Design for Educators: Intro (?)

I’m kinda screwed here. Graham, Marcie, and Tim are positively murdering the comments of the last post, raising great questions, and implying (in at least one case) that if I’m gonna talk up the connection between great presentations and our students’ learning outcomes, maybe, um, I ought to do more than just gripe about the lousy ones.

Fair enough.

But full disclosure: This has been the longest standing post in my Blog This Someday pile simply because I have absolutely no training as a designer of any sort. That may well be a boon to us here since the same could probably be said of our no-MFA-having teaching audience.

And the preface: If you’re out there giving lectures or presentations with any regularity and you’re only supplementing your talks with transparencies or nothing at all, consider investing in a laptop and a projector. For me it was a large hurdle between good presentation and great presentation, the sort where you spend twenty minutes from the front knowing you’ve got ’em mesmerized. Not for nothing, it has also transformed my teaching.

As with every slice of teaching, improvement is a three-step process:

  1. Target Areas For Growth. Do you want to make your presentations more engaging? No time for that? Fine. Perhaps you’d like to select another entrée from the menu.
  2. Get Metacognitive. Why did you enjoy that presentation on classroom management? Why exactly did you walk away from that talk on Corn Futures in the Midwest feeling like the PowerPoint muddled the point? Integrate the former into your own presentations and throw the latter out bouncer-style.
  3. Seek Out The Best In Those Areas, a task which, with the Internet, has never been easier. There is an RSS feed for every slice, I’m positive. Simply Google this topic to find that blogger who’s just-okay but who links up to another guy who is positively at the top of the game.

    Let me save you the trouble: Cameron Moll, Khoi Vinh, Guy Kawasaki, Garr Reynolds.I’m a piker next to those names (hence the line break) but I’ll also encourage you to tune into my classroom slides. You can buy worse slides than mine.

Our first exercise.

  1. Which of the following slides do you prefer? Why does the information slide off one faster than the other?
    Slides lifted from Garr Reynolds.

Answers are welcome in the comments (I’ll post my own commentary shortly) but, truthfully, with this introductory post, the answer isn’t the point. The process is the point. That three-step process has made me everything I am as a designer and a great deal of who I am as a teacher.

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. As you mentioned, design is a process. Sometimes to journey you take to get there is as important as where you end up. One of my architecture lab professors used to require us to display every shred of sketch and scrap from start to finish with our designs, that’s how important it is.

    I will briefly comment, compare, contrast the two slides. The second is by far the best, for a variety of reasons. I’m a real form follows function kind of guy, and this one follows that mantra. It’s purpose to provide an easily readable graphic display of parts to a whole. The fancy perspective view on the first slide only skews and distorts. A head-on view will provide immediate and lasting support to the data.

    The colors are chosen exceedingly well. They are all earth tones, which is in keeping with the theme of the graph. The task ratios of light to dark make the lettering easy to read, compared to the first drawing, whose glaring colors make the small white lettering nearly impossible to read. I find myself squinted as though looking at pavement on a hot day.

    Lastly, font size can’t be underestimated. It can mean the difference between a readable presentation and a quickly forgotten one. The second graph has subtle differences in font size and color that do a whole lot with very little. With most graphic design, simplicity is best. Unfortunately, this is very much a case of “working hard to make it look easy.” It’s kind of a Catch-22. Good design is all about process, but a good design should be so clean and seemingly obvious that it masks all the work that went into it.

  2. I wonder if teachers, being used to presenting info in intuitive ways, have somewhat of a knack for slide design? Are they/we at least better off than the average person (or CEO)? I have no design or artistic education, yet I would certainly never produce a slide like #1, and I’m not sure if any of my powerpointing colleagues would either.

    If you held a “presentation-off” between a mildly powerpoint-savvy teacher and a non-teacher of similar powerpoint skill, who would take home the gold?

    One more thing: Dan said “…consider investing in a laptop and a projector….Not for nothing, it has also transformed my teaching.” Big time. Having a good presentation to go along with your class is tremendous. I really think that it helps you (the teacher) as much as it helps the students. Try it sometime and see how it works for you.

    Of course, finding the time to make the presentations is the hard part…

  3. Tony‘s analysis is pretty spot-on. Just because Excel offers that cute dimensional tilt to the pie graph doesn’t mean you should use it.

    The second slide makes the pie portions even more obvious. If we wanted to really rock the slide, we would title it with our thesis. (i.e. “Europe dominates arable land in organic production.”)

    Like Tony says, the colors are well chosen. I’m a total dud when it comes to color coordination but even I know that Excel’s default palette, which pairs baby blue up with dark green, clashes awkwardly. Garr Reynolds picked those colors off Whole Food’s earth-toned website. (Incidentally, a great crutch for the color blind is Color Jack.)

    Tim, I dig the spirit of your thesis but I disagree. Assuming the plane of graphic design experience is completely equal, I give the edge to the CEO, simply because presenting is far less akin to teaching than it is to storytelling.

    Teaching is more analytical, storytelling more social. A lot of teachers are great at both but not all. I imagine a prerequiste for any CEO’s business acumen is the ability to spin a good yard to a room of strangers.

    I say we take this out of the hypothetical, though, and find us a willing CEO.

  4. There are theories that work wonders when analyzing design. I might recommend a cursory glance at the ITPC, or the Integrated Text/Picture Comprehension Model, the Multimedia Principle by Mayer (not Meyer, Dan) and specficially a principle called the split-attention principle. Those taken into account alongside the Cognitive Load Theory (by Sweller, author of the original article you mention) can directly affect your design techniques and student learning outcomes.

    There’s a longer response here, but I’m tired and it’s early. Maybe I’ll do some blogging, but it will take finding the research..

    One day, for now it’s in my blog-someday pile.


  5. By far the easiest to read is the 2nd one. The legend is right on the graph itself, and the first one has the “tilted graph of death” thing going on. On the first one, there’s a sliver of data in there, but heck if I can figure out what it is.

    Thanks for an insightful post here. I will keep it in mind when putting together charts for my staff and students.

  6. Good looking out on the sliver of data, Rick. Reynolds mentioned that he compressed several slight slivers to bolster the thesis that Europe is a juggernaut. Who needs to know that Oceania is a blip?

    Reckon I could spend an hour or two at Wikipedia on your comment alone, Chris.