

            Choose the one that is not correct.

            Choose the one that is not correct.

However, messy textual enhancement obfuscates the meaning:

            Choose the one that is not correct.

            Choose the one that is not correct.

Other Techniques

Other design techniques are also useful to consider when designing materials:

Readability: Increasing font size is not really what makes text more readable. Increasing leading (the spacing between lines), even if that requires decreasing font size, works better. Decreasing line width also increases readability, and is necessary for small font sizes. Avoid justified alignment left-aligned, ragged right text is easier to read.

Use of white space: White space is all the empty space on a page, the space between paragraphs, in margins, between headings and text, etc. It’s natural to try to put as much text on a page as possible, but this can be suffocating to readers, and daunting to learners. Professional designers prefer to set 30-50% of a page to be white space.

Contrast: Using contrast (of color, size, position) often requires bold decisions (pun intended). To quote the designer Robin Williams, “Don’t be a wimp!” when it comes to contrast. Instead of a 14-point title over a 12-point text, go 36 (as we did here) or 48, or 72!

Alignment: Alignment helps anchor elements in a layout. A grid is an effective way to ensure that elements in a layout are not “floating” but rather purposefully and clearly anchored. How might this effect the visual perception of a student trying to navigate your materials?

from Robin William’s The Non-designers Design Book

"Simple and consistent typographical solutions create unambiguous hierarchy where narration cannot."
Anton Vegel
TT Author

Consider these general design principles as conceptual tools to help create materials and assessments that can be understood as intended. Thinking backwards offers some illumination. Approach material creation through the lens of analytical design or even cognitive art—images that accomplish visual excellence. We should always test and question our layouts. Does the layout demand extraneous explanation just to be understood? Are the directions, instructions, or examples ambiguously indistinguishable from other elements? What design solutions can help solve ambiguity? Recall Tufte’s idea of visual excellence: “the creation of graphics that correspond with the mental tasks they are meant to support” (Zachry & Thralls, 2004, p. 448). If we strive to make materials that are as clear as possible and assessments that measure the skills we are hoping to measure, we must keep the visual information as unambiguous as possible or, in Tufte’s words, “cognitive tasks should be turned into design principles” and “the point of analytical design is to assist thinking” (Qtd. in Zachry & Thralls, 2004, p. 453). In short, thinking backwards, considering the cognitive tasks needed (understanding directions, following instructions, engaging in activities), illuminates design principles. The salient elements of a design, layout, document, or set of teaching materials become clear because of the cognitive tasks, and thus design principles are employed to solve cognitive problems. If clarity is the end of visual excellence, design solutions are the means.

Anton Vegel holds a BA and MA in TESL and has been teaching university-level ESL and EFL for nearly a decade. He has published on a number of topics such as language and national identity, democracy and education policy, language interference, and TBLT. Currently, he is interested in understanding how design-based and systems-based perspectives can inform pedagogy in novel ways.

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