Book Review: Visual Design Solutions

Connie Malamed’s new book Visual Design Solutions: Principles and Creative Inspiration for Learning Professionals is written specifically for learning professionals. As instructional designers, we often communicate visually as well as with text, audio, and other media. Many of us (myself included) don’t feel as strong about our graphic design skills as about our other instructional design skills. This book teaches many of the same foundational principles as other design books (including Connie’s first book, Visual Language for Designers), but the examples and applications are all geared towards learning. If you’ve read visual design concepts elsewhere but struggled to apply them to your own learning design, this book is written for you.

Visual Design Solutions

Visual Design Solutions is divided into four major parts, each with multiple chapters:

  1. The Big Ideas (thinking and working like a designer)
  2. Building Blocks of Design (space and layouts, selecting images, and typography)
  3. Power Principles (color, visual hierarchy, unified design, contrast, and grouping)
  4. Practicing Design (directing attention, adding excitement, enhancing meaning, telling stories, and displaying data)

Each chapter is relatively short and filled with examples (as a visual design book should be). If you have read other books or articles on visual design, a fair amount of this will be familiar to you. Even someone with no background in graphic design (which, let’s face it, is most of us in the e-learning world) will be able to understand the ideas. I found myself repeatedly thinking, “Oh! I could apply this in my [Acme Widgets] course!” or “Why didn’t I ever see that before?”

In addition to the principles and examples, I appreciated how Connie explained why you might choose one style over another. For example, she says, “Use a symmetrical layout to achieve a restful and static design; use an asymmetrical layout for one that is more dynamic.”

What I Learned

I had a number of takeaways from the book, but here are two big ideas I’m still thinking about after finishing the book.

Chapter 4: Organizing Graphic Space included specific ideas on layouts for e-learning. This is one of the areas where I know I could do better, and the examples helped me figure out why I’m not always happy with my own layouts. I need to be more consistent about using a grid and guides to align content. Using a grid means I can keep everything aligned and unified across multiple screens. That means content like titles is where learners expect on each screen so they don’t have to waste brainpower trying to find the title instead of learning. Grids don’t have to be symmetrical; Connie shows multiple examples of grid-based layouts that aren’t just centering everything on the page. Connie also says, “In course design, we are always looking for ways to engage the learner. One way is through the element of surprise, which you can achieve through visual design. When it makes sense instructionally, such as to emphasize a key point or to show drama in a story, don’t hesitate to break the grid and use a wildly different approach, like placing elements on a diagonal orientation.”

Grid layout diagram

Chapter 15: Tell Stories With Visuals was especially interesting to me because I use storytelling techniques so often in my courses. I do almost all of my storytelling with words though, and this chapter challenged me to think about ways I could enhance my stories with better visuals. Some of the advice here was very concrete, such as thinking about how to lay out panels so it’s clear to learners which way to read. If your panels and gutters are all the same size, they line up in a grid and it’s harder to know if you should read vertically or horizontally first. Using narrow vertical gutters and wide horizontal gutters, as well as varying the widths of panels, makes the flow of reading clearer. This is a really simple idea, but it makes perfect sense. It’s something I can easily apply.

Varying the size of panels in each row helps readers move from left to right before top to bottom.

A Few Mild Criticisms

I have an electronic version of the book, and I think I would have enjoyed a print version more. I tend to buy physical books for my reference texts (as this book will be). Some of that is personal preference, but I think with such a visual book it might be more effective to see it printed on the page. Then again, these examples are designed for viewing on screens. If you’re normally a Kindle person, don’t let this stop you, but if you’re not sure, I’d go with the print version.

Because the book contains so many images, sometimes the images are on a different page than the text describing the concept. Again, with a physical book, I think it would have been easier for me to flip back and forth between pages.

The book contains a lot of jargon. It’s necessary to have the specific words to discuss these issues and not be haphazard in design, so I know learning the words is important. All of the terminology is explained clearly. However, in a few places in the book, there’s just so much vocabulary at once that I found myself reading very slowly and rereading to understand it all. I don’t think that’s a problem with Connie’s writing so much as just an acknowledgement that visual design is a huge field with its own language. If you haven’t done much reading or studying in visual design previously, you may find you can really only absorb one or two chapters at a time. Spacing it out is likely more effective for learning it all than trying to read it all in one sitting anyway.

