Wouldn't it be nice if there was some unified theory of design that could just give you a single approach that would work in every single situation? Do this with the fonts, that with the alignment, and another thing with the colours and done! If you're a newbie to visual design, this "one design formula to rule them all" is the kind of solution you might hope to find.
Unfortunately, the sheer number of variables at play means... well... that's never going to happen. And to be honest, it's actually one of the fun parts of design once you get more experienced with it - the challenge of looking at a design problem and considering what the best approaches for that unique request might be.
But if you're new to visual design, no worries. There are thankfully some stable concepts you can consider to help simplify your thought process as you narrow down what the best design options might be. And one good concept to start with is to think about the context for what you're about to create.
Lucky for all of us, I bumped into a fine example of how context impacts design a few months ago on the Toronto subway. We start our story with a sign about a temporary closure on the line.
At first glance, this sign probably strikes you as smartly designed. They've pared everything down to just the information you need and nothing more, so it's not overwhelming you with details. The text looks large. The colour choices are simple. There's a handy little graphic to help you better understand which stations exactly are going to be effected by the closure. There's also a ton of whitespace around everything, so the sign doesn't look cluttered. In theory this seems like a solid design and you have to believe it looked pretty smart on someone's computer screen.
But when you take into account the context of where and how people will be viewing it, that's where things start falling apart.
Up close, the sign is great. But because of where it's displayed, it's not something most people are going to see at that distance. Instead, they're going to see it from way down a hallway as they follow that orange arrow I added to show you the traffic patterns of how people scurry around this corner to get down to the subway platform. When it's in your sightline, it's VERY unclear what the sign says (let alone that it's communicating important information) and as soon as you get close enough to actually read the thing properly almost everyone's eyes have shifted to the right towards the stairs. What's an effective design up close just doesn't work so well in the situation it needs to be used in.
Thankfully, our subway system figured out a simple, yet effective, solution: they added a second sign.
Sign number 2 is even simpler. It's goal isn't to communicate all the information you need - it's to get your attention from far away.
n.And this pairing works rather well. The sign on the right grabs your attention from far away and tells you something important: there's going to be a subway closure this weekend on part of the line. Subway closures are a complete pain, so this is likely to make people want to know more. You get closer and then you have the sign on the left with the additional details you'll need to plan your life around this (still, thankfully, presented in a simple manner)
Is it perfect? Probably not. Personally, I think the black background on the right sign doesn't help it stand out enough and I do wonder why the two signs weren't swapped given that English reads left to right, but generally speaking it's a good solution that takes into account the context of where the design will live and how people will move around it in order to accomplish its goals.
No matter what you're designing, you always want to consider context to ensure what you've made actually functions the way you want it to in the real world.
It's the new year, and with that comes people making resolutions to learn new things and build new habits. And all this talk about boosting skills and making changes for the better has gotten me thinking about a project I worked on last year that I have been meaning to reflect on: Inktober.
The short version of Inktober is that it's a one month challenge where artists commit to making one ink drawing a day every day in October (if you're curious, here's the official website for it). Inktober is a chance for newbie artists to push themselves to work deliberately on their basic skills, experienced artists to refine their craft, and everyone to get in the habit of drawing more.
For me, the interest in Inktober came from two angles.
First, I'm a former art teacher who fell out of the habit of creating analogue art. I'd committed to working on this in 2017, and the Inktober challenge felt like a good way to help me continue to brush off my rusty skills and build some competency with the new art supplies I had picked up, but not fully gotten used to.
Then there was the professional angle. I was curious about how much impact a challenge like this could have on building skills. Timed challenges like this are easy to find for all sorts of skills or interests, covering everything from writing challenges to running goals. But the two learning-related questions I had were could a short challenge like this make a noticeable difference in a person's skills and would it lead to better long-term habits.
And so last year I finally broke down and actually tried out Inktober for myself. Here's what I learned.
No surprise: Defined goals can boost motivation
Just committing to the Inktober challenge gave me more motivation to actually put pen to paper, something I had struggled with doing regularly in the past. Rather than having the admittedly wishy washy goal of "drawing more", I instead had a defined thing to strive for - one drawing a day for 31 days. I restrained this goal more and made myself a sketchbook for all my drawings, so I even knew just how big a drawing I'd be doing each day. This made a real difference in my behaviour, and is definitely one of the huge reasons these types of timed, structured challenges are so popular.
Lesson for L&D: Giving people a bit of structure around how to work on a skill can help them actually get moving on building it, particularly if it's something they're having trouble getting started on. Also, in some cases a time frame can also be a motivating factor as it's another form of structure.
Doing a challenge at the same time as other people helps you keep on track
Inktober is a HUGE thing with artists now, and everywhere I went on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook I found posts from fellow artists sharing their successes and frustrations. Even though I knew very few of these people personally, you had better believe this helped me feel connected to a community of people all going through the same thing as me. That connection definitely made a difference on days when I was feeling tapped out creatively - if they could keep on top of the challenge, so could I. Plus, it was energizing to see so many people tackle this challenge so differently.
Lesson for L&D: Some people may benefit from not feeling alone in building a skill. Consider opportunities to build communities and cohorts, particularly for difficult challenges where people may lose motivation if they're on their own.
