Does the Right Software a Great Designer Make?


"The computer revolutionhas put advanced photo manipulation and illustration tools, as wellas voluminous collections of prefabricated clip art, into the handsof anyone with the technology know-how to operate amouse."[1] Educators should be aware of the power of thetechnology and its impact on students. Therefore, classroom teachersmust have an understanding of design principles when developingvisuals. In today's era of affordable technology even someone whocan't draw a stick figure can create a professional-lookingproduct.

Therefore, the questionbecomes "D'es the right software a great designer make?" Consideringinstructional design principles, the answer to this question is aresounding "No." This article provides basic design principles andcaveats for creating effective visuals. The term "visuals" means notonly computer presentations but also overheads andhandouts.


When designing anddeveloping a lesson using any medium, visuals should be used to: (1)clarify a point; (2) emphasize a point; (3) add variety; (4) changefocus; (5) record main points; (6) enhance your professional image;and (7) mark the presentation as special.

Visuals can clarify apoint by giving students a picture. Thus, the lesson addresses notonly the auditory learner but also the visual learner. In the samemanner, visuals can emphasize a point by highlighting that particularpiece of information. Visuals in this respect become another means of"telling them what you are telling them."

Maintaining students'interest has always been important in the classroom. However, in thisage of computer games and television watching, adding variety to alesson may be the only way an instructor can get students interestedat all. Sustaining interest is difficult when all students see orhear are words. The use of visuals can also help students to changefocus. This application of visuals is particularly helpful if thematerial being presented is complex or difficult to follow. Further,visuals help students to record main points, again very useful whenpresenting complex or exacting materials.

Instructors should alwaysbe aware of their classroom image. Enhancing that professional imageis an important byproduct of using well-designed visuals. It isextremely important that visuals be well designed, or theinstructor's image may be hurt rather than helped. Finally, visualsmark a presentation as special. Visuals in a presentation say tostudents: this material is important, and the instructor cares enoughabout it to spend the time to develop aids to supplement themessage.

A FewCaveats

Teachers should avoidvisuals in developing a lesson when the visual distracts or detractsfrom the focus, is poor quality, is irrelevant, is only atime-filler, is outdated, d'es not suit the purpose of the lesson, ord'es not fit the audience. Visuals do not add anything positive whenthey distract or detract from the focus of the lesson. A visual thatdistracts is one that causes students to concentrate on the visualrather than the point it was meant to illustrate. Visuals thatdetract from the focus are ones that cloud the message rather thanexplain it.

Poor quality visuals alsoadd nothing to a lesson. If students cannot understand the visual,they will spend time trying to figure out what the visual is ratherthan spend that time on processing the information the visual hassupplemented. Irrelevant visuals also waste processing time; if thevisual d'es not supplement, explain, or clarify the point being made,do not use it. Remember a picture is not always worth a thousandwords.

Do not use visuals simplyto fill time. "Bells and whistles" may do little to enhance thelearning process. Outdated visuals diminish a lesson's value; anyonewho sits in a lecture where the instructor uses dog-eared notes oryellowed overhead transparencies understands this precept. Outdatedvisuals send the message that the instructor d'es not care enoughabout the material or students to stay current.

Lastly, visuals that donot suit the purpose or fit the audience should be avoided. Thosethat do not suit the purpose of the lesson lose students' interestbecause they cannot figure out why the visual is included.Instructors who use visuals that do not fit the audience run therisk, at worst, of being offensive and, at best, of beingignored.

BasicDesign Principles


Certain basic designprinciples are helpful when creating visuals for any medium: (1) keepthe visual simple; (2) leave lots of white space; (3) keep the visualorganized; (4) create a path for the eye; (5) make somethingdominant; and (6) divide the space in an interesting way.

Keep it simple is areliable precept when designing for any medium. Distilling yourmessage to its barest essentials is important. Think in terms of anoutline. If the message on the visual is not presented in outlineform, students will lose the point between looking and taking notes.Additionally, when an electronic presentation is being shown in theclassroom, teachers tend to leave slides on the screen for too shorta time. Resist the impulse to click the mouse button until studentshave finished taking notes.

Leave plenty of white(blank) space. Visuals, whether projected onto a screen from acomputer or an overhead projector, are not well designed if they aresimply pages of text. If students need pages of text, provide areference. Visuals should be appealing and easily read; blank spaceused judiciously will enhance readability. Keep the visual organized.Again, think about an outline. Develop the visual so that theinformation the visual contains is easily followed. Visuals losetheir effectiveness if students have to spend time figuring out whatg'es where. The visual should be the entity that brings the materialtogether and provides the opportunity for an "ah ha!".

Create a path for the eye.Remember if your students are from western cultures, they havelearned to read from left to right. When designing electronicpresentations for less proficient readers, help them by buildingbullets from left to right. Recognize that if a visual is dividedinto quadrants, most readers read the upper left quadrant first andthe lower right last. Therefore, do not place essential informationin the lower right quadrant.[2] Make something in the visualdominant. Use color and a highlighting technique such as bolding sothe main idea stands out. Use graphics like clip art or charts. Thesedevices act as cues to students, so they do not waste time trying tofigure out the message. Nevertheless, remember there can be too muchof a good thing, so use these devices sparingly.

