Resources for Teaching Document Design and Visual Communication

We live in a business culture where a document’s visual elements are as important as the text itself for conveying a writer’s (or presenter’s) message, whether the message is an email, a report, a brochure, a PowerPoint presentation, or a Web page.

As a business writing instructor, I find myself increasingly devoting time in my courses to document design and visual communication. What started several years ago as a brief review of some basic design and layout principles has evolved to a four-week unit on document design and visual communication incorporating discussion of both print and Web documents. Specifically, we examine information mapping/text placement, fonts, color theory, visual elements (e.g., photos, charts, illustrations), navigation, and usability. Students also learn to create a basic Web page and to use a photo editor.

Student projects vary each semester, depending on our client. This semester’s client is putting its printed catalog and planner online and needs advice on how to do so.

As I prep this spring’s unit, I thought I’d share a few of my best (or at least most interesting) sources. Some I use to create content for lectures, while I use others to add interest to the class discussion. If you have sources to share, please do!

Information Mapping/Text Placement


Color Theory

Visual Elements

Free Online Photo Editors

PechaKucha What?

Those of you who were at the ABC Midwest-Southeast meeting in Louisville a couple of weeks ago may have attended a presentation or two about (or using) PechaKucha. PechaKucha (Japanese for “chatter”) is a delivery format in which a presenter delivers images in 20 slides, spending only 20 seconds narrating each slide. Because slides advance automatically after 20 seconds, presenters must stick to the time limit, meaning that the entire presentation lasts only 6 minutes, 40 seconds.

Why use PechaKucha? How might it help students in the business communication classroom?

  • PechaKucha forces presenters to really think about their main points and stick to them. The time limits on the slides ensure that presenters do not get off on tangents or extensively elaborate on their topic.
  • Because the slides contain mostly images rather than text, presenters avoid the trap of reading slides to their audience and instead focus on the delivery of their message. Another benefit, of course, is that audiences are not subjected to a mind-numbing reading of the slides and then left wondering why they attended a presentation when they could have read the presentation on their own.
  • We all know the saying that a picture is worth a thousand words. Because PechaKucha relies on images, audiences may be more likely to recall a main point or idea if they can associate it with an image rather than with a lot of words or lines of text.

To see an example of PechaKucha, visit the PechaKucha Web site and check out Greg Judelman’s 18 Tidbits on the Design of Change. You can learn the 18 tips in 20 slides in 6 minutes, 40 seconds…impressive and effective.

Is PechaKucha right for every business presentation? As with any communication channel, PechaKucha should be used if it is right for the audience, purpose, context, and content for a presentation. Do you use PechaKucha in your classes? If so, tell us about it.

Free Web Editors to the Rescue!

I’m not a big fan of posting my course materials online in Word or .pdf format, so I usually use Dreamweaver to create them as Web documents. While I like Dreamweaver a lot and will continue to use it, I am not an expert Web designer, and it takes a bit of time to set up the style sheet, lay out the page, find my images, create a look, manage my site, etc. Besides, classes start Tuesday, and…well…Let’s just say time is not something I have a lot of when it comes to finishing my syllabi and course schedules.

So to create my materials quickly, I am experimenting with free Web editors to see if they will expedite the process, and so far they have. I looked at Weebly, Yola, Jimdo, and Moonfruit, though there are a lot more editors available. I chose Weebly and Yola simply because I found templates I liked; any of these editors would have met my needs.

All are easy to use. The templates provide everything from highly formal to retro looks, and the text formatting features are similar to some of those in Word. If you’re feeling really brave, you can also manipulate html code to achieve a specific look or format, but really, all you need to do is a bit of clicking and a bit of dragging and dropping, and you’re done.

There are at-cost versions of the editors that offer more than just the basic features, but if you’re looking for a quick way to create a visually friendly, easy-to-navigate Web document, you might want to try one of these. You may also find uses for these in your classroom if you have students do any Web writing or have them create Web-based resumes. In fact, I plan to have my students use one of these editors in our unit on writing for print vs. writing for the Web.

Have you used a free Web editor for yourself or your classes? Please share your experiences with us.

Do You Pay Attention to Boring Things? … Re-thinking the Essential Syllabus

This week’s post is courtesy of guest blogger Tom Pickering, adjunct assistant professor, Pierce College, Washington. Thank you, Tom, for this interesting and creative way of thinking about how we communicate with our students. If you have a topic you’d like to write about for this blog, please contact us.

… “The brain is as adaptive as Silly Putty. With years of reading books, writing e-mail, and sending text messages, you might think the visual system could be trained to recognize common words without slogging through tedious additional steps of letter-feature recognition. But that is not what happens. No matter how experienced a reader you become, you will stop and ponder individual textual features as you plow through these pages, and you will do so until you can’t read anymore.”

