Initial Thoughts on Visual Design

On a recent trip to New York City, I spent a very pleasant afternoon at the “Cooper Hewitt”, the Smithsonian Design Museum, which was not a museum I would have typically predicted I would enjoy as much as I did. (I highly recommend it if you are in NYC.)  I have also been enjoying the Netflix series “Abstract:” The Art of Design” (Trailer below), which I began watching over the recent holiday break.  These two events were not planned to coincide with this third COETAIL course, but rather, their timing was (as painter Bob Ross would say) a “happy accident”.  

I have enjoyed many of the articles in week one’s reading list, which were a great way to explicitly learn more about common visual design fundamentals.  As a consumer of many products and services that have been designed in one form or another, I have generally (but not always!) been able to pick out “good” design from “bad”.  However, I would have struggled to articulate clearly what features separated the “good” and “bad”.  I had not previously learned the general principles, or been taught how these principles affect the viewer’s interaction with the product.  Of this week’s readings, this article by Brandon Jones was very informative, highlighting not only the main concepts behind good visual design, but also giving examples of each.  In a similar vein, I also found this article by Dustin Wax to be enlightening was well.  

(Photo used under Creative Commons License from

In digging a little deeper into this topic, I found a video from The School of Life, narrated by philosopher and writer Alain de Botton, focusing not on the specific aspects of good design, but more generally how design makes us feel.  (video below)  This video takes a step back and looks at design through a broad lense, by reminding us that design is more than extracting information easily, or achieving ease of functionality.  An object that has been well designed can evoke emotions and feelings (both consciously and unconsciously) in those who are interacting with it.  

My Blog

I have been running the “Oxygen” theme from WordPress on my blog for most of the first two COETAIL courses.  I chose this theme because I liked the layout, how it is organized, and how my posts were displayed on the homepage.  I liked how this theme wasn’t visually “noisy”, with too many posts, widgets, or menu options in a small crowded space on the screen.  It seemed to be a good compromise between effectiveness, and simplicity.  

However, I was not entirely happy with the layout, mostly because of the empty spaces to the right and left of where the posts were being displayed. (See screenshot below)  The view always seemed a bit limited in what it offered, despite the desirability of the simplicity of the layout.  The big question for me, as I considered redesigning my blog was: Could I change blog to keep a simpler “less is more” design, while still adding more functionality to my blog, and better utilize space?

To help me with this, I contacted some members of my PLN to help me understand how others were experiencing my blog.  I sent out an email to a small number of colleagues here at my school, including a few more beyond my usual circle, who have backgrounds in teaching design courses.  The feedback I received from them was both valuable and actionable, and I will highlight some of the main takeaways below.

One colleague indicated that the way Google Docs were embedded made scrolling in the posts difficult or inconvenient.  This was great feedback, as it not only touches upon visual design, but is also related to functional design as well.  This feedback has been noted, and I’m going to decrease slightly the size of embedded documents in the future.  

Several colleagues highlighted exactly what my own critique of the blog had been – that there was too much empty space.  The suggestion of adding an embed of my Tweets was also suggested, which I agree would be an excellent addition to the blog.  Finally, it was noted that the name of my blog (currently “Blended STEAM”) was not prominently displayed, and could be easily missed.  I’m not sure I like the name I originally chose, so I’m mulling over a few other potential names as well.

Unfortunately, I have not yet implemented any of these changes noted above.  I began trying out a variety of different themes on WordPress, but was not happy with the results for many.  I spent a lot (too much) time trying to tinker with different layouts, only to end up dissatisfied with the result.  After several hours burned in this manner, I began to become a bit discouraged.

I next heard from a colleague that they had accessed my blog on a mobile device, and that the blog looked great.  The “empty” white space visible on a laptop was missing from the mobile display.  So, keeping this in mind, I have decided to stay with the “Oxygen” theme, but try to spend some more time in the future developing my knowledge of how to work with it.  