Divide the space in aninteresting way. Students are easily turned off by visuals thatconsistently present information in the same way. Keeping in mind theidea of quadrants, vary from visual to visual the location of thetext with the graphic. Just make certain that the graphic leads theeye to the text.


There are several designhints that will enable teachers to create effective visuals. Thesetechniques, commonly called attention-getting devices, are effectivein helping students maintain a reasonable level of attention andinterest in the material. They include:

  • Using a headline;
  • Presenting one idea;
  • Beginning with a large first letter;
  • Checking carefully for errors; and
  • Using a framing device.

Using a headline will drawthe student's attention to the topic of that visual. A headlinementally prepares the student for what follows and serves toreinforce the main idea. Presenting only one idea per visual also iscritical. Following this principle helps to focus the reader and toavoid any distraction. Beginning with a large first letter attractsattention and helps students concentrate on the material. Errorsdetract from the visual's effectiveness and lessen the presenter'scredibility; checking carefully for errors is essential. Using aframing device to distinguish a line of text or a graphic iseffective. This technique is an excellent method for emphasizingtext; it provides a visual display of information.


Color is effective forattracting and focusing attention. However, the more color is used,the less effective it will be, because attention is not always drawnto what is novel. The attention-getting effect of color can andshould be used to focus on important information. Color shouldfunction as a redundant cue, not as an essential part ofinstruction.[3] Some colors, especially yellow and green, areeasier to perceive than others. Red and blue are the most difficultcolors to perceive. Also be aware that colorblind students cannotperceive either green or red.

The use of color should beconsistent with common usages in our society. Green signifies growthand movement; it is appropriately used when discussing fiscal growth.Blue conveys calm. It is extremely useful when students are hostileto the information being presented or when their attention span islimited. Red, although snappy and peppy, can bleed, especially whenused with a green background. If the color d'es bleed, students willhave difficulty reading the text and find themselves concentrating onthe variations in the color rather than on the speaker's message.Yellow serves to highlight; it is best used when the teacher wantsstudents to pay particular attention to a point.


The appearance of text hasa message of its own. Fleming and Levie wrote that "text, likepictures, diagrams, or charts, communicates a great deal ofinformation by its appearance on the page or screen that isindependent from the information conveyed in its words."[4]The look of text impacts on learning as much as themessage.[5]

Therefore, the text ofyour visuals is critical to their effectiveness. Distill the messageto its absolute essence. Use telegraphic style when composing andremember to be aware of the "Rule of Sixes or Sevens." This principlemeans using no more than six lines of text with no more than sixwords per line or seven lines of text with no more than seven wordsper line. A good suggestion is to begin each line with a verbfollowed by either an adjective or a noun. Each line of text shouldbe parallel with the other lines on that visual; i.e., begin with thesame part of speech.

Students must be able tosee the information clearly. To ensure readability use a point sizeof at least 30. Be sure that the typeface is easy to read. There hasbeen considerable debate over the use of serif vs. sans serif fonts.Current literature supports font faces from each category as long asthey are easy to read.

Design experts show aslight preference for serif fonts; however, any simple serif or sansserif font can be used. Teachers should avoid condensed fonts. Bothupper- and lower-case letters should be used. Text composed of allupper-case letters is more difficult to read than normal text, whichis primarily lower-case. Also remember that italics should not beused for emphasis; it also makes text more difficult toread.

Now It'sYour Turn

The principles outlined inthis article incorporate basic instructional design strategies forcreating visuals. While the right software may not a great designermake, neither do these principles. However, by following theseprecepts, a teacher with a minimum of creativity and drive who is aproficient computer user can produce professional-looking andeducationally sound visuals.

Dr. Linda Szul is anAssociate Professor in the Department of Office Systems and BusinessEducation at the Eberly College of Business, Indiana University ofPennsylvania. Her educational background is in instructional designand technology. She teaches courses in communication and the use oftechnology, and has made presentations relative to the article's mainideas.
E-mail: [email protected]

Dr. Dawn E. Woodland isan Assistant Professor in the Department of Office Systems andBusiness Education at the Eberly College of Business, IndianaUniversity of Pennsylvania. She studied instructional design andtechnology as part of her doctoral work. Woodland teaches courses incommunication and technology applications, and has taught workshopsregarding presentation software and the design of visuals.
E-mail: [email protected]

1. Tascarella, P. (1996), "Computers Put Design Tools Into the Handsof the Common Client, Pittsburgh Business Times, December 30,1996, p.12.
2. Szul, L. F. (1995), "The effect of color variations in screen texton the accuracy of proofreading from a video display terminal,"unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Pittsburgh,Pittsburgh, Pa.
3. Alessi, S.M., and Trollip, S. R. (1985), Computer-BasedInstruction: Methods and Development, Englewood Cliffs, CO:Prentice-Hall.
4. Fleming, M., and Levie, W. H. (Eds.) (1993), InstructionalMessage Design: Principles from the Behavioral and CognitiveSciences (2nd ed.), Englewood Cliffs, CO: Educational TechnologyPublications, p. 105.
5. Woodland, D. E. (1995), "The effect of visualization ability andcomputer screen text design elements on achievement," unpublisheddoctoral dissertation, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale,Ill.

This article originally appeared in the 02/01/1998 issue of THE Journal.