Book Review: Visual Design Solutions, by Connie Malamed

Written By

Bill Brandon

September 10, 2015

Six years ago, Connie Malamed woke up the visual sense of many instructional designers with her book Visual Language for Designers: Principles for Creating Graphics that People Understand. I reviewed that book at the time, and it is still on my list of recommended resources for eLearning design and development teams.

Connie has now authored a companion text, Visual Design Solutions: Principles and Creative Inspiration for Learning Professionals, to complement (without duplicating much of it) her earlier book. “Expands” really isn’t the right word for the relationship of the new book to the first one. “Magnifies” comes closer to describing what she has done.

The book

Visual Design Solutions is a volume that could be used as a textbook in an upper-level course for instructional systems designers. It can be used on its own for self-directed study. It will also be a reference, a source of ideas, and a steady inspiration to many in this field in their everyday work.

Physically, this is 361 pages of design goodness. It is available as paperback or as Kindle. I’m normally a Kindle fan, but not for this book. You need easy access to the figures, of which there are many, and the physical book is 7.4 inches high by 9.4 inches wide, so the form factor is different from a Kindle screen. If you have an old Kindle (no color!), you will be missing a lot of the best part of the book.

The book is organized into four parts, with a total of 16 chapters. There are an amazing 176 figures to illustrate the key points and provide examples; there are also several tables that summarize important details, such as the various graphic file formats and their uses.

The content

I am hard pressed to give an adequate summary of everything that is between the covers of Connie’s book. The best way to proceed may be to hit the high points, and then urge you to get the book. I am certain you will not be disappointed. There is nothing in Visual Design Solutions that is not excellent and that you will not find helpful. The price ($38.83 at Amazon) is a bargain.

Part 1: “The Big Ideas”

This three-chapter part helps you, in Connie’s words, “to embrace the role of the designer,” which might not be a role you feel very confident about embracing. She intends to change your mind about that.

Throughout the book, each chapter starts with the questions it intends to answer, and ends with takeaways. This will help when you are skimming the book, or looking for specific help with a specific problem. Part 1 starts with background (how can I use visuals to improve learning?), and continues to provide a design process (a process much like ADDIE should be). It concludes with practical suggestions to improve your work: building a graphic design “toolbox,” how to create and use a visual style guide and templates, where to get design ideas, and technical terminology.

Part 2: “Building Blocks of Design”

These three chapters introduce the reader to the concepts of organizing graphic space, selecting and creating images, and working with type. These are more practical and hands-on than the word “concepts” might imply. As part of organizing graphic space, you learn about white space and how to use it, about using grids to gain competence in layout design, and using perspective to add realism.

As an old “type dog” myself, I was happy to see the chapter on typography, an aspect of design that many designers (including some professionals) just don’t get. It’s not about “readability” alone. Typefaces add their specific personality to a design. Don’t skip this chapter!

Part 3: “Power Principles” and Part 4: “Practicing Design”

These 10 chapters provide compelling principles that guide good design decisions and make for great results. Taken together, and assuming you paid attention to the first six chapters, these are the parts that pay for the cost of the entire book. Applied, they will add the production values and pizazz to your eLearning product that will set it apart from all others. You learn how to achieve a balanced, unified, polished “look” and there are plenty of illustrations to inspire you.

The payoff begins with tips for using color with purpose, establishing a visual hierarchy, and unifying your design. You also learn how to use contrast and to group visuals for meaning, so that ideas, concepts, and facts will be clear to learners (and by the way, all of this applies to performance support and to infographics, too). You will find out the techniques for directing a learner’s attention, and making learning exciting, enhancing meaning, and making numbers interesting. Most intriguing, you will learn how to tell stories with your visuals. Graphic novel format, anyone? Well, maybe not for every eLearning production, but in these two parts of the book you will find the help you may need to make a compelling and engaging visual story!

Summary: Buy the book!

Maybe at this point you are ready for a summary. Here it is, in Connie’s words: “This book does not teach you how to produce graphics, nor does it promote a particular software package. You can make great improvements by applying the foundation principles of visual design, regardless of what program you use.”

Connie gives you those foundation principles—organized, illustrated, and exemplified. Go out and make even greater eLearning!

Bibliographic information

Malamed, Connie. Visual Design Solutions: Principles and Creative Inspiration for Learning Professionals. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2015. Available in print and Kindle formats.

Want more?

Connie will present the one-day certificate program B.Y.O.L.: Visual Design for eLearning and Slides at The eLearning Guild’s DevLearn Conference & Expo on Tuesday, September 29. This “Bring Your Own Laptop” session is for novice and intermediate designers, developers, and project managers. Registration for the workshop is in addition to registration for DevLearn, and participants will need to bring a laptop with PowerPoint installed on it. See the workshop details here. You may find it helpful to have read Connie’s books ahead of the workshop, but this is by no means required, and none of the workshop content or activity depends on your having read the books.

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