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How Rich is Your Media?

Posted by Brett Smith on Thu, Jul 28, 2016

I was recently reflecting on the power of story-telling and how, like a song with a good hook, it has the power to really engage a learner and take up residence in one's long term memory. Stories provide relevance, build empathy, make concepts relatable and stimulate emotion.  The more heightened our senses are in a learning experience, the more likely we are to be intrigued and remember.

A good story is even better when accompanied by stimulating media, audio and visual cues that support the learning and trigger the imagination. In L&D, a good story requires an experienced and passionate writer with a deep understanding of learning design, brain science, pedagogical theory and a ton of creativity. To then translate that story into a compelling visual experience requires another set of talent all together.

If content is king, then the role that media (visual assets, animations) plays is critical.

With this in mind, I recently sat down with my team of Media Leads, four extremely  creative individuals that are charged with overseeing the visual look and feel of our eLearning and mLearning courses. They don't use authoring tools, but rather draw on a team of graphic designers, illustrators, animators and software developers to build their learning worlds from scratch. They have an open canvass at the outset of every project which is both exciting and daunting.

I wanted to understand from them what they have learned about creating engaging visual learning experiences, how they see their role in the creation of engaging course content and what tactics they use to bring these stories to life.  So I asked them a few questions - here are some of their thoughts:

 Question: Why do you think animation works so well for storytelling?

Answer: In this day and age where we are constantly stimulated by visual experiences. eLearning has evolved from a simple text/image display for the delivery of information to a more immersive experience where the learner interacts with, and becomes a part of a larger story/world.

Whether it’s through character driven elements; infographics or game like interactivities, engaging the learner with constant movement and real life examples assists us in delivering high quality pieces that our clients can use.

Answer: The biggest advantage to using animation is the flexibility it creates. You can create custom assets with custom movements for anything. That means that you can interpret a story in any way that you like and are not limited to stock photos or images. You can express a story abstractly with icons or you can express is with human motions.

Animation in its essence is movement. Through this, you can add layers to a story, show relationships, place emphasis or express emotions, not just in humans but in inanimate objects as well. All these things add subtleties to storytelling that you can’t achieve by simply using text on screen or voice over.

AnswerI think animation enhances the way a story is told. Storybooks for children for example work well and are highly engaging, since they include images that connect the reader to the story. In a very abstract way, if we strip down an animated sequence into its basic component parts and key frames and use the narrative we write- we have a storybook with illustrations. The animation in between makes everything bind together, makes it more playful, and transitions and connections allow for complex matters to more easily understood.

Answer: Everyone loves seeing visuals when hearing a story. It’s what makes the narration that much more compelling and engaging. It also helps to paint a clearer picture of the words you’re hearing. You’re able to convey more emotion and feeling with pictures rather than with just words. As the old saying goes, “actions speak louder than words”.


Question. How do you use animations and rich media to convey meaning to your learners?

Answer: The fundamentals of design (unity, balance, hierarchy, scale, dominance and contrast) are principles that surround us all the time in everything that we do whether we know it or not. Intrinsically we have a shared cultural understanding of what these are even if we are not part of the ‘design world’. Colours have meaning, movements have meaning, positions have meaning. Designers use their deeper understanding of these principles to creatively translate meaning onto new ideas to make them easier for people to understand.

Answer: Media is highly dependent on and connected to the scripts that bring them to life. On its own, a well written script keeps the reader engaged, challenged, and makes them eager to learn and experience more. The animations are like the chocolate chips on an already tasty cookie, the MSG in your bowl of noodles - they further enhance the content and give it that final touch.

The elements we bring to life in our animated screens are simple (yet complex in their creation). Characters are used to connect the learner to the stories, environments and vehicles to create familiarity, icons and charts to explain the details and sometimes unexpected surprises just to be playful and take a break.

Question: What are the different styles of media you use and why would you use one over the other?

Answer:  It really depends on what the client requirements are and what the subject matter is. For example, character driven stories require vector based assets that are easily animated. Whereas, 3D software can be used to create accurate models that can be rotated and displayed for medical purposes for example. Symbols and infographics might be better to convey difficult concepts, while charts, graphs and the like work best for more scientific or mathematical ideas - we let the content determine the media style.

Answer: The style we use highly depends on the subject matter and the learning content that needs to be conveyed. For example I would not use icons and charts to guide the learner through a program about negotiation. The decision of which style to use is almost instinctive just by examining the raw content. Of course sometimes we look further to see if we can push our own boundaries and be more innovative.

The main reason for choosing one style over another stems from whether a course is a character-based narrative where characters have names, emotions, voices and interact with each other, or a narrative that uses icons, visual metaphors, charts etc. to convey complex ideas. These two types of styles are not mutually exclusive, however and sometimes it makes sense to use both in a given learning module. 

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Question: What’s your creative process for creating these “learning” worlds? 

Answer: At the beginning of a project you have to have a thorough understanding of a  few things: the company culture, its branding, its personality.  You have to know the content. What are the learning objective and what is their priority? How long is the content? What is the subject matter? How is the content divided? How is the content presented (storytelling with characters? Icons? Interactivities?)?

And lastly you need to know the technicalities of a project. Budget? Technical capabilities? Time frame?

Based on all of these, I develop a preliminary idea of an overall framework to guide the graphic design, illustration and animation. I then create a storyboard and work with my team of designers and animators as well as with the client to come up with a style that works and delivers the content in the most suitable way.

I also always try to add something that is unique to each course that gives the course a personality. This could be how objects animate onto the screen, the way objects have shadows or quirks that the characters have. This creates an overall uniform feeling to a course and by extension a learning brand.

Answer: Upon receiving the scripts from our instructional designers we flush out the main concepts and begin to create a blueprint of how the user will digest the information in a efficient and engaging manner. Once we make a few key decisions we then have a series of feedback rounds where we stay in close communication with the client in terms of visual design choices (ie. Character lineups, Backdrops/Sets, Interactivity - Function/Appearance). It's critical to really collaborate with all of the stakeholders throughout this process, it makes for a much better end product.

How do you use interactivities to enhance the learning experience?

Answer: The use of interactivities serves primarily as a break point that moves the learner from a passive listening mode to a more active mode of learning. It gives the learner the chance to directly interact with the subject matter and apply the knowledge  acquired leading to greater knowledge retention. It consolidates information in a fun and engaging way.

Answer: We use interactivities as a way to engage the user. I think of them as “checkpoints” for the learner to test/re-iterate and apply the knowledge gained while navigating through the courses. At specific points throughout each course the learner is required to push themselves to implement the information they acquired during that learning block.

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At SwissVBS, we feel that everything has a story and we strive to tell that story throuh the various approaches discussed above. For an example of a solution that used a highly visual character-based, story-driven approach, please download the following case study.

Download the Case Study


Topics: Storytelling, Rich Media

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