I kind of wish there was a concluding chapter at the end. I got to the end of the last chapter and literally said, “Wait, was that it?” A short recap would have helped remind me of all the principles, even if it was mostly restating the key takeaways from the end of each chapter.

Recommendation: Buy It!

Overall, I found Visual Design Solutions very helpful, and I will be coming back to it and rereading it again in the future. I recommend it for any instructional designer or e-learning developer who feels they could be stronger in visual design.

20+ More Books for Instructional Designers

In response to my list of 12+ Books for Instructional Designers, I received a lot of great suggestions for further reading. My “to read” list is now quite long, but I’m slowly making my way through these suggestions. Here are 20+ more books suggested by others.

Instructional Design and Learning DesignStack of books

ISD From the Ground Up: A No-Nonsense Approach to Instructional Design by Chuck Hodell was suggested by Phrodeo, who is using it as a textbook in a course she’s taking.

Marina Arshavskiy’s Instructional Design for ELearning was recommended by another student, Alisa, who says “I will definitely keep using it after I graduate.”

Design Alchemy: Author Roderick Sims suggested that I include “texts/resources that address Learning Design and not just Instructional Design” such as his own book.

Streamlined ID: A Practical Guide to Instructional Design: Miriam Larson suggested her book, co-authored with Barbara Lockee. This book was positively reviewed in Education Review.

E-Learning and Blended Learning

Although I have several of Michael Allen’s books, I haven’t read Leaving ADDIE for SAM yet. Several people recommended that (including some who said they wished their organizations would pay more attention to it and move to a more agile approach).

William Horton’s e-Learning by Design is Nahla Anwer Aly’s favorite book in the field. I read it a number of years ago. Although I don’t refer back to it as often as some of my other books, it’s a strong selection, especially for those early in their careers.

Patti Shank’s The Online Learning Idea Book, Volume 1 and Volume Two: Proven Ways to Enhance Technology-Based and Blended Learning have lots of inspiration. Even though it was published in 2007, I still pull out the first volume sometimes when I’m stuck for ideas.


Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning is geared more towards teachers and professors or those interested in the psychology of how we learn rather than specifically aimed at instructional designers. The authors have done an amazing job of reviewing, summarizing, and organizing dozens of studies about how we learn. As instructional designers, we often work hard to make learning easier, but the research shows that “desirable difficulties” can actually increase learning. I’m a few chapters into this book currently, and I’ve already picked up a few new ideas. I do wish the book had some visuals to help explain the concepts. As an instructional designer, especially one who develops self-paced e-learning, you’ll need to reflect on your own about how to apply these ideas to your work. Most of the examples are from classrooms, either academic or corporate.

Richard Mayer’s Applying the Science of Learning was recommended by Clare Dygert, who says, “If you want to create e-learning that works the way a human brain wants it to work, read this book!”

Urban Myths about Learning and Education was just published in March. Will Thalheimer gave it a positive review. My one caution with this book is that Paul Kirschner is one of the authors, and he has shown some (in my opinion) irrational bias against discovery learning, project-based learning, and constructivism in the past. Based on Thalheimer’s review, it sounds like Kirschner is more nuanced in this book, noting situations where the methods he previously labeled as “failures” do, in fact, have benefits. (For a balanced review of Kirschner’s previous attack piece on constructivism, see Don Clark’s review five years after its publication.

Visual Design

Connie Malamed just published a new book, Visual Design Solutions. Cammy Bean recommends it for all of those of us who need to communicate visually in our e-learning but lack the formal training on how to do so. Cammy also says it can be helpful for IDs who work with graphic designers so you can communicate with those team members more effectively. Unlike a lot of visual design books out there, this is focused specifically on visual design for learning.

Connie’s previous book, Visual Language for Designers, was helpful to me in learning about the fundamentals of visual design. Jeffrey Dalto reminded me that I inadvertently forgot her first book from my initial list (sorry Connie!). Jeffrey’s review can be found at Creating Visuals for Training.

Performance Consulting

Analyzing Performance Problems: Or, You Really Oughta Wanna–How to Figure out Why People Aren’t Doing What They Should Be, and What to do About It was recommended by Mike Taylor, who also recommended the next selection.

