One of the most interesting rules about creativity that I had to learn is that there are very few truly new things when it comes to creativity. There are new ways of looking at things and there are new ways to combine things, but it is really rare to create something that is completely new.
And, this is a really good thing for us eLearning designers.
Typically, our industries and courses we create are not at the forefront of the media, and therefore are not scrutinized in the same manner that special effects in a movie or video game might be.
If you want to be a real rock star when you start designing your next course, look to different mediums for your inspiration because they will be familiar to your learners and the biggest secret…
OPEN YOUR EYES
As a designer, you can’t box yourself into what you have always done. If you want to be a true elearning rock star that stands out from everyone else, you need to be aware of different types of design that occurs around you. It’s a little extra effort and you are already doing most of it anyway. It is just a matter of adjusting how you take it in.
From a design standpoint, what’s the hardest thing to do? For me, it is always that time at the beginning of the design stage when I am trying to define the look and feel for our next course.
We have it a lot easier than you think. You don’t have to create new ideas from scratch. Whew! There’s a load off your shoulders, right?
WHERE DO YOU LOOK FOR INSPIRATION?
What’s the closest medium to what we do when we design an online course? Web sites and mobile apps. What’s the closest medium to what we do when we create explainer videos or marketing materials for our courses? Movie trailers and video game introductions.
You may not have a huge design budget, but these companies using other mediums probably do. You can assume that companies like McDonald’s, WalMart, Disney, Target, Coke, Sony, Nintendo, and many other online retailers spend millions of dollars to make their web sites, mobile apps, above-the-counter menus, and online stores the best experience they can provide. Why? They want you to spend your money with them and they want you to purchase the up-sell, in-game content, or watch the movie (preferably in the theatre).
When I go to lunch, the people behind the counter must think I am crazy! If I see something in the menu above them that has a unique layout, I will whip out my phone and take a picture of it. Then, I can mock something up later based on that original design. These menus make for great models for opening Table of Content screens.
One last place to remember to look is your company or client’s web site. Typically, this is an overlooked resource. This can provide you with a starting point for layout, interface style, colors, and imagery ideas.
TOOLS TO FUEL INSPIRATION
I have several tools that I would call my “design bff’s”.
- Online Design Challenges
- Infographic makers
If you have these blocked at your office for security reasons, you have two choices:
- Go to your IT department and plead your case to get them unblocked.
- Ignore the challenge of accessing these on your work computer and simply use your personal mobile devices or laptops.
I use a mix of these two solutions. Needless to say, if I have my messenger bag, I probably have my personal laptop in it for this reason.
HOW TO MODEL INSPIRATION FROM YOUTUBE
I cannot tell you how many times we have had someone say “We need to share some content with our learners and we aren’t sure how to present it”. I immediately do a mental review of things “similar” to the thing we need to present and search for it on YouTube. Inevitably, there is a well-done video by some other company and we can say “do you mean something like this?” If the answer is yes, we know how to present the information. If the answer is no, typically it sparks the conversation and we end up watching a few more videos and usually hit upon a model, feel, mood, emotion, or music style that gives a jumping-off point.
A practical example of this is recently, we were tasked with creating a series of promotional videos for an upcoming software release. We had a very hard time grasping the emotional hook that our manager was trying to describe. She saw it in her head and knew what she wanted. She was just having a hard time verbalizing it. Her response to this inability to get her vision across was to go to YouTube and share a few videos with us that were what she was trying to describe. Once we studied them a little bit and looked at the patterns in the presentation, we got it and were immediately able to create a promo video that was exactly what she was trying to get us to create. This video has seen several high level accolades because of this simple effort.
The flip side to this is that as you keep abreast of pop-culture, you will see things that are very creative and great for idea generation. For example, Weird Al Yankovic is brilliant at parodying pop culture and shining spotlights on how we experience it. Recently, he released two videos that we spent a lot of time reviewing and seeing how we could learn from them.
Going back in time, School House Rock is another great source of inspiration – they taught children complex math, grammar, and science concepts in three minutes (Is there anyone that watched them as a kid and still doesn’t sing the preamble to the US Constitution?).
What about the unique viral music videos by OK Go. They present interesting messages using an artistic flair. You will also find interesting skits from late night television, commercials, and other viral videos that will seep into public consciousness. You can absolutely use these in some way or another.
USING GOOGLE TO SEE WHAT IS POSSIBLE
Remember, it isn’t about directly copying what someone has done. It is about seeing what is possible.
Many times, if we are trying to define a concept or look for an analogy to start from, I will use Google to set off the explosion of ideas. For example, I was asked to design a course on safety at a construction site. I needed a starting point for ideas. A quick Google Image search showed me what it thinks is related to “construction” and “safety”. You can guess that it returned pictures of scaffolding, hard hats, construction sites, cranes, foreman with architect plans, etc. But, by looking at these images, I also saw patterns in color schemes and image layouts. When I looked at the web searches, I got to see companies that match that search term. I could go to their web sites and review the design styles. This is valuable to see because it shows you where the design “bar” is for what you may have to create. You may find that all the sites are highly stylized and therefore, your course needs to match that level of design quality. Or, it may go the opposite direction – you may see there is a lot of room for improvement and if you stylize a little bit…BOOM! You are a rock star!
