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Presentation design for virtual classrooms with Iona Dierich

Great live virtual learning sessions happen with a combination of facilitation skills, learning design and visual design. L&D professionals often struggle with visual design. In this podcast, Sprout Labs visual design lead Iona Dierich, talks about the importance of visual design in online facilitation.  Iona has a unique set of skills, as well being a visual designer and an occasional instructional designer, she has a background in teaching design. She now runs Sprout Labs visual design for our learning lab.  In our programs on online virtual facilitation and design skills, Iona’s sessions on visual design are often what people get the most excited about. In this podcast Iona talks about a simple, practical idea on how to improve your visual design.

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Presentation design for virtual classrooms with Iona Dierich

Robin: It’s great to connect with other Sprouts, particularly around this topic to do with virtual, digital and live sessions.

Iona: It's great to have a chance to actually do a deep dive into this topic as well because last time we talked, we touched on various aspects but this time yeah, it feels great we can actually have a session to talk about it.

Robin: It feels very odd to be talking about visual design, to a very visual person as well. I sit down and go, how this is going to work when we start talking about visual hierarchy because you'd normally show that rather than actually talk about it. So it's going to be challenging from that point of view.

Iona: So much of the way I present when I talk about this is showing my learners an example of when things work really well and when they don't work well and pretty much just showing it gets the learning message across. I think it's helpful also when you talk about it and when people listen, most people are able to visualise their own training materials or other learning presentations that they've seen and apply it to their own context.

Robin: Okay. Thank you. I'll keep that in mind, as we keep moving forward trying to visualise what something might look like. So why is visual design particularly important to virtual classrooms?

Iona: It's a good question Robin, and I'll start with a broad look at that question, visual design for anything, is the first thing you learn to seize. So whether it's for virtual classrooms, whether it's for your actual learning modules, it really shapes the impression the learner will have of everything they see going forward. A very first impression, it's pretty immediate. You don't have a lot of time to give them that first impression. Specifically for virtual classrooms, it can really enhance the engagement for the people who are participating.

So if your material in your text is dry and boring or if there's lots of it on the screen, they're going to get really bored and distracted and in a virtual classroom you can't really monitor how engaged they are. We know webcams are one thing but they could be on Facebook halfway through your slide if you don't keep them engaged. Part of that comes down to interaction design, of course but visual design is a big part of shaping their experience, keeping them engaged and making sure they're with you through that whole journey in that classroom.

Robin: Pretty nice. So shaping the experience is the visual bit that's driving so much the first impression as well as virtual experiences.

Iona: And for me, visual design sort of sometimes takes a back foot when you're thinking about what activities and what learning interactions you want. Then sometimes it really comes to the front foot when you're looking at what graphics you're using, when and where you're using infographics versus diagrams. So an understanding that visual design is really important will help you understand when you really need to use it and bring it to the foreground and when you can just keep it in the background so it's not distracting.

Robin: It's one of those things that I see some people struggle with the most, letting people get the notion of interaction and designing questions and building scenarios and building interaction. That's the visual design part people really struggle with.

Iona: Well, it's two sides of the brain. Personally, I find this quite hard sometimes to straddle that difference too because often a lot of visual people will think about how something is presented, how it's structured on the page, rather than looking at the content behind it and what's appropriate for what stage of the presentation. So with a virtual classroom, you really want both of those things to be in a great balance. And that's hard to manage sometimes.

Robin: To pick up on that sense of not being engaged but having a whole lot of text on a screen. Who's actually been on the podcast series as well in other conversations, they talk about someone giving feedback on the other side and their words were, that slide will make some of them scared, it's got too much text on it.’

Iona: Yeah.

Robin: It was just a really nice way to sit there and go, ‘yes, this will be overwhelming indeed, learning too much.’

Iona: That thing about being scared is an interesting one. I usually think about it as people being overwhelmed. So if you see a massive block of text, your eye gets overwhelmed and you think to yourself, Oh God, I don't want to read all of that. So it's visually off-putting even if the content itself is very interesting. I think a lot of this actually comes from people creating, back in the day, PowerPoint presentations that they had up on the projector and then talking to the slide, moving around the classroom and that's a very particular presentation style and I guess it worked for that format. But since then, delivery methods have changed so much, especially with virtual classrooms using that same presentation style, it doesn't work anymore. It needs to be updated too. So having that massive chunk of text on a much smaller screen and a much smaller format with people sitting behind their webcams, it's not fit for purpose anymore.