Dana and Jim Robinson’s Performance Consulting was also recommended. Mike says neither of these books is very recent, but they have remained relevant.

Other Books

Joel Gendelman’s Consulting Basics was a critical resource for me when I made the leap from being an employee to being a freelance instructional designer. I regularly recommend this book to people who are just getting started in the freelance world or hoping to make the switch. The tips are very practical and concrete, and my own consulting agreements borrow heavily from the examples provided in this book.

Daniel Pink’s Drive explains three principles of motivation that go deeper than just rewards and punishments: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. More money won’t always motivate behavior change (in fact, sometimes it might be counterproductive). Helping people improve their skills can be even more motivating, and that’s certainly part of what we should be doing as instructional designers.

The Art of Explanation by Lee LeFever of Common Craft explains how to make information easier to understand. This was suggested by Luis Flores, who says, “As we create leaner and quicker learning experiences, being able to distill content is a skill that is indispensable.”

Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die is about why some stories and ideas are memorable while others aren’t. Robert Beck says, “Its principles are ones that I often turn to for reminders of how to make learning more compelling and memorable.”

TED Talks Storytelling: 23 Storytelling Techniques from the Best TED Talks was also recommended by Robert Beck. He says, “If IDs keep in mind the elements of a powerful story and how to deliver a spellbinding presentation to an audience, they’ll likely design an effective training product.”

John Medina’s Brain Rules was Robert Beck’s third recommendation, and I’ve heard these principles mentioned by a number of others in the field. I’m a little cautious about neuroscience claims; I’m not sure that the research is as solid as it is sometimes conveyed. However, I know many people have gotten excited about Medina’s work.

The Essential Persona Lifecycle by Adlin and Pruitt was recommended by Ieva Swanson. I have seen examples of personas used effectively for different projects, including creating a learning portal. This isn’t an area I personally know much about, but I can see the value in exploring it further.

Your Suggestions

Even though I have now shared over 30 books, I’m sure I missed some great reads. Tell me your suggestions!

Debunker Club Works to Dispel the Corrupted Cone of Learning

A new group called The Debunker Club is working to dispel myths and misinformation in the learning field. From their website:

The Debunker Club is an experiment in professional responsibility. Anyone who’s interested may join as long as they agree to the following:

  1. I would like to see less misinformation in the learning field.
  2. I will invest some of my time in learning and seeking the truth, from sources like peer-reviewed scientific research or translations of that research.
  3. I will politely, but actively, provide feedback to those who transmit misinformation.
  4. At least once a year, I will seek out providers of misinformation and provide them with polite feedback, asking them to stop transmitting their misinformation.
  5. I will be open to counter feedback, listening to understand opposing viewpoints. I will provide counter-evidence and argument when warranted.

This year, coinciding with April Fool’s Day 2015, the Debunker Club is running an experiment. We’re making a concerted effort to contact people who have shared the Cone of Experience (also known as the Cone of Learning or the Pyramid of Learning).

Many iterations of this cone exist. A Google image search for “cone of learning” returns dozens of results, most of which are false. If you’ve seen something like this that said, “People remember 10% of what they read, 20% of what they hear, 30% of what they see” etc., you’ve seen a variation on this theme.

Image search results for Cone of Learning

The original cone was developed by Edgar Dale and didn’t include any numbers. The later versions are the “corrupted cone” with fictitious statistics added.  Will Thalheimer’s post from 2009 debunking these claims is where I learned it was incorrect. Common sense might give you a hint that these numbers aren’t really based in research though. Think about it–how many times have you see research where all the categories broke into even 10% segments?

As part of the Debunker Club’s efforts, I discovered a post on Dane’s Education Blog called A Hierarchy of Learning. Although this post cites a great debunking article (Tales of the Undead…Learning Theories: The Learning Pyramid), the blog author only says that he “appreciate what it conveys.”

I left the following comment on his Learning Pyramid post.

Thanks for collecting so many resources on your blog. I can see that you’ve worked really hard to share many links and ideas with your readers.

However, the information above, though it may appear to have scientific support, has been exhaustively researched and found to have no basis in science. In fact, the “Tales of the Undead” link you cite debunks it.

