Monday, June 29, 2015

Information Design in the Course Syllabus

Information design refers to visual and organizational aspects of a document that facilitate communication. It includes font face and size, colors, layout, headers, and images. Information design is most effective when it conforms to the needs of a specific audience. It helps them break information into chunks and see the relation among ideas. Attention to information design also builds credibility by demonstrating a concern for audience needs.

On the course syllabus, appropriate information design can convey that the course is strategically organized. It also enables readers to locate information quickly. “Headers, graphics, and layout strategies can make syllabi more attractive and user-friendly.”[1]  On the practical side, more information will fit on the page if formatted well. Columns, for instance, permit smaller font sizes because each line is shorter. Compare:
  • Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Morbi sit amet velit vitae massa. 
  • Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur
    adipiscing elit. Morbi sit amet velit vitae massa. 
The second example would be easier to read, though the text is otherwise the same.

Information design is especially important in lower-level classes where students may easily become overwhelmed. Imagine a first-year student faced with this dense sheet of information (please don't try to read it--the words don't matter):

If this page had been broken into two columns and given larger subheadings, the sections would be easier to parse. I sometimes use a newsletter template from MS Word to create columns and sections, but you don't have to go that fancy, as the next example illustrates:

The comparison is a little unfair because the first example was the syllabus's first page and this one is the second. Nevertheless, it shows how white space and underlining can assist in organizing information.

[1] Slattery, J.M., and J.F. Carlson. (2005). Preparing an effective syllabus: Current best practices. College Teaching 53,4, 159-164. p. 163. DOI: 10.3200/CTCH.53.4.159-164.

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