Style over substance?

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July 13, 2011 by jonmillymiles

This one will hopefully set the cat among the pigeons or even put some Piranhas in the tank as one of my friends says.

There is a common misconception that content is paramount to style. That what you say is far more important than how it looks. That if your content is sufficiently well worded or factually accurate then any style will be superfluous.

I hate to say this… I totally disagree.

Personally I see “Style over substance” as a phrase that some people use to be lazy, or to conform. Both are bad in my opinion. The other that I hear a lot of the time is that we must consider those with Specific Learning Differences like dyslexia, dyscalculia or dyspraxia. Again I feel that this is wrong, not because I discriminate against those with SpLD’s but because I feel that there are far better ways of doing things that make everybody’s life easier.

What we end up with in my teaching establishment is something along the lines of:

Yellow text in comic sans
on a bright blue background

As someone interested in design this makes me feel physically sick!! Now imagine that you are a student who is having to sit through 7 hours of this a day… over as long as twelve months. At some point you have to ask yourself: WHY????

The answers that you get back are the two that I cited above: what about SpLD’s and my content is that good that it stands alone.

Well to dispel each of these in turn. Firstly it is true that high contrast between fonts and  backgrounds make reading easier for SOME people suffering with SpLD’s However, anyone that knows anything about scotopic sensitivity knows that each person is slightly different and that if you get the colours wrong then you make things worse. Therefore the opinion that we will be serving most people with SpLD’s better is, in my opinion, balderdash. We can serve everyone better by using the software properly, making the presentations available and teaching our students how to alter the colour schemes for themselves. In doing so we teach our students coping strategies that will enable them to move forwards and not be left abandoned when they leave.

The second point is that content stands alone. Hmmmm…. if that were true then there would be little work out there for web designers, graphic designers, illustrators, advertisers, movie directors, animators… you get the gist.

We need to make our content appealing to maintain interest – at the very least so that it does not put people off. But if we try hard we can make presentations that actually grip the attention of those listening. By not cramming them with information we create key points which the students can focus on, even better would be to use a single slide with a model map or another graphic organizer!

The simple truth is that we can work both smarter and more creatively to achieve more… in actual fact, a lot more.

There is a feature within PowerPoint (our tool of choice) that allows us to create a template by which all slides conform to. This is the Master Slide and you can find it under the View menu. The reason that this is so important is that if you design your master first and use it as a template for all the other slides then you can make a change on the master and it automatically updates every other slide. This reduces the amount of work that you need to do to produce the slide show initially but more importantly it makes your design infinitely more flexible.

Now you can design to your heart’s content, and should one of your students have trouble with your slide you can quickly tailor the slide-show to their needs. Even better than that:

They can download the slide-show from Moodle and alter it themselves so that it fits their needs exactly!

Now that you have done that, you can break free of the monotony of yellow on blue and begin to get creative. Have a faint picture as a backdrop or a smart gradient fill. Try other fonts, but choose Sans Serif fonts (without the squiggles on the letters) so that they are clear to read. And remember it is always best to get your presentation previewed on the medium that it will be used on, for example an interactive white board or a screen to make sure that the colours work. It is often best to get some help with this as a second opinion can bring in useful feedback and some brilliant ideas.

Most importantly TRY!!! If it doesn’t work the first time then try something different: colours, gradient direction, font, placement, images, borders, animation, transitions. Just remember that a slide must only be as complicated as it needs to be: a single word does not need lots of animation, an explanation of a circuit diagram may need more.

The way that I see things is that style adds to content. It helps to create the narrative and ethos of your lessons. The students see how much effort and care you have taken with your media, whatever it may be, and they will respond accordingly. More to the point, when you produce good work, you show it off to the best of your ability.

Good style coupled with good content produces an excellent backdrop for learning.

In the meantime, here’s some points to think about.



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