Future Goals

My goal is to have added my Twitter feed, a few additional widgets, and a menu to my blog by the end of the course.  I would also like to better utilize the layout to solve the empty space issue when accessing from a non-mobile device.  However, this is currently still a work in progress, but watch the blog, as changes are on the way!

Thank you for reading, and if you have any further advice or feedback for me about the visual design of my blog, please leave a comment below!  Your thoughts would be much appreciated!  

4 thoughts on “Initial Thoughts on Visual Design

  1. Hi Brian,

    Great blog post!. I just shared the video Why Design Matters on Twitter, ( & gave you a shout out of course 🙂 I too think it’s important for us to zoom out about and look at design through a broader lense like you mentioned. Also, it was this line from your post that stuck out to me the most.

    “ An object that has been well designed can evoke emotions and feelings (both consciously and unconsciously)

    So much of design influences our unconscious and determine what we like to buy, look like, and even “feel like”. There certainly is a feeling (whether subjective or not) tied back to the aesthetic appeal of different designs. As I mentioned in my post, that you commented on (much appreciated by the way) Apple knew this and harnessed this power long before many of its consumers were consciously aware of it.

    Great idea to ask your PLN for feedback regarding your blog layout. It also sounds like they gave you some quality pointers. I can definitely relate to the struggle of spending hours trying to locate an appealing WordPress layout. Wonderful news about how it shows up on mobile devices. Much of the world is moving in this direction anyway, so it’s sooner or later going to account for the majority of your views.

    I personally like the simplistic layout of your blog. I do agree with you though, concerning the addition of your twitter feed. I would also make the suggest looking into adding a few social icons to your blog. Perhaps your Google Plus account, Twitter, and even Feedly (or whichever RSS account you use.)
    Here’s a site that lists over 30 different types of WordPress Plug-ins, with many appealing social icon widgets. My favorite from this list is the “Meks Smart Social Widget”. I’m thinking about changing my site up soon and have been pursuing a few different add-ons. Having said that, I’d love to hear your critique on my own blog layout. I think if we all keep a critical eye on each other’s sites & from time to time provide one another with constructive feedback, our whole Cohort will come out of this a bit more polished. 🙂

    Looking forward to seeing some of the ideas you end up implementing.


  2. Hi Nick,

    Thanks for the feedback – much appreciated! I’m going to try to work out adding my Twitter Feed to my blog this weekend. Fingers crossed…. A colleague of mine said it took him over an hour to figure it out.

    And also, thanks for the link for WordPress Plug-ins! Great resource!



  3. Hi Brian!

    Great post! I particularly enjoyed the video you shared called “Why Design Matters” by Alain de Botton. I’m a huge de Botton fan and have been for years! I had to watch the video a couple of times because there were so many concepts compacted into the four minute video.

    I know this course focuses on design in regards to presentations, visual aids, etc., but I am a believer of a well designed classroom as well. De Botton says, “Design matters because our identities and moods are fluid and shifting. And it’s often the quality of the designed environment that determines whether we feel [insert feeling here]…” I tend to use the same notion when designing my classroom. My aim is to have a warm, friendly and inviting space so that students are happy and are ready to learn. Well, the second part is in theory! My space reflects a touch of feng shui (, a sprinkle of #konmari (, and one that promotes a PYP learning environment. And oh. Lots of toys that make music!

    How are the MYP/DP classrooms designed at your school? I never make it upstairs to our MYP classrooms. Quite frankly – the big kids scare me!

    Have a great weekend!


    1. Hi Kehri,

      Thanks for the feedback. I am also a de Botton fan – I’ve read several of his books, and have been following his School of Life channel on YouTube for quite a while now. I really like his mission there.

      The MYP/DP classrooms where I teach look pretty traditional, I must say. I teach in the science labs, which contain some space from students to work on academics as well as conduct experiments. However, we rotate in and out of labs as needed, so no one here has their “own” room, which makes changing the layout challenging – what I might want to do with my classroom might not necessarily match someone else’s vision. Its limiting sometimes, and at times I wish I did have complete control over how I designed the rooms. That being said, I have no complaints over the current classrooms either.

      Have a great weekend as well!


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