I cannot overemphasize how much I think this is true.
A few years ago I gave a presentation and afterwards someone came up to me and asked my job title. I told them I was an Instructional Design Librarian and they said something along the lines of, “oh, now I don’t feel so bad about my slides. You’re a designer!” Well… yes but not what the statement’s implying. An Instructional Designer, hopefully, has a sense of design if they work in the online learning world or if they develop learning objects or worksheets. But Instructional Design is a field about designing learning opportunities, not aesthetics. Good slides should have some intentional instructional design behind them, and the presentation certainly should, but the slides themselves are more about graphic design than instruction.
Since I started in the field I developed an awareness of how important graphic (or industrial or architectural) design is through observing that good design makes people want to interact with things and bad design makes people want to stop. If we want to help people use our information, it needs to be packaged in a way that makes them want to use it. So, I learned as much as I could about design and use every opportunity I can–presentation slides, course management systems, worksheets, flyers, classroom space arrangement, photos for the library, etc–to practice. And what I found was with a little work, I could get to a place that’s not that bad (if I do say so myself).
The tension I see, at this point in time, is that it’s not always particularly valued. Or, in other cases, it’s assumed that if someone makes something the design is good enough. I love the websites out there that make it easy to make things. I think that in general we need to encourage more experimentation (and then learning from that experimentation). In fact, if you’re intentional about it, that could be the best way to learn about good and effective design. But to do so requires intentionality. And intentionality and the reflection that goes with it take time. And we’re all short on time, so it’s hard to be intentional and reflective about the design of the worksheet THAT HAS TO BE DONE THIS VERY MINUTE FOR THE CLASS WALKING IN THE DOOR! (I can say that because I found myself in that position yesterday after being out sick for a few days.)
Beyond it’s importance, another reason that it’s important to think about this more is that design is, in a sense, being deprofessionalized. Any product that makes it easy to make things puts design in the hands of the users. This is very powerful (and empowering and something I generally like). But I think we need to be aware of potential tradeoffs when we do this. For example, today I attended an iBooks Author workshop. More on that later, but for now what struck me most–as the demonstration included putting images on the page–is that it would be so easy to take really good text and information and muddy it up with the design. Of course, the author should have the freedom to do the design as they wish, but I wish there was some built in way to make recommendations for changes if the author wanted some guidance. iBooks does this in a way, with lines showing if the item is centered or not, and widgets that are pre-sized for the page. But that doesn’t necessarily help in all cases. And not all authors even want to have a hand in design. I wouldn’t write a post on it if it were just an issue in iBooks, though. That software is just the latest in a series for me: LibGuides, CMS platforms, blog websites, wikis–all of these tools make it easy to put content online but don’t inherently offer help in making it easy for the end user to use it (or find information, or want to come back).
In a dream world, for academic environments I wish there was an easy way to do this with the help of a professional if one wanted that help. I can envision it in the same way that there are academic technology units to help faculty incorporate instructional technology into their teaching or instructional design units that help faculty with the design of their course. The graphic design unit could exist to help package information in a way that best fits the requirements of the publication: whether it’s for an undergraduate class or for sharing amongst colleagues doing similar research. I used to think this about having a place to help people think through the best technology to use to share whatever information they have: video, blog, academic publication, etc. But now I think many people are starting to feel more comfortable with that hierarchy of choices. Now that people are starting to have a sense of where they want to put things, maybe a new perspective on that older idea is to have a place to help faculty, staff, and students figure out the best way to layout and design their information on a page or screen. The unit could help as people start doing more work with infographics and video as well.
By the way, if you want to see the power of good design in action, stop reading this right now and go to Brian Mathews’ new whitepaper on Think Like a Startup. It’s a white paper, in part, because he wanted to control the design. Beyond that, it’s really really good reading.