You can perform this same trick with iStock.com. This web site is a gigantic library of modern stock photos. By searching terms here, you can see how various photographers view this topic, concept, or theme. It can also drive you to related concepts. Lastly, if you are looking for an analogy to work from, this tool can drive you in that direction.
Here are the first images that came up when I searched for “construction site” on iStock.com. Notice the pattern of colors? Blue, yellow, orange, gray, and brown. Lots of safety vests and hard hats. You also see wide shots of buildings being built, and workers looking at plans. Interestingly, you also see several shots of men in suits. Speaking of “men”, notice that all the images are of men? Even though there may be women in this field, the first images that come up don’t represent that fact. Is this important to your design? It might be.
The last tool I really like is provided on the blog hosted by David Anderson of Articulate software, eLearning Heroes. They do weekly eLearning challenges on some topic and the community responds. For example, they will throw out a topic like “organization charts” or “online magazines” and provide some resources for research and inspiration. The next week, they will share some of the best works of people that took up the challenge. This repository of samples is a fantastic way to quickly see how people are addressing a design challenge. I personally modeled two items for a course this way.
WEB SITES AND APPS
This is the best place to gain inspiration for modern-looking design styles for your courses.
You can see color schemes (which PowerPoint 2013 will easily let you capture and use in your designs), layout options, interface design, and navigation ideas.
Your learners naturally spend a lot of personal time on various web sites (probably Google, Amazon, Ebay, Netflix, Target, YouTube, etc.).
Your learners also use apps on their mobile devices quite regularly (iOS, Android, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, USA Today, etc.). These are designs and structures they are familiar with, recognize, and don’t need to be taught how to use.
These types of media have rules and expected actions and capabilities built into them. For example, web browsers typically have a tabbed interface, most sites have some sort of search capability, media and images take center stage – we are learning to use media over text for content, they have navigation styles that are similar to each other, and many even have splash screens before the actual site or app launches. You will probably see a lot of similar color schemes to go with these designs.
Don’t forget the modern look of Microsoft Windows 8, with its panel design. This is a modern style that you can use for a fantastic navigation style to which your learners will instantly relate.
INSPIRATION FROM INFOGRAPHICS
Infographics are a very modern way of presenting a lot of information in a concise, visually appealing manner.
Infographics tend to be tall and thin. However, you can modify this look to meet your needs. Think of them as PowerPoint presented vertically, rather than horizontally. With that in mind, simply turn most infographics on their side and you have your starting point to effectively use them as a design tool.
Simply find a gallery of infographics and you can find one that sort of displays the type of information you want to present and use that as your starting point. Many infographics use the flat design style for their imagery, so they aren’t that hard to build, once you know what you want to build.
ABSORB MODERN POP CULTURE
If you are looking for a way to show people the larger picture and you are struggling with how to approach it, look no further than modern film and television. A great inspirational place to start is Lord of the Rings and the introductory title sequence to A Game of Thrones. Both of these stories require an understanding of the “lay of the land” to see how parts of the story relate to other parts of the story.
If you have not seen Weird Al Yankovic’s music videos for Word Crimes and Mission Statement videos, take a moment and do that. These are very interesting ways to present material to your learners. One uses all images and words to tell the story. The other is based on the popular whiteboard video explainer style.
What can we learn from literary and film hero, Harry Potter (besides the fact that everything is better with magic, dragons, and John Williams). What about the newspapers that have moving images? What about how messages are sent in a unique way? What about engaging your audience’s desire to explore and learn more? Maybe the message isn’t about what you see visually or anything to do with the story. Maybe the lesson is in the marketing style of this series and the accompanying movies. By “dripping” information on the audience over time, large amounts of people were waiting in bookstores (in costume) ready to throw money at the registers to get the new book when it releases at midnight. What would you do for your learners to react to your courses in that manner? You may not get quite the same reaction, but curiosity and full engagement would be a worthy goal.
YOUR GOAL IS CLEAR!
Become a student of pop culture, web sites and apps, movie trailers, and play a few video games. Engage the design communities online. Read magazines. Visit local chain restaurants. Study photography, graphic design, and game art.
All of these things will develop your creative intake system. As you develop your eyes to see the things you see every day through a different filter, you will start to see patterns and trends. Once you recognize these, you can incorporate them into your design process.
Everyone sees these same things. But, if you want to be viewed as a creative rock star, you will need to see these things in a different way than everyone else.
Once you do, you will start hearing people call your work “modern”, “slick”, “clean”, “intuitive”, and “innovative”.
Before you can create your own innovative designs, you need to be able to identify what is currently popular and be able to define how people (including your current learners) are using existing media and tools. Otherwise, you will just create what you typically default to. If you want to stand out in the field, you can’t default to past visions – you have to look forward and be aware of what your users expect.
WHAT ARE YOUR CREATIVE INPUTS?
Do you have any sites, videos, games, magazines, books, or online repositories you use to develop your creative vision? If so, please feel free to share them with the community so we can all rock to the same beat!