“Questions about whether design is necessary or affordable are quite beside the point: design is inevitable. The alternative to good design is bad design, not no design at all.” – Book Design: A Practical Introduction by Douglas Martin

I’m a fan of good design. Many people are so without knowing that they are; good design makes life better and easier, and so we naturally gravitate towards it when we don’t feel constrained by inertia. I’ve taken a course or two about design and read a few books, so I’m not an expert, but I’m a fan.

There are two major sides to design: beauty and usability. I’m going to use a few websites as examples, and tie the whole thing back to educational design. I should note that if you’re looking at one of these websites in the future and not seeing what I’m talking about… unfortunately the internet is like that sometimes.

Warning: some of these websites have sound.

Item #1:

I’m not even sure what’s going on here. It takes forever for anything to happen. I mean, it’s a beautiful site, and I’m sure if I were in a different frame of mind I might  appreciate the experience… but I’m generally online to do things, and my guess is that someone set up this website so that people would buy stuff. I’m not sure what, though. Gave up after about two pages at a minute each.

Item #2:

Look, simple rule: do not make me scrub the screen with my mouse pointer. The page is interesting, but why does only half of it seem to work? Here’s the company’s other website, which is much more usable:

Item #3:

Why some art schools do not hire their students to make better websites I will never know. This one is at the other end of the spectrum from #1: certainly usable, but really ugly.

Item #4:

At the bottom of the page it says “Number of visits since 1998.” Let me tell you, even in 1998, most websites did not look this bad. The fact that mine in fact did, in 1997, is only because I had just barely learned HTML and had never taken an art class. By 1998 it looked better.

Item #5:

As a math teacher, I think this is the most frustrating one I’ve seen in a while. It’s has good things like symmetry and simplicity, but it’s such a bizarre combination of bad functional design, pretty pictures, low information content, and what appears to be total bullshit that I have no clue what’s going on. Might be a scam, might be brilliance. Pure meatcake.


I’m taking a deep breath now.

Ok. Back to education.

Have you ever taken a course where you didn’t know what was going on? Yes? Good. This is not necessarily bad design. If you knew everything that was going on, there would be no need to take the course.

Have you ever taken a course where the information was presented in a dry and uninteresting manner? Yes? Well, this is bad design.

“But wait!” you might say, “Some material is dry and uninteresting and yet I need to learn it.” Well, yes, I can’t disagree. But that’s a personal opinion on the subject matter. A course that presents information in a dry and uninteresting manner, as if it were inherently boring to all, is doing its students a disservice. Such a course is designed without beauty, without appeal. That’s bad design.

Next question: have you ever taken a course in which you learned nothing? Have you done well in the course, passed the exams, done the homework, and still been unable to actually complete a course-related task? Perhaps a Shakespeare class after which you still cannot understand what this MacBeth person is saying, or a precalc class after which you still don’t get these “exponent” things. Yes? Well, this too is bad design.

“Hey,” you might say, “The stuff just went in one ear and out the other. And people need multiple exposures anyway.” No, no, no. A teacher’s job is not done when the information is presented. If you failed the course and learned nothing, that’s more likely your fault. If you passed the course and learned nothing, your teacher taught a non-functional course. That’s bad design.

Courses that are both beautiful and functional are absolute gems. Fascinating, edifying, they are exemplars of good traditional education. I’ve only been in a few, but they were genuinely wonderful. They’re tough to find.

However: in environments with both beauty and function, learning is common. Well-designed courses lead to learning, but so do dozens of other well-designed things, and perhaps those are also worth examining.


About Colin Fredericks

By day I help to create online courses at HarvardX. By night I write roleplaying games.

Posted on January 6, 2012, in Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. You’re essentially talking about human factors here–are you familiar with that field? My husband was in the Minds & Machines program at our alma mater, which is generally about human factors.

    I can’t even look at the websites because I don’t want to know. I’ve seen so many terrible farmers’ market websites in the last month I can’t even handle it.

  2. Yup – not intimately familiar, but enough to agree that we’re talking about the same thing. A lot of my appreciation for this comes from an HCI design class that talked about such things a lot.

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