Examining Design Principles through Active Learning Tasks

Open design sampler demonstrating the design principles of contrast, repetition, alignment, and proximityMy students are beginning research posters this week, so the course is returning to information on effective design and in particular the design principles of Contrast, Repetition, Alignment, and Proximity. In today’s post, I’ll share the active learning tasks I’m using to ask students to recall prior knowledge and give them hands-on work with the design principles.

Active learning tasks ask students to engage directly in their learning process by “involving [them] in doing things and thinking about the things they are doing” (Bonwell & Eison 1991).

A simplified explanation of this teaching strategy compares students’ minds to sponges and to mechanical gears. Passive learning strategies, such as lectures, treat the student’s mind like a sponge, ready to absorb ideas as it creates a repository of information. It aligns well with Paulo Freire’s banking model of education. Active learning strategies, alternately, engage the student’s brain as if it were a machine made of interlocking gears, turning and churning as it tests hypotheses and creates knowledge.

The series of tasks I describe below asks students to recall what they know about the design principles, to apply the principles through several analysis activities, and to forecast how they will use the principles in their research posters.

Background Readings and Resources

Basic Activity Logistics

The course includes weekly writing and revision activities that students complete individually and in groups. Discussion prompts and related activities are posted as weekly activities. Since I teach a fully-online course, this work is submitted as a discussion post to me in the course management software. These tasks are much like the in-class activities that would be part of a face-to-face course.

The tasks below give you the short version of the prompt. I add more specific details on how to post, share, and reply to one another in the assignments shared with students.

Active Learning Tasks

Design Principles Scavenger Hunt

Go on a hunt on campus or online for a good or bad visual. It can be any kind of visual—a digital sign, a full-page ad in a magazine, a billboard, and so forth. It doesn’t have to be a research poster. Here’s one way to find a visual for this discussion: Find a bulletin board on campus. Stand across the hall from it, and identify the one piece on the bulletin board that grabs your attention.

Take a photo of the visual you find or save the visual if you found it online. Add a paragraph that tells us why it is a good visual or a bad one. Use the ideas from the textbook to support your ideas.

Design Principles Prescription

You are the Design Doctor. Choose a visual from the Design Principles Scavenger Hunt or one that you have found elsewhere, and consider how well the visual uses the design principles of contrast, repetition, alignment, and proximity. Respond in three parts:

  1. Describe how the visual uses the design principles.
  2. Diagnose the design shortcomings of the visual.
  3. Prescribe solutions that will improve the visual.

Positive Application Task

Choose a visual from a previous project in the course or one that you are planning to use in your research poster. Annotate the visual with details on how you have used the design principles of contrast, repetition, alignment, and proximity. Label features of the visual with arrows that pair with related descriptions and explanations of the design principles. Use Figure 11.1 on pages 251–52 of Technical Communication as the model for your response.

Research Poster Design Plan

Based on what you know about the design principles of contrast, repetition, alignment, and proximity, create a design plan for your research poster.

  1. Brainstorm a list of ideas you want to emphasize in your poster.
  2. Apply design principles to the ideas, indicating strategies you can use to highlight the content on your poster.
  3. Create a style sheet for your poster, outlining the design decisions you have made. For instance, your style sheet should cover information such as the following:
    • What font and font size will you use for regular text?
    • What font and font size will you use for Level 1 headings? Level 2 headings?
    • What colors will you use on the poster, and where will you use them?

Final Thoughts

These four active learning activities seem relatively simple on the surface; however, they build on one another to lead students to recall how the design principles work and then apply those principles to their own work. What strategies do you use to encourage students to apply composing and design strategies to their own work? Please tell me by leaving a comment below.


Bonwell, C. C., & Eison, J. A. (1991). Active learning: creating excitement in the classroom (ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 1). Washington, DC: School of Education and Human Development, George Washington University. Retrieved from http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED336049.pdf

Freire, P., & Macedo, D. (2000). Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 30th Anniversary Edition (30th Anniversary edition; M. B. Ramos, trans.). New York: Continuum.

Photo credit: The Open University Brand Design Guidelines by DAMS Library, on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 license.

This post originally published on the Bedford Bits blog.

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