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  • Kendra Grant

Design Presence

Updated: Jan 23, 2018

Paying attention to production, accessibility and aesthetics in the design and curation of educational video.


"Did I learn something in spite of the way this was designed, or because of it?" (Peters, 2011)

It's a question we need to ask ourselves not only within our lesson and course design but in our creation or choosing of digital resources. As more and more DIY tools allow us (and our students) to easily create digital resources, the more we need to become aware of how the design impacts the learner experience or LX. (Vander Ark, 2014)

Too often the medium interferes with the message...and the learning. You have probably experienced this...perhaps, unknowingly you've created it. A video with an annoying sound in the background, a presentation with too much text or poorly sized images, a website with too many fonts and colours or a course that is difficult to navigate. In our zeal to produce we often ignore the basics of good design.

You may argue that we are teachers, instructors not designers. I'd argue that if design impacts understanding, either negatively or positively, then it is part of our role as educators.

While it's well understood that good curriculum design is foremost, and we know a lot about learning from research in the field of education...it’s not yet on many people's radar how critical visual and multimedia design are to success. Despite the fact that there's plenty of evidence for its influence...the front-end can still fall victim to old school prejudices that the visual design is mere decoration or not a serious contributor to the experience. (Peters, 2011, p. 1)

So while we don't need to be artists or experts at visual design there are basics that will help ensure what we create, or our students create, supports understanding and comprehension.

Within my masters of educational technology at UBC I investigated the Community of Inquiry model (CoI, n.d.) that focuses on the intersection of teaching, cognitive and social presences to support deep and engaged learning. As I explored and created online and digital environments I recognized there was a missing presence. I noticed that no matter how much "presence" a course I was taking had, it often fell flat because the LMS created a negative LX. Too much cognitive load was ascribed to figuring out the site's navigation, papers were inaccessible to screen readers as image-based PDFs and little attention was paid to how the purposeful use of colour, font and images supports (or impedes) cognition. 

(Note: Interestingly, many of my professors moved their courses out of the LMS where flexible web and creation tools allowed them to design much more responsive and engaging courses.)


I then co-designed a SOOC (Small-Short-Support-Social, Open Online Course) with two colleagues: Dr. Elizabeth Dalton and Dr. Luis Pérez (more about that in another post). Our positive learning experience with the SOOC confirmed for me that attention to production, accessibility and aesthetics helped create a more engaging and cohesive learning experience. To summarize these three principles I coined the term: Design Presence. 



Thanks to Dr. Luis Pérez for the accessibility design icon


Design presence is an intentional process of removing "friction" from our instruction and materials. Friction, a term borrowed from web design, is "...anything that prevents a (learner) from reaching a goal" (Cao, 2015). 


Design Presence both removes barriers and optimizes learning.

Design presence acts as both glue, cementing the other three presences together, and oil, reducing the friction that causes learners to disengage and disconnect when their learning experiences do not match their needs. 

Design presence is vital in online learning. When the course interface - layout, navigation, interactions (Peters, 2011) - and materials - images, video, print (Schaffhauser, 2015) - are designed with production, accessibility and aesthetic principles in mind, the learning experience is greatly enhanced. Without design presence, even the most transformative instructional experience can be lost. 


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Ark, T. V. (2014, December 27). It's time to invest in learning design [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://tinyurl.com/lrngdesign

Cao, J. (2015, March 8). How to reduce friction with good design [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://tinyurl.com/lessfriction

Community of Inquiry. (n.d.). CoI model. Retrieved from https://coi.athabascau.ca/coi-model/

Peters, D. (2011). Say hello to learning interface design [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://tinyurl.com/learninginterface

Schaffhauser, D. (2015, November). 8 best practices for moving courses online [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://tinyurl.com/BestPracticeOnline


Training creates compliance.

Compliance slows change.

Learning empowers.

Empowered learners embrace change.