Robin: There was actually interesting feedback from a virtual conference we just produced, some of the attendees were saying, ‘Oh, the fonts were all too small on a small screen, they need to make it full screen, I couldn't see it.’ There was probably just way too much content on the screen to start with. People still build their slide decks as almost a resource, it’s easier to see with lots of text or not. When you get that spot where you got lots of text, what sort of strategies can someone use to really reduce that?

Iona: The first thing I usually think about is what is the part that you're going to be saying? And what is the part that you're going to be presenting? So back to the PowerPoint days, we've all had the terrible PowerPoint presentation where the trainer just reads off the PowerPoint and everyone is just really bored. So the first thing is to think about anything that you're just going to be saying to the learners. You can put that in the presenter notes, it doesn't need to be on the screen at the same time as all of your other text. So really, from a visual design point of view, you want your key learning message to be in front of the learners as text and the rest you can say and then you want to draw out certain parts of your presentation so the learner can take them away with them rather than five, six to ten bullet points.

Robin: That's funny; easy way to say that I sort of had this dissidence in my head. So what does she mean? The difference between what you say and what you're present and then went, ‘Oh, okay’ so then what it ended up meaning is your core message is actually on the screen for people to read or look at if it's more visual and more a diagram but then the verbal is actually exploring the next layer of detail. It's quite a nice way of thinking about it.

Iona: I probably take that to the nth degree a little bit much. And you've commented on this with my presentations before that I probably don’t have quite enough on my slides sometimes, so that I really pare it back. And then I end up just speaking to the slide and getting a discussion going around, which is great from a visual design point of view. It's harder to then hand that over to a different presenter. So yeah, I would say I take that a little bit too far sometimes.

Robin: It's an interesting thing because essentially my slides are fairly pared back. Let’s think about bullet points, they’ve a standard part of PowerPoint. Sometimes you do just need to get through a list. What's some other strategies that people could use other than bullet points?

Iona: Bullet points are an interesting one because as you say, they're entirely necessary sometimes just thinking about the structure of them though, they're entirely vertical. So you read your text top to bottom, your bullet points go top to bottom. Everything is just running down the page. It's the same style of interaction for the learner. So the simplest way to break up bullet points for me is just to change that to horizontal. So if you have a company style guide with some colours available to you, just make them into some boxes on your screen, put the text on top of them and just go horizontal as opposed to vertical. It's a subtle way of breaking up that monotony of read top to bottom all the time.

Robin: It's in some of the templates that you've put together for me recently, you've done that. And it's interesting, even the way you can shift the different colours of the backgrounds of the shapes to emphasise different parts of the bullet points as well. It's more difficult to do if it's the top point of the list of things.

Iona: It's a great way of being able to bring some colour into your presentations. And also as you say, to highlight different aspects, so you might be able to use one colour for a specific type of text, which is say your resource colour or you use a different colour when you want the learners to do an activity on that particular slide. Obviously you need to think about the colour principles and not overdo them or have too many on the slide at once. There's a few things to think about but it is a nice way to actually bring colour in and to change up that structure because we're so used to the standard layout of a PowerPoint presentation or a slide deck Being able to subtly change that is a great way to just keep some visual differentiation in your material.

Robin: So color's one of the core series of principles you talk about. Have you been presenting some of the recent training sessions on visual design for virtual classrooms? I've seen the people that've got really excited about hierarchy and white space. It's almost as if I start to think about it and see it, you can see the penny drop with them and do a whole ‘ahh, all right.’ That's actually going to remove so much from my presentations and think about my placement so much more. Why do you think those two things have seemed to be really important to a presentation design.

Iona: Well, the visual hierarchy, one, kind of goes back to what I was talking about at the beginning with the visual design being that first impression, it's the same with visual hierarchy. It dictates where the eye goes first. And that first impression on a slide will focus the learner's attention, their concentration on what your key learning message is or if your visual hierarchy isn't done particularly well, it'll go to the brightest colour or the biggest image. So it's really important to dictate that focus of attention to your learner and be aware that you want them to be focusing on your key learning message and your headings and your takeaways and not a distracting image that doesn't actually enhance your learning at all.

As for white space. Like you said, just removing things that are superfluous to your learning can be a really powerful way of cleaning up your design. I always think about those catalogues and those flyers that you get in the mail, the junk mail, 20% off this, 50% off that hurry two days only! It's like it's yelling at you. Everything is crowded in, everything wants your attention at once. It feels a bit like that with material that doesn't have enough white space for me, you want enough physical space around your text, around your content so each message can breathe and the learner can focus on it without being distracted.

