Sunday, February 21, 2016

Why CARP?

Here at the ILT program at UC Denver there is an emphasis on effective design. There is a set of basic design principles taught in each class, summed up with the acronym CARP. It stands for Contrast, Alignment, Repetition, and Proximity. Go ahead and Google it – there are a zillion ways available to describe, explain, and illustrate these principles.

But why CARP? CARP is certainly shorthand for something – the premise is that by following these principles, your design will be “correct” or “good” in some sense. There must be some fundamental mechanism at work, though, undergirding these principles.

Consider any document that you design. What are you trying to do with it? You are trying to communicate, at least initially. Perhaps you are trying to sell something, or convince someone of something. In my case, I am always trying to teach something. I need to consider how a person learns and try to align my document with how learning works.

Engagement


There are two aspects of learning that I want to address here. One is the broad principle of engagement. Without engagement, your document is effectively ignored. Without the right kind of engagement, your document will be less effective as a teaching medium. Visual clutter and confusion, for instance, creates a kind of anxiety as the eye tries to figure out where to go. This is not conducive to learning. Nor are extraneous visual elements which can be entertaining or decorative but also distracting or confusing.

Garr Reynolds presents the CARP principles in the first edition (2008) of his Presentation Zen (p. 153). I think it’s telling that he replaces CARP in his second edition (Presentation Zen Design, 2013) with principles related to beauty, balance, and harmony, states of mind conducive to learning (p. 221). Not coincidentally, these principles are applicable to digital modes of presentation, like video, audio, and synchronous eLearning, for which the CARP principles may not apply as readily.

Coherence and Structure


The second aspect of learning I want to address is an aspect that concerns me as a physics teacher. It is possible to teach physics as a collection of vaguely related topics and practices, but I prefer to teach physics by constantly referring back to the coherent series of basic concepts on which it is built. When I design a document for my students, I try to be careful about what my design implies. Is it implying a connection where there is none, or is it implying levels of organization that do not, in fact, exist? Or does the design reflect the coherence and structure in physics that I hope my students can sense?

Microsoft’s PowerPoint is a common document format, a tool that seems to result in notoriously incoherent design. A classic critique of PowerPoint design is Edward Tufte’s essay, The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint (2006). Tufte explains in detail the kind of structural incoherence that can come about when a designer does not pay attention to structural levels of information.

A designer needs to know that all graphic elements carry information, not just in the literal sense (these letters form a sentence which can be understood) but in a structural sense. When a font changes color, for instance, the brain is alerted to the possibility of a new level of information for the literal text. Consider, for instance, what happens when text in a blog post changes color to indicate that the text is a hyperlink. Or consider, as Tufte does, what it means to create bullet points. Bullets are not just a graphical device for separating text. Bullets are like the headings in an outline. They indicate levels of organization arranged coherently according to some principle or concept. Hinting at organization when in fact what you are presenting is arbitrarily arranged causes confusion. It does not create a frame of mind conducive to learning.

It can take a lifetime to discover and absorb the principles of how a person learns from a document, and how that learning can be augmented or interfered with by the graphic design. With the easily remembered principles of CARP, a designer at least stands a chance of producing attractive and effective presentations without having to become a metaphysician of design, communication, and learning.

References


Reynolds, G. (2014). Presentation zen design: Simple design principles and techniques to enhance your presentations (2nd ed.). Berkeley, CA: New Riders.

Tufte, E. R. (2006). The cognitive style of PowerPoint: Pitching out corrupts within (2nd ed.). Cheshire, CT: Graphics.