The preceding quote is from Brain Rules by John Medina and specifically, Rule #10: Vision trumps all other senses, wherein we tend to learn and remember best through pictures, not through written or spoken words.

Ten minutes is about all you get with students in class before their attention span diminishes and the nomadic digital habit takes over in the absence of an interactive instructional focus. You either embrace or compete with iPads, laptops, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, texting, cell phones, and more. I can relate to this, and I say embrace!

If your syllabus, like mine, has too much inefficient text and is boring, maybe it is time to re-think the text syllabus and consider a visual syllabus, one that is congruous with the digital elixir du jour.

We would like to know if you have a visual syllabus or are interested in developing one and what ideas you might have that would make your syllabus a curious read by students.

Data visualization is becoming popular and has allied application to the classroom to supplement and complement PowerPoint and videos. Below are some resources that might be helpful in re-thinking the possibilities to re-tool your syllabus.


  • 3-page visual syllabus example  
  • Many Eyes: IBM site that enables you to create data visualization through data sets, either your own, or existing
  • A fun site and tool for generating “word clouds” from text; color and font choices are extensive, and I have used this site for displaying a course overview and for showing students how to create a cloud resume
  • Good links to information graphics relevant to online learning
  • Data visualization with a global perspective on business and social issues
  • Smashing Magazine: Good source for ideas and resources on data mining
  •  Social Times: Information on how to create a social resume to help students with job search techniques—important considering that employers look for digital footprints of prospective employees
  • Blog with the best examples of data visualization and infographics; subscribing will provide you with a new example every day
  • Mashable: Pictorial summary of how students use technology
  • Pam Dyer’s blog on the use of Facebook and Twitter for marketing, advertising, branding and engagement.
  • Content Maven: This site will take some time, but there are great presentation tools embedded, especially the graphic on Starbucks and Coca-Cola #90—beware of sensory overload)
  • Kawasaki, Guy. Enchantment. New York: Penguin Books, 2011.Print. Kawasaki is a prolific writer and blogger with keen sense of use of social media (see also and
  • Medina, John. Brain Rules. Seattle, Pear Press, 2009. Print. This book has been instrumental for me in course and syllabi development; it explains a lot of behavioral patterns with a few “a ha” moments (see also  

“When you enchant people, your goal is not to make money from them or to get them to do what you want, but to fill them with great delight” (Enchantment, Guy Kawasaki).

Perhaps your visual syllabus will become a great delight, generate attention, and be less boring than the essential text one. Re-think a new type of syllabus and share your results with us.

Visual Rhetoric in the Business Communication Classroom

Simply put, visual rhetoric is the use of visuals and visual elements (e.g., fonts and color) to communicate a message. If you are teaching your students how to create visually appealing messages, you are already incorporating visual rhetoric in your bcomm classroom. If you want to extend that discussion of visual rhetoric beyond the use of appropriate margins and headings, here are some resources that may help.

The Purdue Online Writing Lab provides several pages on visual rhetoric that address topics such as understanding the concept of visual rhetoric, choosing fonts, placing elements on a page, and using color theory.

My other favorite sources include the following:

    • John McWade’s books Before and After: How to Design Cool Stuff and Before and After Page Design (The information and examples on typography are particularly fantastic in Before and  After Page Design, but really, I could spend hours looking at and talking about all of the examples in both books.)

There are also quite literally hundreds of scholarly publications available on the topic. Some that you may find helpful in exploring theoretical and pedagogical perspectives on visual rhetoric and visual rhetoric in business professions include

    • Brumberger, Eva R. “Visual Rhetoric in the Curriculum: Pedagogy for a Multimodal Workplace.” Business Communication Quarterly 68 (2005): 318-333, print.
    • Campelo, Adriana, Robert Aitken and Juergen Gnoth. “Visual Rhetoric and Ethics in Marketing of Destinations.” Journal of Travel Research 50 (2011): 3-14, print.
    • Davison, Jane. “Icon, Iconography, Iconology: Visual Branding, Banking, and the Case of the Bowler Hat.” Accounting, Auditing, and Accountability Journal 22.6 (2009): 883-906, print.
    • Lauer, Claire and Christopher A. Sanchez. “Visuospatial Thinking in the Professional Writing Classroom.” Journal of Business and Technical Communication 25 (2011): 184-218, print.

Discussing visual rhetoric early in your course and adding a “visual rhetoric” category to a grading rubric are great ways to reinforce the importance of visually appealing and accessible documents. If you have sources on visual rhetoric or suggestions on how to teach and assess students’ use and understanding of visual rhetoric, please share them with us.