Robin: There was a moment when I was doing lots of presentation design and people would come back and say, ‘oh wow, that looks fantastic.’ I was working with a speech writer as well, I'd sit there and in the back of my mind doing a whole, all I've done is remove your stuff.

Iona: Oh, I love talking about white space because it's literally so simple. And so many people don't realise that the key to getting something looking good really quickly, is just to reduce the amount of information on each slide. Just get rid of all the extra stuff. If it's not needed there, then it's something you can get rid of. And it's like the quick fix for cleaning something up in a short space of time. I love it.

Robin: It's also, from a learning point of view. It's really interesting because essentially if all of a sudden go, ‘Hey, we've got a paragraph there, I want to get it down to three words’ or it just becomes a sense of refining down what you're doing constantly and making it sharper and more to the point when it's what people are seeing as well. So it's got that sort of view, refining the message thing to it as well.

Iona: And refining is a really good word because a lot of the visual design principles that I talk about come down to refining things. So you can use principles like visual hierarchy and white space to make those big changes, to get something really looking good. And then you get to other things like structure and layout and colour psychology. And that will just subtly shift what you're saying or subtly bring one message to the fore. And that's really just a refining process from getting something, looking 70% to getting it looking 95%.

Robin: And it's sort of interesting as well, to track back to the hierarchy business, if you're talking about the journey of someone looking around a page or a slide or a screen. I think they're thinking it's an instructional designer to be really good at thinking through the journey, through the learning experience of the content, but when it comes to actually putting it on the page, then sitting there thinking and putting the same attention to a whole, what does someone look at first? What have I got extra on here? It needs that same level of attention.

Iona: Absolutely.

Robin: I think I'm going to start thinking about it as this journey through someone else’s eye.

Iona: It's a nice, it's a nice metaphor.

Robin: The flip side to refining is generating. So it's one of the things that quite often designers do extremely well, is generate different ideas. How does that work in presentation design?

Robin: You just talk about the action of refining, the flip side of that is, designers are quite often good at generating multiple options. When it comes down to doing presentation design for virtual classrooms, how do the generating options and generating different ideas work in practise?

Iona: That's a really good question, Robin. So when I was working just as a pure designer, before I stepped into the world of learning design, one of the key things I would always do is create part of a design on one of my art boards and then duplicate it and keep working on it and keep refining it, duplicate it, keep working on it, keep refining it. So it was part of the refining process but it would also allow me to see which directions were good and which directions were just distracting. So it was like a comparison process.

So I think taking that to the virtual classroom format is really good because you can see what options you've created and then think about how can I reframe this? How can I rephrase this? Could this be a visual activity? Is it better as a chat activity? What are the other options that surround this material, that surround this content? Am I presenting it in the best way? How else could the learners see it? It's kind of about shifting your mindset and being able to see things from different sides. And I think from that point of view, having the designer's mindset is really quite helpful.

Robin: It's interesting because essentially even just working on a reworking of a session we've run both together in the past for a client, part of it is a couple of spots where I've just done a whole, ‘oh that didn't really fly.’as well it's an iterative way of working through things from a visual design point of view.

Iona: And I guess piloting a programme is one way to test those things with learners but it's often helpful to be able to do that by yourself without the critique or the pressure of people already looking at your material. Being able to do that yourself beforehand, going through new material and thinking how else could this work?

Robin: So I think about it as, a really good designer is someone who can actually not just make a design but make multiple designs.

Iona: And part of that is also having a separation from your design and from your material. So it's good to do a deep dive into it, get involved in it but then a huge part of, for me, a huge part of design is being able to step back from it. Certainly not get too attached to it. Then being able to present multiple options and say, ‘I've put what I think is the most important thing into these options’ but different people will bring different mindsets, see it in different ways and they'll pick up things that I hadn't thought of and that's such a valuable process in design but also in learning.

Robin: Cool. From a visual designers point of view, what do you think are some of the great possibilities that can be done with online whiteboard annotation?

Iona: I was about to say, I should probably be asking you this Robin because you've done some great things with online whiteboards that I hadn't even thought about with my own training materials. So I've seen you use the gauge tool a lot. I think that's probably one of your favourites and from my point of view, that's great for quick online check-ins. So people can say how they're going with a particular topic, you can check up on how they're feeling with the material that you're presenting and it's a really visual way of doing it as well.

