Sunday, January 10, 2010

Evolution of information design in my teaching

People change; books and seminars help.

No, not "empower yourself" books and seminars. Of those I cannot speak. Presentation and teaching books and seminars, that's what I'm talking about. It all starts with this picture (click to enlarge):

I made that picture one evening, as entertainment. I was cleaning up my hard drive and started perusing old teaching materials; noticed the different styles therein; and decided to play around with InDesign. After a while I ended up putting online something that I believe has useful content. It includes some references, which is what I'm writing about here.

Though I'm writing about the references, I cannot overemphasize the importance of the seminars. Tufte's books explain all the material (and the seminar's potential value is realized only after studying the books); but the seminar provides a clear example that it works. Some may read the books and go back to outline-like bullet point disaster slides because they don't trust the approach to work with a live audience. Tufte's seminar allays these fears.

The HBS seminar is more specific to teaching, but for those of us in the knowledge diffusion profession it's full of essential information. There are books on the case method and participant-centered learning, but they are not comparable to the seminar. I know, because I read the books before. And when the seminar started I was skeptical. Very skeptical. And when the seminar ended I reflected on what had happened - the instructor had made us, the audience learn all the material I had read about, without stating anything about it. Reading a book about the classroom skill would be like reading a book about complicated gymnastics.

But, even if one cannot attend these seminars, here are some references that help:

Edward Tufte's books and web site contain the foundations of good information design and presentation.

Made to stick, by the Heath brothers explains why some ideas stay with us while others are forgotten as soon as the presentation is over.

Brain rules, by John Medina, uses neuroscience to give life advice. There are many things in it that apply to teaching and learning; in addition, the skill with which Medina explains the technical material and the underlying science to a popular audience, without dumbing it down, is a teaching/presentation tool to learn (by his example).

Things that make us smart, by Donald Norman, a book about cognitive artifacts, i.e. objects that amplify brain powers. I also recommend his essay responding to Tufte, essentially agreeing with his principles but disagreeing with his position on projected materials.

Speak like Churchill, stand like Lincoln, by James Humes, should be mandatory reading for anyone who ever has to make a public speech. Of any kind. Humes is a speechwriter and public speaker by profession and his book gives out practical advice on both the writing and the delivery. I have read many books on public speaking and this one is in a class of its own.

The non-designer design book, by Robin Williams lets us in on the secrets behind what works visually and what doesn't. It really makes one appreciate the importance of what appears at first to be over-fussy unimportant details.

Tools for teaching, by Barbara Gross Davis covers every element of course design, class design, class management, and evaluation. It is rather focussed on institutional learning (like university courses), but many of the issues, techniques, and checklists are applicable in other instruction environments.

These references helped me (a lot), but they are just the fundamentals. To go beyond them, I recommend:

Donald Norman's other books, as illustrations of how cognitive limitations of people interact with the complexity of all artifacts.

Robin Williams design workshop, which goes beyond the non-designers design book. E.g.: once you understand the difference between legibility (Helvetica) and readability (Times), you can now understand why one is appropriate for chorus slides (H) and the other for long written handouts (T).

Universal principles of design, by William Lidwell, Kritina Holden, and Jill Butler is a quick reference for design issues. I also like to peruse it regularly to get some reminders of design principles. It's organized alphabetically and each principle has a page or two, with examples.

On writing well, by William Zinsser. This book changed the way I write. It may seem orthogonal to presentations and teaching, but consider how much writing is involved in class preparation and creation of supplemental materials.

Designing effective instruction, by Gary Morrison, Steven Ross, and Jerrold Kemp, complements Tools for teaching. While TfT has the underlying model of a class, this book tackles the issues of training and instruction from a professional service point of view. (In short: TfT is geared towards university classes, DEI is geared towards firm-specific Exec-Ed.)

As usual, information in this post is provided only with the guarantee that it worked for me. It may - probably will - work for others. I still stand by the opener of my post on presentations:

Most presentations are terrible, and that's by choice of the presenter.