Why Ugly Handouts Are Bad for Teachers (and everyone else)

The two syllabi below have the exact same content, word for word. So is one better than the other? Without hesitation, I would respond: yes, most definitely. And I could bet that most people looking at these documents side-by-side would be close to unanimous in deciding which is better (or, at the very least, be unanimous in deciding which they’d rather read). And observers wouldn’t even have to be able to read these documents to make that decision!

Bad Syllabus DesignGood Designed Syllabus
The question is, of course, why? Why is a syllabus, or any other document for that matter, that has a little bit of information design principles built into it a better document? Isn’t content what really matters? And even if design makes a document look better, does that really make it all that much better?

An argument could certainly be made that content drives a document’s value. Content is what we read, after all, and it’s the information we’re after. As the argument goes, isn’t document design just superfluous, a little bonus for the aesthetically-inclined? Are better-designed handouts really that much more beneficial to students to make it worth a teacher’s time to actually design them?

Part of the answer to these questions lies in yet another fundamental question: how important is it that the document be read?

Research has repeatedly shown that the majority of us simply don’t read day-to-day documents any more. At least, not like we used to. In a world of information overload, we have been trained–sometimes tacitly, sometimes explicitly–to scan and to satisfice (scan quickly to find what we deem to be relevant and important and make a quick decision based on that brief information). If that research is true (and all indications are that it is), that means non-designed documents have enormous potential for obscuring information that may otherwise be read if a document were clearer, visually organized, and/or more generally appealing.

One of the things that I do in my many obligations as a college professor is that I review advanced high school course syllabi to help determine if a course’s content is equivalent to a comparable college course so that the high school course may receive college credit. In this capacity, I have reviewed hundreds upon hundreds of syllabi and one trend I see is all too common: syllabi are, by and large, very difficult to navigate. They are, quite simply (and probably too honestly), ugly. If I were to give a rough estimate, I would say that nearly 75% of all syllabi I review include very little, if any, attempt at making the document more visually appealing, more scannable, and, thus, more likely to be read.

Now, part of my job as a reviewer does not include information design. My job is to analyze the content and make best-guess assumptions, based on that content, about how the course will be taught. Regardless of document design, I do take the painstaking efforts to through the thick and clunky text of every syllabus in order to make conclusions about the course. It’s my job to. But can teachers be safe in assuming students will do the same? And not just with syllabi, but information handouts, assignment descriptions, or even PowerPoints?

But there’s something else at stake here–something perhaps even more pedagogically and epistemologically serious–beyond the readability and scannability of a document. Because students often have a grade associated with their ability to read through a given document, a common teacherly assumption might be that students should and will read the document regardless of how it looks or how annoyingly difficult it is to read. Although this acknowledges an awkward power relationship between student and teacher (many teachers may be subconsciously inclined to just assume it doesn’t matter how a document looks because students know they’ll feel obligated–with a fear of a docked grade–to read it), assuming document design isn’t of value does something else: it rhetorically suggests to our students that quality work doesn’t holistically consider the entire communication.

Rather, by neglecting design, we inadvertently (rhetorically) tell our students that the projects they produce are evaluated from only certain–and limited–perspectives in professionalism. If we aren’t producing professional documents from all rhetorical angles, why should they? If what we produce looks like crap–a student’s subconscious mentality may assume–then professionalism and exceptional quality must only lie in a very specific component of a project (like the writing, style, organization, teamwork, project management, or whatever the teacher points to). In other words, it opens up the opportunity for students to assume, even if they don’t recognize they’re doing so, that they don’t have to value all aspects of professionalism. It may limit, to put it another way, a student’s perspective in how they can think creatively, holistically, and opportunistically to create their personal best quality work from all angles. If a teacher doesn’t do it, students may either not notice it altogether or may assume it really doesn’t matter.

But taking the time to design documents, really, is important in all aspects of life. It gives a certain level of credibility; it establishes an important ethos of the communicator and a relationship between the communicator and the person being communicated to. I remember listening to a presentation by a librarian several years ago; she was teaching my students how to determine the credibility of a website before using it as a legitimate reference. One of her primary suggestions was to look at the design: did it look like a website built by a professional organization? Or did it look like some hack job by a dude in his basement? Whether it’s fair or not, we all have this initial, visceral reaction to the things we see. And, the reality is, if something looks poorly designed, we believe it’s bad information.

If you were looking for a new mortgage company, a company that was about to mess with hundreds of thousands of dollars of your income, and you were reviewing several companies to go through but knew nothing about the company other than what you saw in their mailers, on their website, and in their billboards, would you choose the company who always produced shoddy communications?

In an educational setting, are teachers putting themselves in a bad light, making themselves look less credible because the documents they produce look awful?

There are, of course, many ways a teacher can redeem his/herself. And good document design certainly does not, by any stretch of the imagination, make a teacher–in terms of teaching ability–any better or worse than another. Most teachers won’t be known for their stellar document design. And really good teachers in the classroom can overcome poor documents with their ability to connect with students and engage them in the classroom. But demonstrating our commitment as teachers to the material we produce, even if just a handout in class, shows a greater purpose: that we care about how students respond to the information we provide, that we care about their ability to not only interpret and learn the information, but that we care about how difficult we made it for them to process. Perhaps even more important, it shows them that extra effort in the little things makes us stand out as exceptional, rather than just as ordinary or expected.

For the teachers, though, who get nervous about the thought of designing documents, the good news is that you don’t have to be a professional graphic designer to improve communication. Some fundamental and basic document design skills can be learned in a one-hour workshop. By simply chunking information, using two font types, and following a few simple business document formatting techniques, for example, a document can be quickly transformed from ugly and undesirable to read to awesome and accessible. Mostly, just some thought and care–perhaps an extra twenty minutes of tweaking the small things–can make a world of difference.

As the late German-American architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe once said, “God is in the details.” Indeed, the communications we produce can go from ugly and ordinary to awesome by paying attention to the details of information design.

Related article: Would a Course Syllabus Be Better as an Infographic?

3 thoughts on “Why Ugly Handouts Are Bad for Teachers (and everyone else)

  • December 10, 2014 at 8:36 pm
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    You make some excellent points that resonate with someone that has sought to bring design principles to the higher education syllabus. At Utah State University, we have developed an open source web application for creating higher education syllabi: http://salsa.usu.edu/. Salsa stands for Styled & Accessible Learning Service Agreements.

    If you check it out, you will notice that Salsa does not offer a lot of style choices at this point. Accessibility for all students–regardless of disability–is a design commitment that we have made at the Salsa project. We believe that rather than expecting instructors to become web accessibility experts, they should be provided with tools that produce accessible documents through a guided process, and yes, through thoughtful constraints.

    For instance, any underlined text that is not a hyperlink does not meet accessibility standards, so our text editor does not provide the underline tool. The editor does have the ability to create hyperlinks, and these are underlined automatically. As we move forward, we will bring in more style and layout choices that contribute to aesthetics–as you note, an important part of usability–but it in ways that don’t put any students at a disadvantage.

    Regards,

    George

  • December 11, 2014 at 1:28 pm
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    Curtis-

    This is a great article and a tremendous help. I will certainly circulate this amongst my peers.
    Thank you!

  • December 12, 2014 at 2:23 pm
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    Good article. I agree that readability and scannability are critical issues if you want people to read your work. To this end I would suggest that adding subheds would make your web article itself more scannable. Even though I’m interested in the topic, I’m as impatient and distracted as the next person and appreciate visual “points of entry” to the text.

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