“I’m just not creative, you see?”

Have you ever heard someone say: “I’m not creative.”?

What does that actually mean?

If you dig deeper you might find answers like “I have no imagination.” – “I’m a structural person”  or: “I’m not talented.”

Whatever the answer may be, creativity can be learned.

To be more precise: Imagination has to be trained. Structural is not mutually exclusive with “creative”. And talent does not replace training.

Having said that…

I feel that many online educators could radically improve the effectiveness of their course materials and webpages by taking design more seriously. (The same holds true for many other kinds of online businesses.)

I’m talking here specifically about Websites, Blogs, Powerpoint presentations, Ebooks and Learning Materials.

Some people (especially the educated kind) seem to believe that if you’re teaching let’s say English, only the grammar, vocab and speaking/listening practice matter while the font-type, color, size and use of design elements are just some kind of fancy gimmicks.

Guess what! They’re not! Have you ever thought about why companies invest a lot of money to get an awesome webpage? It’s not (always) just corporate vanity. They know that good design creates a) good reputation and b) sells better than bad design.

No matter which way you turn it, there really is no excuse to burrow yourself in the conceptual part of your brain and refuse to think in colors, shapes and textures.

There are of course – and this is a popular argument to avoid any real growth in this area – examples of glossy design with little or no substance. But the examples of great content which is poorly packaged are far more common and painful! Think of diamonds wrapped in greasy BigMac paper packaged in coffee-stained shoe-boxes. Most people wouldn’t even take it for free. Their fault? Maybe.

And it doesn’t have to be a diamond. But if your product, course material, ebook, etc. is worth something you should package it in a way that reflects its value! I had a creative writing teacher once who used to tell us: “It’s your baby. You sweated it out!” – meaning our first stories. So, if you put all your heart and hard work in it, please do yourself the favor of letting it shine!

If you settle for bad design you keep people away from discovering your value. And, let’s face it – over years and years of  exposure to glossy advertisements, magazine layouts and polished web-pages people got accustomed to certain quality standards, so that if something is below the standard they will consciously or unconsciously be repelled by it. (For the language-geeks: Bad design is like bad grammar. It’s distracting and annoying!)

Luckily, there’s always something that can be done. And with help of the Internet, tutorials and free (!) open-source tools we are in a position like never before to create things that simply rock!

Here’s some quick guidelines:

1. Research: “The Hunt is On!”

Take a look at what others are doing in your field. But please note. Design it not about taste. Good design is like language. Either it communicates effectively or it doesn’t.

So when you look at what others are doing, you might find things that seem very successful but you don’t like them. Then there may be things that suit your taste but have no traction.

There’s always the problem of measuring success in some way. I don’t believe there are absolutes, but you can look at what other people are saying about the product or webpage. What’s their activity and user-count on Facebook or Twitter. Etc.

If you find a website or an ebook that people are raving about all over the place but you think their homepage is “cheesy” or “not serious” – maybe you should double-check and re-consider their approach. Again, you don’t have to like it but if they have a button positioned at the right place, with the right color and millions of people are happily clicking it, you might want to do something similar.

2. Imitate, Compare, Derive!

This often gets a bad rap. But creative people know that there are no ideas which aren’t based on other ideas. So, if you like the way this and that design uses colors, fonts and headlines, imitate it! This doesn’t mean being a copycat. After all, nobody owns a certain color or relation of font-sizes and design-elements!

A very practical approach to this is using styles for your documents, themes for your homepage and templates for your presentations. You can find great stuff that is both free and cutting-edge if you look a bit deeper! (If you don’t have the time or the nerve, awesome templates can easily be purchased!) So, if you have seen something somewhere you like, chances are huge that you’ll find a template or theme that you can build on to do something similar.

Two common mistakes: a) People either refuse to start with something professional while lacking the skills to do something better themselves or b) they just take on the theme or style without any further changes and thereby make their product/page look like all the others who chose the same: If you’re doing it right you’ll use the prepared theme or template only as a starting point and customize it beyond recognition into something which you can call “your own”.

3. Get Feedback

So you’ve looked at thousand of examples. Loved some. Hated others. But opened your mind to possibilities.  Then you worked very hard to implement some of what you’ve seen. Thought that was difficult? The toughest part is yet to come: Showing your hard work to others and processing their feedback without getting hung up on criticism or praise. There are a few factors here to make this process effective:

  • Ask the right people! Some people might be very biased (positively or negatively) to you as a person, because they know you. They don’t always count, unfortunately. You can ask them but their feedback might not be the most reliable if you want to take your product and webpage and be succesful with it in a world where people don’t know you, yet!
  • When getting feedback from people who don’t know you make sure they are really saying what they think and not just trying to be polite or make you like them. For example, undifferentiated praise doesn’t really help, at all!
  • When you get radical feedback “This doesn’t work at ALL!” be just as ready to forget it as to seriously consider it!
  • Diversity: If enough people from various backgrounds share a similar opinion there might be something to it!
  • Don’t settle for “it’s great” or “it sucks” but always look at why something works and why it doesn’t

In my experience, giving great feedback takes just as much skill and experience as being able to process it. The best feedback is respectful and constructive, focusing on details instead of undifferentiated praise or dismissal.

4. Improve! – The Sky is The Limit

Rinse and repeat! Keep updating. Keep improving. Don’t fall asleep. Always be on the lookout for new input. Learn new skills. Even if your design works great, how can you improve it? The worst thing you could do is going on for years with the same approach without seeing any real breakthroughs and blaming it on the audience. As a rule of thumb, in many cases it’s not their fault but miscommunication based on bad design – which is not your “fault” but your responsibility!

Also, there is a problem of over-optimization and losing the bigger picture, becoming completely wrapped up in shades of blue or questions of “a few pixels up or down”. In this case, it’s high time to …

5. Take A Step Back

Do something completely different. Forget about the design-aspects. Work only on the content for a while ignoring the design. Go on a holiday!  When you come back, it will look different! Your worst fears might be proven and it really looks as bad as you thought, but more often than not, the opposite is the case. After a while you return and realize “Hey, it’s really not that bad!”

In the end you can ask yourself: What are the web-pages and products that are well designed in your eyes? What makes them outstanding? And: What is Design, anyway? Is it really just the “wrapping” or does it maybe have to do more with the way in which your content fits together with its presentation?

thumbnail:Alessandro Rei LGPL, illustration: AttributionNo Derivative Works Some rights reserved by HikingArtist.com