An article from the scientific journal Educational Technology shows no research backing for the information. (Subramony, D., Molenda, M., Betrus, A., and Thalheimer, W. (2014). The Mythical Retention Chart and the Corruption of Dale’s Cone of Experience. Educational Technology, Nov/Dec 2014, 54(6), 6-16.)

The information presented is likely to produce more harm than good, promoting poor learning designs and hurting learners.

While we might abstract some beneficial notions from the percentages portrayed in the misleading information — namely that encouraging realistic practice has benefits — there are numerous faulty concepts within the bogus percentages that can do real harm. For example, by having people think that there are benefits to seeing over hearing, or hearing over reading, we are sending completely wrong messages about how learning works.

Most importantly, recent advances in learning science have really come together over the last two decades. The misleading information was first reported in 1914, with no research backing. It’s better to follow more recent findings than information that has no scientific basis. See, for example, the book Make it Stick by Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel. Julie Dirksen’s Design for How People Learn is another great selection.

I’m part of a larger community of folks called the Debunker Club who are attempting to encourage the use of proven, scientifically-based learning factors in the learning field.

I’m going to be posting about this misleading information on my blog. I hope you’ll comment and respond to my post if you wish. I (and the debunker community in general) want to learn how other people feel about the issues and ideas surrounding the original information and our approach to debunking myths and sharing evidence.

If you’re interested in dispelling misinformation and improving the learning field, please join the Debunker Club and participate in the conversation.

Intrinsic and Instructional Feedback in Learning Scenarios

A few years ago, I was a judge for a competition on scenario-based learning. While there were a few terrific submissions, I thought many of the courses missed the whole point of scenario-based learning. They started out fine: they provided some sort of realistic context and asked learners to make a decision. Then, instead of showing them the consequences of their decision, they just provided feedback as if it was any other multiple choice assessment. “Correct, that is the best decision.” Blah. Boring. And ineffective.

In her book Scenario-based e-Learning: Evidence-Based Guidelines for Online Workforce Learning, Ruth Clark labels the two types of feedback “intrinsic” and “instructional.” Instructional feedback is what we see all the time in e-learning; it’s feedback that tells you what was right or wrong and possibly guides or coaches you about how to improve.

With intrinsic feedback, the learning environment responds to decisions and action choices in ways that mirror the real world. For example, if a learner responds rudely to a customer, he will see and hear an unhappy customer response. Intrinsic feedback gives the learner an opportunity to try, fail, and experience the results of errors in a safe environment.

Intrinsic feedback is one of the features of scenario-based learning that sets it apart from traditional e-learning. When you show learners the consequences of their actions, they can immediately see why it matters. The principles or process that you’re teaching isn’t just abstract content anymore; it’s something with real world implications and it matters if they get it wrong. It’s more engaging to receive intrinsic feedback. Learners are also more likely to remember the content because they’ve already seen what could happen if they don’t make the right choices.

Intrinsic feedback can take a number of forms. Customer reactions (verbal and nonverbal), patient health outcomes improving, sales figures dropping, a machine starting to work again, and other environmental responses can be intrinsic feedback. The example below contains three pieces of intrinsic feedback, all on the left side: a facial expression, a conversation response, and a motivation meter at the bottom.

Screenshot of a branching scenario with intrinsic and instructional feedbackIn this example, learners are trying to convince someone to make healthier eating choices using motivational interviewing. Motivation level is an “invisible” factor, so I made it visible with a motivation indicator in the lower left corner. As learners make better choices and the patient feels more motivated to change, the motivation meter shows their progress.

Scenarios can also use instructional feedback. In the above example, a coach at the top provides instructional feedback and guidance on learners’ choices. Clark recommends using both intrinsic and instructional feedback in most situations.

One issue with instructional feedback is that it can break the realism of a scenario. Using a coach can help alleviate that problem, as can having learners ask for advice from people inside a scenario (a manager, an HR rep, another worker, etc.). Using a conversational tone for the instructional feedback also helps keep it within the scenario. Instructional feedback in a scenario often doesn’t need to explicitly say that a choice was correct or incorrect; that’s clear enough from the intrinsic feedback. Focus your instructional feedback on explaining why a choice was effective or how it could have been better.

