This is a guest post by Julie Platt, currently Assistant Professor of English at the University of Arkansas at Monticello. She researches and teaches about writing centers, creative writing studies, professional writing, and technical communication. On Twitter, she’s @Aristotlejulep.–@JBJ]
It’s sometimes a struggle to get students to carefully read course documents. Many student questions, especially at this time of year, can be answered with “Please check the syllabus!” However, when I check the syllabus myself (even my own!), I’m sometimes pretty underwhelmed. As I prepared to teach our Technical Writing and Communication course this fall, I decided I wanted to emphasize document design and economy of language, two areas in which I felt my previous classes could improve. Around the same time, I discovered Piktochart.
Piktochart is a web-based app that allows you to design infographics and other image-heavy documents and publications. It offers inspiration in a number of customizable templates, and sizable, searchable libraries of fonts, graphics, and icons; you can also drop your own images into any document. You can publish finished projects on the web or download them as PNG files; you can also share them on social media and export them to Evernote. If you want more options, you can purchase a Pro account, which allows you to download your document in a number of page formats and file types and publish it to SlideShare. If you’re an educator, Piktochart offers a 12-month individual license which is regularly $39.99, and now on sale for $15.
Here’s the Piktochart environment (click for full size):
As someone who’s used to working with PowerPoint and Photoshop, the learning curve for Piktochart was fairly gentle. Some of the controls took some getting used to, and getting my design nailed down took some time. However, populating with content was a breeze, and I was able to duplicate the basic template and use it to quickly make similar syllabi for all of my classes. At the finish, I had a clean, well-organized, and eye-catching document that even ended up being a few pages shorter than my original text-only syllabus. I shared it with colleagues on social media to an overwhelmingly positive response. I was also reminded of some important document design principles that I sometimes forget when making teaching materials. To that end, here are some of the most valuable insights into building course documents I gained while using Piktochart.
- We live in a highly visual culture; visual design and visual rhetoric are important. We wring our hands over our students not reading our syllabi, but exactly how readable are they? Are they visually appealing? Do they make good use of the design concepts of contrast, repetition, alignment, and proximity (aka CRAP; see Robin Williams’ The Non-Designers Design Book)? What about visual rhetoric; does the design used convey the intended message to the appropriate audience? What’s the tone, both textual and visual? Students today seem to be particularly attuned to reading and responding to the visual. We can and should use this to our advantage.
- Course materials are technical documents, not literary works. Technical documents exist to accomplish tasks. They don’t have engrossing plots and thrilling language, so expecting students to pour over them like their favorite fantasy novels is rather silly. Syllabi are essentially user manuals, and you don’t read those start-to finish; instead, you scan them looking for needed information. Think about designing a user manual that you’d actually find helpful and easy to read. It probably wouldn’t be pages and pages of single-spaced 10-point text laid out in vast, unbroken paragraphs. Instead, it would be inviting and accessible, making strategic use of headings, numbered lists and bullet points, call-out boxes, clear and helpful images and icons, et cetera.
- While we live in a highly visual culture, accessibility matters. Piktochart’s own blog offers up the useful caution that infographics may well not be accessible to learners with low vision, which is an important reminder. As George has pointed out, good document design frequently overlaps significantly with designing explicitly for accessibility. My syllabus does work to at least some extent with VoiceOver, the screenreader baked into Safari, but I welcome suggestions for improving the accessibility of visually rich syllabuses.
- We should set an example for our students with the materials we offer them. Course documents should be visually clean and careful, and professional but friendly in tone, without being too brief or too wordy. We expect the same of our students’ work: tidy and detail-oriented, with text that does the job well. If we offer our students documents that look haphazard contain overwhelming amounts of confusing text, we show them that we don’t much care for the rules that we ourselves often expect them to follow (especially important in a technical writing class!).
Hope this post has been useful. I’ve included above a screenshot of the Piktochart work environment, as well as a link to my fall Technical Writing syllabus. I’d love to hear what you do to make your syllabi more engaging, and if you end up using Piktochart, I’d love to see what you come up with! Do you have experience with Piktochart? Please share in comments!