How Flashy is Too Flashy?

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I am not a designer.  But I try to fake it.

It seems to me that the eternal questions is art and design is, “how busy is too busy?”  Now, I haven’t taken an art class since middle school, so maybe there are more eternal questions being bandied about the art world, but I feel like that sums up a lot.  Busy-ness goes in and out of style.  We like to mock some of the busier eras, but I appreciate them.  Without Rococo style, I wouldn’t have my favorite gilt mirror over my mantle.  And without my ’80s childhood, who know who I’d be today.  Flash is fun.  Flash is interesting.  Flash is exciting.

My Grandma's Awesome Mirror

My Grandma’s Awesome Mirror


Yet we can all appreciate sleek Swedish design, or ultra-modern minimalist decor.  Simple can be pleasing, soothing.  It’s easy to find the focal point if there are no distractions.  Seems perfect for instructional design, right?

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Well, I don’t know.

I struggle with this all the time.  I’m confident that we should avoid the extremes. For example, let’s avoid a screen so cluttered with graphics, text and buttons that you can’t figure out where to click.  We should similarly try to aim a little higher than black text, Arial font, on a white background.

A terrible slide from a terrible course.

A terrible slide from a terrible course.

The Argument for Simple

What do characters really add to a scenario?  If I read a well-written scenario, I’ve pictured the characters in my mind.  That tends to happen while reading.  What’s more, as Cathy Moore mentions, characters can often detract from a scenario.  And if a character is kinda creepy, it’s even more difficult to overlook.  In short, good writing does not need pictures to support it.  Never has.  But bad pictures only hurt.

The Argument for Flashy

How do I put this… So, people find e-courses boring, as a rule.  That’s probably because they haven’t taken ours, but they do.  And many of those people appreciate that you took the time to add a fun graphic or a character with a sassy pose to the screen.  Color and motion, while they can be distracting, make corporate e-courses seem so much less… corporate.

So How Do I Decide?!?

The only rule I can come up with is to try your best to use good design principles (more on that later).  If your course design is intentional, uniform, and ultimately pleasing, the correct number of graphics and characters boils down to a matter of preference.  For every course you publish, you’ll have some people who wish there were more salesmen-esque characters with ridiculous poses, and some who think your use of italics was excessive.  You can’t please everybody.

But there are things to think about:

  1. What visual cues can help learners make good decisions, or might distract a learner in real life?  If possible find a way to integrate whose cues into the course.  If reading body language is essential, photography may be needed.  If a map will be used in the field, use a map in the course.  Do learners need to learn to notice certain items in a room?  A cluttered picture of a room is perfect.
  2. Can you substitute a more meaningful graphic for generic clip art?  Sometimes just customizing public-domain images can make the image more relevant.  Nobody needs a graphic that just takes up space.
  3. Or is text-only best?  A good choose-your-own-adventure-style scenario typically does not require any images to support it.  Perhaps interpreting the written word is part of the skill set the learner needs to work on.  In that case, we don’t need to provide crutches in the form of graphics.  And, if you don’t have the resources to create appropriate images, there’s a good change that trying to make something work will detract more than add.

What do you think?  Simple, text-centric, and sleek?  Or eye-catching, colorful, and character-ful?



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