Feedback can also be delayed rather than happening immediately. Clark recommends more immediate feedback for novices but delayed feedback for experts or more advanced learners. Depending on the audience, for some branching scenarios I do immediate intrinsic feedback for each choice learners make. When learners make bad choices that cause them fail and they need to restart the scenario, they receive instructional feedback with guidance on how to improve on their next attempt. They might be able to make two or three bad choices in a row before they hit a dead end in the scenario, so the instructional feedback is delayed. It keeps the momentum of the scenario moving forward but still provides support to learners to help them improve.

If you’re building scenario-based learning, don’t leave out the intrinsic feedback! Your learners will thank you.

12+ Books for Instructional Designers

If you’re looking for some reading to improve your skills or get started in the field of instructional design, check out these books.

ID books

General Instructional Design and E-Learning

Design For How People Learn by Julie Dirksen is one of my favorite books in the field. I’ve recommended it many times. It’s easy to read and understand. It makes research about learning accessible in ways you can apply immediately. The illustrations are charming and reinforce the concepts well. Read my review for more details.

The Accidental Instructional Designer by Cammy Bean is especially good for career changers and those who landed in instructional design from other fields. It provides a model for the range of skills that fall under the umbrella of “instructional design.” It includes practical tips on topics such as working with SMEs and avoiding “clicky clicky bling bling” or flashy interactivity and multimedia for the sake of being flashy. The design models in chapter 4 are probably familiar to many with experience in the field but very helpful to beginners who want to do more than just the same type of course and interaction for every situation.

Designing Successful e-Learning by Michael Allen tells you to “Forget What You Know About Instructional Design and Do Something Interesting.” All of Allen’s books are focused on helping people design e-learning that is interactive, engaging, and useful.

e-Learning and the Science of Instruction by Ruth Clark and Richard Mayer is one of the first books on e-learning I bought, and I still refer to it when I need evidence to justify decisions to clients. If you’ve ever wondered if formal or conversational style is better for learning (conversational) or if your on-screen text should replicate what’s on the screen (no, it shouldn’t), this book explains it with the research to back it up. It’s not perfect; the authors do sometimes disregard research that contradicts their own findings, and they sometimes make their principles seem more absolute than they probably are in real life. However, it’s still a solid reference.

First Principles of Instruction: Identifying and Designing Effective, Efficient and Engaging Instructionis David Merrill’s effort to distill the common principles from multiple instructional design theories. A shorter, earlier explanation of these principles is available as a free PDF.

Games and Scenario-Based Learning

The Gamification of Learning and Instruction by Karl Kapp explains how to do more with gamification than just badges and points. Karl summarizes research and game theory and explains how substantive elements of games like narrative can be used to improve learning design. I wrote more about this gamification research previously.

Scenario-based e-Learning by Ruth Clark is similar to eLearning and the Science of Instruction in that it summarizes research findings. This book is specifically focused on developing scenario-based e-learning, including everything from simple branching scenarios to complex simulations.

Learning Communities

Building Online Learning Communities by Rena Palloff and Keith Pratt is aimed more at online instructors than instructional designers, but it’s a wonderful resource for IDs working in higher education or supporting online and blended learning communities.

Digital Habitats: Stewarding Technology for Communities by Etienne Wenger, Nancy White, and John Smith is about how technology can enable communities of practice.

Other Topics

Learning Everywhere by Chad Udell is a fantastic resource on mobile learning, providing everything from a big picture view of broad categories of mobile learning to specific technical considerations and pitfalls. You can read my review of the book for more details.

Show Your Work by Jane Bozarth is full of visuals and explains how to “show your work” by sharing what you’re doing and learning using social tools. The book explains the benefits of creating a culture where people share their processes and discoveries.

E-Learning Uncovered: Adobe Captivate 8 by Diane Elkins, Desiree Pinder, and Tim Slade sat on my desk for multiple weeks because I used it so often that it wasn’t worth bothering to put it back on the shelf. This book was an immense help to me in learning Captivate 8. I’m sure their other books on Storyline 2, Lectora, etc. are equally valuable.

More Reading Lists

I received so many great suggestions after posting this list that I posted 20+ More Books for Instructional Designers.

If that’s not enough, these reading lists will give you additional ideas.

Your Selections

Did I miss one of your favorite books? Leave a comment with your suggestions.