Sharing your progress can help you stay committed AND provide important reflection in the moment
I was worried about not staying on top of Inktober, so I committed very publicly to the challenge and shared every drawing (even the ones I hated) on Instagram. I knew people were expecting to see a drawing each day, which was yet another factor that helped me when I had difficulty cranking a drawing out (hooray for positive social pressure!). The people I shared my work with were incredibly supportive, which made me feel more comfortable sharing my work. The Instagram posts also gave me a chance to write out what I had learned from that drawing, be it how NOT to use a particular pen or what technique I'd figured out that time around.
Lesson for L&D: Encouraging people to work out loud can help them feel more stay committed to, and supported on, building their new skill (well, as long as they're sharing with a group of people they trust). It also encourages them to openly reflect on their work regularly, which is good for their own skill progress and also creates resources that other people can learn from too.
A timed challenge can help you work through the suck
Lesson for L&D: Challenges with a lot of smaller goals give people the opportunity to stumble and learn from their mistakes. Prepare them ahead of time for this (and for the fact it can be a good thing) so the first failure doesn't make them quit. Also encourage them to reflect on things that didn't go as planned as see what they can still learn from the experience.
Burnout is real
As much as there's lots to be gained from a short, but intense challenge, if you're not careful it's VERY easy not to make it to the finish line. For Inktober, there seemed to be two common places when people stopped the challenge. There were the people at the beginning who got a few drawings in but fizzled out - presumably because they hadn't yet built the daily drawing habit. Then there were the people closer to the end who were just creatively tapped out.
Did I consider stopping the challenge? Sure, there were a few moments I thought about it. I traveled to two conferences in the later half of October, one of which I was helping run, and I was exhausted as a result. On the plus side, I think the fact those days hit later in the month saved me, because at that point I was already so set in the habit of drawing every day that it felt weird not to.
Lesson for L&D: There are two key points in a difficult timed challenge where you can lose people: in the beginning before they've built a habit of participating and nearer to the end when they're hitting their exhaustion point. You'll want to build in ways to support people at these points so they're able to complete the challenge.
Did I finish? What did I learn?
I'm proud to say I actually managed to get to the end of Inktober in 2017. Here are a few of the pieces I drew during it that I'm still happy with to this day.
So what about the two big questions I had about how timed challenges could help build skills?
Well, I can definitely confirm it made a big difference in my skills. Pushing myself to draw every day gave me way more concentrated practice than I'd had earlier in the year, and even two months later I can see the improvement in my work. Also, through all the experimenting I did I got a stronger sense of what I wanted my art style to be, which was a much appreciated Inktober side bonus. Based on this experience and what I've heard from other people who have undertaken similar challenges, my perspective is that a well designed timed challenge can help someone's skills improve, potentially in leaps and bounds.
The hope that it could also help build better long-term habits, though, was a bit less of a success. I was so burned out by the end that I didn't draw again for a few weeks (did the big conference I had at the end of October also contribute to this? Absolutely). However, it's two months later and I do still find myself drawing more often than I did before I took on Inktober. It's definitely not at the "one drawing a day" level, and admittedly I'd still like to be drawing more regularly than I am now, but it did lead to a small change in my habits as drawing started to feel like a more regular part of my routine instead of just a once and awhile pastime. So it didn't make a massive change in my behaviour, but it did move the needle in a measurable way, so that's at least a partial win.
So how can we use similar approaches to this in L&D? Well, there are definitely times where I think using this exact approach of intense practice over a short period of time can work for our audiences - particularly when they need a fast skill boost and are also already committed to working on it. But that intensity isn't a good fit for every situation, especially where there's a higher potential for burnout or people find the skill overwhelming. That said, there are ways to use this approach in less time-intensive ways (and stress-inducing) ways. For instance, I've seen people have great success with using regular newsletters or other short burst learning experiences to teach information. Our industry should look at options for things like "learn _____ in 30 days through 30 newsletters" that use short content, chunked and spaced learning, and a regular schedule for receiving information. Plus, with automated services like Mailchimp, it's now incredibly easy and cost-effective to set these challenges up to pretty much run themselves once you've designed them.
Do I think this approach works for everything? No. But nothing does. It it something I'd encourage people in L&D to consider using more? Absolutely.
Have you tried out a timed challenge like Inktober? If so, how did it work out for you? What did you learn from it that could translate to what we do in L&D? Let me know in the comments.
I'd been blogging using Blogger since 2012 (DevLearn 2012, to be exact). And while it was a good platform for me then, I've been finding the visual design of it a bit stagnant for awhile now. Since I wanted to make a new website for myself and my business, I figured this was a great time to migrate my blog as well.
Unfortunately I wasn't able to find a way to cleanly port my old blog posts here (although I'll keep investigating options). Until a better solution presents itself, you can always find all my old posts at https://e-geeking.blogspot.ca/
Future posts, though... they'll all be here from now on, so be sure to follow my RSS feed, connect with me on Twitter or LinkedIn, or check in here often to catch up on what I'm writing.
What's This Blog about?
This blog, like Clever Raptor, is all about the intersection of learning and design - and there's a LOT in that intersection. You'll find everything from practical design tips, technology reviews, presentation ideas, conference posts, thoughts about how learning connects to other fields, my own working out loud, and more.