Stephen Fry On Lesson Design

I’m trying hard to identify why the look of something matters to me more and more, often rivaling the importance of the thing itself. Why, for example, does a clear, attractive handout matter to me as much as what’s on the handout?

Stephen Fry, in an article which has absolutely nothing to do with teaching, kinda nails it for me.

Apple gets plenty of small things wrong, but one big thing it gets right: when you use a device every day, you cannot help, as a human being, but have an emotional relationship with it. It’s true of cars and cookers, and it’s true of computers. It’s true of office blocks and houses, and it’s true of mobiles and satnavs. [It’s true for me of lessons and handouts. -ed.] A grey box is not good enough, clunky and ugly is not good enough. Sick building syndrome exists, and so does sick hand-held device syndrome. Fiddly buttons, blocky icons, sickeningly stupid nested menus – these are the enemy. They waste time, militate against function and lower the spirits. They make the user feel frustrated and (quite wrongly) dense. Mechanisms so devilishly, stunningly, jaw-dropping clever as the kind our world can now furnish us with are No Good Whatsoever if they don’t also bring a smile to our face, if they don’t make us want to stroke, touch, fondle, fiddle, gurgle, purr and coo. Interacting with a digital device should be like interacting with a baby.

So, yes, beauty matters. Boy, does it matter. It is not surface, it is not an extra, it is the thing itself. Le style, c’est le truc, as De Buffon would have written today.

It’s the fact that these handouts, these lessons, these presentations, are a daily thing for us and our students. They have to be pretty to look at and touch.

I need to start tearing pages out of all your playbooks on how to make a pretty classroom. If you haven’t already seen my playbook, here’s how to design pretty handouts.

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. This hit home tonight. The school district wants to close the school my son attends (and the other son was slated to attend next year) due to the cost of the renovations they say are necessary (some yes, all that they say? hmm).

    It’s a beeeyooootiful building and every classroom has high ceilings and amazing views out of large (and just replaced with all new) windows. It was built in a triangle shape, with a cut-out courtyard in the middle — the classrooms are around the outside, the hallways run along the edge of the interior.

    Instead they want them to go to a less centrally located school, built in that 70’s prison/bunker style. With temporary walls instead of real ones, and wee tiny window strips up near the lower ceilings.

    Away from the marble and the glory and into the dim corridors and “stairtowers” Blech.

    Besides all that, it’s the only school I’ve seen that come close to having some real interaction and mixing of diverse students. I can’t prove it’s the setting, but it can’t hurt them to be somewhere pretty. (The addition put on later? not so pretty.)

  2. Even aside from your personal angle, this seems kinda tragic. Wish I could find more material online, someone blogging perhaps, on how to capture that “glory” in a box-shaped portable. Gotta be someone out there who knows how to do this.

  3. Dan, my background is in primary teaching (elementary here down under) and the concept of a classroom that is appealing to students is something I can really relate to. As I’m not full time in the classroom the last few years, it’s been a few years since I managed the sort of classroom that you could classify as “pretty”. When I first moved back to Adelaide from my first permanent job in the country, I got very lucky at my new school with a fantastic class of kids in the most undesirable location in a big open space unit. There were five classes in this large high ceiling building with just head high barriers separating each class area from the other. I was stuck in the middle with a “well” (trendy 70’s indentation in the floor for kids to sit in for group discussion) barricading the back of my “classroom”. So, my task with these mainly ten year old kids was to turn this awkward, unattractive space into something they’d be happy to call their classroom without jealous looks through the gaps at the better housed peers.

    We managed to peak that year with the sort of things that might look annoying in some classrooms but seemed to gel in ours. I worked on themes each term and the art, writing and maths tied into that theme for effective displays. One of the themes was “the ocean”, a common enough theme in primary schools and that’s my enduring memory of that year’s classroom. There were paper plate squids dangling from the ceiling, at a height where they were noticed but not interfering, and a pirate ship class collage hanging off the fish net on the side. There were printed stories artfully decorated in coloured pencil and textas (markers) and other thematic based work samples that have now faded into my collective approving memory.

    Right now we’re getting our classes ready for a school Open Night and my classroom is slowly starting to reflect the theme of communication. Your ideas of design and attractiveness for the viewer are really helpful now as I try and recapture what seemed so easy and natural back in 1995!

  4. Wow, I am totally on board with this. As a middle school band director, I have come to understand that parents will enjoy most any concert that I put on where they get to hear their kid play and know that the money they are spending on the instrument is worth it.

    So I choose to turn the concert into an audience experience rather than just going out there and playing a handful of tunes.

    I have groups of students introduce the pieces. They write their own introductions and rehearse them and everything. I understand that not every kid wants to do this, but some love it. And the parents love it.

    I make visually appealing programs. I include graphics, readable fonts (I’ve seen too many concert programs that have a script-type font that makes them a chore to figure out what you are listening to), and plenty of white space. I let the students write program notes for the pieces we play. I list the names of all of the students. I use colored paper.

    I keep the concert moving and minimize dead time. Transitions between pieces are covered by student introductions. At my last concert, I also had a slide show running in the background. Ultimately, the focus of the concerts is the students and their performance. I take myself out of the picture as much as possible.

  5. Reading both Graham and Joel I’m struck how even cheesy, homespun decorations and interior design can make a classroom home if the students made them.

    I’m busy trying to figure out, like, where a couch will go in my class and how best to feng shui the place. Rather, I oughtta figure out ways for my students to personalize it year in and out.

    Oughtta save a bundle not buying those cheesy motivational posters in the process.

  6. You are right on that students need to create the environment. Enough with the Garfield and “The best angle is a tri-angle” stuff….

    So what I did every year was start with nothing on the walls. High school kids hated blank walls–they wanted to start filling them up immediately. Students made posters (records of learning) on big sheets of paper from the roll the cheerleaders weren’t using and then hung them up. Posters might be a solution to a big problem they had struggled with, a review of a chapter, conjectures they wish someone would prove, etc. When the walls got too crowded, they discussed what should stay and why. It was always their stuff. Sometimes the ceiling was fair game. Sometimes the floor. Tons of learning happened around their work. They caught each other’s mistakes (I had to really work against my urge to take down wrong mathematics) and debated the beauty of what others saw and didn’t see.

    Makes me miss the classroom all over again….

  7. Absolutely! My first two years in this district I was by myself teaching 160ish beginning band students. I had to test the students for instruments and there’s only so far that you can go with worksheets before they get bored out of their minds.

    The solution? Posters! I let the students make posters and I would help to pick out which ones would stay and which ones wouldn’t. They put them up on the walls.

    Last year, we made “RESPECT” and “RESPONSIBILITY” posters for each class also. I find that the more the students get to do (such as bulletin boards), the more pride they take in keeping the room in good shape.

  8. Here are a few classroom decor ideas from years passed teaching fifth grade:

    Student-made furniture projects inspired by Frank Gehry:
    Big Chair:

    Underutilized space:
    Floor decoration:
    More of that here:

    Get the camera out:

    Been enjoying your design aware teacher posts.

  9. These came in from Roberto, again. Lost to my spam filter the first time through.


    A few more ideas from elsewhere:

    Set some/all students loose with with post-it notes:

    Or the Rasterbator:

    Of course, there’s also a math angle to explore: