6 Tips for Designing Better Digital Materials

Many of us find ourselves working from home these days, and with that comes some unique challenges. One of which is creating materials to be presented or shared over digital channels. This is especially true in the education sector. Designing better digital materials is no longer a specialty skill, but is expected across all channels and departments.

Educators may have tried and true handouts they’ve been using to support curriculum material for years, only to find that these are not well suited to digital and online formats. But this also applies to other types of online communications – everything from staff meetings on Zoom to digital signage feeds in Teams – any communications being shared over a digital medium.

In good design, form always follows function. The aim is to provide clear information as cleanly and concisely as possible, but in a way that interests and engages the target audience. Things like design and layout, and the impact of the reader, matter more in the digital realm.

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Whether you’re adapting old materials or creating new ones, here are a few basic digital design tips to keep in mind:

1. Maintain Professional Standards

The quality of your materials matters, and passing off poor visuals is harder to get away with when doing it digitally. Just like you wouldn’t pass out a fifth-generation photocopy that’s all but impossible to read, you shouldn’t present the digital equivalent in the wrong size – which in digital design means aspect ratio and resolution.

When digitizing a PDF or using images, make sure that they don’t end up squashed or stretched because the aspect ratio is off. The same goes for resolution – a small image that is then blown up bigger is going to look pixelated and be almost impossible to see and process quickly. It’s much better to use a larger image than you need that can then be scaled down.

If you should be using your logo, branding or copyrights on materials, make sure you’ve included those elements. Whether it’s colors, fonts or imagery, those have to be taken into account in your design. It doesn’t speak well for the organization when the logo is obviously slapped on at the last minute in a haphazard place. If you’re unsure, ask your marketing or communications department about brand guidelines. They may even have some templates you can work from.

2. Make It Easy on the Eyes

Reading or looking at something on a monitor is a very different thing than looking at something printed. The light emitted from a digital device causes eye strain, and even the way the eye perceives things like shapes and recognizable words is different.

You need to make sure that the different elements in your design can be easily distinguished. The main thing is to use is good contrast. Higher contrast generally means easier to see, and this is especially true for people with diminished vision or color blindness. Words need to really stand out from the background, so use good contrast whether your material is grayscale or color. Light text on a dark background, or vice versa, can go a long way towards improving legibility. And be sure your colors are complimentary.

Also, make sure you use a large enough font – no one wants to try and read tiny text, especially during an online class or meeting when time is limited. It’s generally thought that sans serif fonts are easier to read in digital formats, while serif fonts are better suited for print. Beware of using too many fonts in a single design – basically, no more than one or two. Also, be careful about using italics too much.

3. Keep it Complete but Concise

Don’t cram a whole bunch of things into a single design. If your audience’s first impression is that there’s an awful lot of stuff there, it seems like too much work and people lose interest. When using something like PowerPoint, it’s better to have sparser slides but more of them, than to have only a couple that are filled top to bottom with text. Try to stick to the 3×5 Rule:

  • This means try not to
  • exceed three lines of text
  • with five words per line

Or you can have five lines with three words per line.

This is especially important when presenting your materials during an online class or meeting. The less people have to read, the more they can focus on what you are saying. When people read something to themselves, they actually use parts of the brain that are also used for processing sound and meaning, and so they literally cannot read and listen at the same time with 100% of their capabilities.

Think about some of the principles of Pecha Kucha, a presentation style invented by two expatriate architects living in Japan. This is a slide presentation of 20 images which are displayed for no longer than 20 seconds each. This yields a total presentation length of 6 minutes and 40 seconds, with the speaker then available afterwards for an extended Q&A session. Each image is usually just that – a single image that somehow reinforces what is being said and attracts interest.

There are few things in the modern world more tedious than listening to someone read aloud a PowerPoint slide; either just tell me what you were going to put on it, or be quiet and let me read it for myself. By keeping text to a minimum and using supporting visuals, you can keep the focus on the speaker and what they’re saying.

4. Highlight the Most Important Information

When designing your materials, test it out on your own monitor, laptop or smartphone. (Remember that everyone in your audience may have different screen sizes.) Walk back a few steps, look at something else for a moment and then quickly look at what you’ve designed. What is your eye drawn to first? If you just glance at it quickly, what do you remember? That’s what your audience will probably notice first. Is that the key information? If not, change things using focus techniques until the most important thing is the first thing someone notices.

Create a visual hierarchy by what you use and where you use it. In countries like the United States, where reading text is done left to right, the left side of what’s on screen is slightly more important than the left, and is where most people look by default unless there is something compelling elsewhere. People will notice headlines first (larger font, at the top, often centered), graphics and images, bright colors and things with high contrast like bold type. Larger elements will seem more important than smaller elements. And things that are separated by a bit of open space will seem to stand out more than things that are all crowded together.

5. Mix It Up & Have Fun

Quite often, people will overburden their online presentation with too many elements and too much information because they want it to double as a takeaway that people can download and reference later. But these are two very different things.

If you’re creating downloadable materials, they can be a bit denser because the person can look at it in their own time. If you’re presenting that information in an online session, create a simplified version that focuses on the key concepts. Remember that you’re not only battling the clock, you’re competing for your audience’s attention since they may not be in a quiet, controlled environment.

And change your overall design for different types of materials to keep things interesting. Don’t make everything a carbon copy (so to speak) of everything else. Remember that your audience uses computers, smartphones and tablets every day, and you’re competing with all of the other digital content they interact with every day. Newness breeds interest and interest increases engagement, so try to keep things fresh.

You might consider developing a design scheme of your own, as long as it doesn’t go against your organization’s policies. Different color schemes can be used for different categories of materials. For example, you might use light blue as the main color for everyday lectures, but a brick red for things students need to know for an upcoming test.

And don’t be afraid to make it fun (while still remaining professional, of course). You could make a friendly character to guide people though all your different materials, like your mascot, or a talking light bulb, or a cat or what have you. This adds interest and will almost certainly increase engagement.

6. Let People Interact

Because this is digital, there are a lot more options available to you than just what can fit on a printed page. Instead of thinking in terms of a lecture hall, you can now consider the entire world wide web and all of the digital technology it offers as your classroom.

If there’s any way for you to make your materials interactive, you should do it. Embedded hot spots that take people out to more detailed information or footnotes that are hyperlinks to the article they refer to are just two examples. QR codes can also be a good way to allow people to access more information while not taking up a lot of space in your overall design.

If you can make a short video about something, do that. Research has shown that people will watch a five-minute video more readily than they will read an online article that takes three minutes to read. This may seem counterintuitive, but that’s just how today’s digital citizens like to do things.

But there’s even more available out there on the web to help you. Using gamification principles, you can design whole presentations or lessons in a totally new way. Instead of just telling people a string of facts, why not make an online scavenger hunt? Some websites and programs allow you to create online escape rooms or choose-your-own-adventure assignments.

When gamifying materials, make sure to have rewards of some sort to encourage participation. These could be real-world things, like a gift card for the bookstore, or they could be things like extra credit points or a virtual currency that winners can accumulate and then use to “buy” perks. Doing something like this takes just a little bit of time to set up, but once it’s up, it’s up and you can use it forever.

If you take advantage of these tips for designing better digital materials and all the incredible tools that clever people and companies are creating, you can turn your materials into fun, interactive, living creations that stand the test of time. Most apps and websites have a free trial period, so experiment and find what works best for you and your students. Done well, your digital designs can continue to engage and educate your audience even when people return to the classroom.