The thing I like about whiteboards is they can be really open-ended so everyone can contribute in the same way. And it can be not as specific as say a chat window, where everyone has to put down their ideas into really concrete words and you can get people drawing on the whiteboard, it engages a really different part of the brain and it changes the interaction. So when people are creating something on a whiteboard they're always going to say, ‘Oh, I'm not an artist. I can't draw this.’ But the important thing is that it takes the interaction from the reading, listening part of your brain to the interpreting and creating and that opens up all new possibilities for different types of thinking. It’s so valuable to be able to have that in a virtual classroom.

Robin: There is something about when you, even if it's just text, when you've got everything on a single screen to be able to facilitate or weave through the pattern of what people are saying, it's really powerful in terms of the interpretation bit, where it takes you. One of the fun things that's happened to us recently is that session where one of our learners, when they came to run one of their sessions, they got people to draw because that was something that I've never risked doing. It works so well.

Iona: It's certainly a fun thing to do. I think you have to be aware of your audience when you're doing that and make sure that people feel like they have that space and they feel safe enough in that space to be able to draw things because people can be very self critical when it comes to just creating something out of the blue with other people watching. So I think, do it with caution but if you can do it, absolutely do it.

Robin: Suppose that was a group that had been working together for, quite a while. So it felt like a very safe environment to be working in to do that.

Iona: That's the perfect example of when you can start to change those interaction types and be a bit more playful. If you've got a group that's working together for more than one or two sessions, you're probably going to need those different interaction types and be able to push those boundaries a little bit. It's a fantastic example of where visual design and white boarding can actually help increase that engagement with a longer term group.

Robin: You start to build activities where people are connecting things together with lines and different types of drawing on diagrams. And that was a sort of really lovely, different way of working and it inspired me to start thinking about sort of partially completing mind maps for things as well.

Iona: Well, it's good to hear that's triggered some new thinking in you. I'm glad you brought that one up actually because I think that's one of my more successful annotations in white boarding activities. I actually based it from a card game. I thought if people don't know the card game in real life, that's fine because it works as an online virtual classroom activity in its own right. If they do know it, then that's great. That's a bit of fun because they'll know where the humour is coming from but it was just a nice way of translating something that was kind of fun in real life into a virtual classroom activity that really worked in a democratic way for all of the learners.

Robin: Just realised we need to paint a picture of what this looks like for the list. Three columns with cards, with different statements on them and people build sentences based on them online. So they'll choose one box, one's typing on one box and then connect it to the middle one and then the final one starts off with an icebreaker; what were some of these options in the icebreaker?

Iona: Oh, it was a play on words around working from home. So I started out with some silly options saying, ‘my home office is or my breakfast today was’ and then people can build up a sentence, the options got increasingly silly. It was based on the game cards against humanity. So if anyone knows the game, they'll kind of know the humour and the intention is to put together the most ridiculous combination possible. So making it a bit humorous and getting people to then connect the different boxes and build a sentence, allowed them to play around with the statement they were saying.

Robin: Then it was nice to use that as the closing as well, where it was actually more serious about topics that we've talked about in the session as well, to connect statements around those.

Iona: And that's where it became a really powerful visual tool because it's so fluid, it's basically an open slate for whatever topical theme that you want and you can make it serious. You can make it humorous. You can make it an open ended question or you can really guide people towards what you want them to have as a takeaway. Yeah. I think it's one of my favourite visual activities just because of how flexible it is.

Robin: So normally I ask what's your gem of wisdom about such and such. I'm going to actually focus your question, wrap up the question a little bit differently. What do you think people can do to really improve their visual design skills apart from maybe doing your visual design course?

Iona: Well, I would always recommend my visual design for learning course but on top of that is something I also tell my learners, is just to be aware of the design around you. It's everywhere and noticing it can really help you notice those same things in your own material and your own presentations. So, it can be something as simple as looking at the advertising around you and thinking, ‘who is the target demographic for that particular ad’ or looking at the book covers in your room and thinking, ‘why have they made that colour choice?’ Have they chosen photography or illustration or is it just text? And that can lead to thinking about why have you chosen the graphics you've chosen in your presentations? The more you're aware of the visuals around you, the more that your visual design sense will be honed and then you can apply that to your own materials. It's just about noticing things.

Robin: Looking, noticing, and seeing it in a different way. Lovely sentiment.

Iona: That's basically it.

Robin: Cool. Thank you for a great conversation today, Iona.

Iona: Thanks for having me back. This was a lot of fun.