Art + Science

What is the interplay between art and science in visual learning design?
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"Science and art tend to coalesce. ...
The greatest scientists are always artists as well."

Albert Einstein

From an early age, many of us are taught that mistakes are bad and that failure has severe consequences. If we answer a math problem wrong (or simply find our own solution without following the provided formula), then we might be met with a failing grade. If we persist in such errors, then we might fail classes, be held back, or fall below the GPA we think we need to enter the college of our choice. Failure to perform in a specified manner is treated as a character flaw or developmental defect of the learner that must be met with swift (and sometimes far-reaching) punishment. This leads us to believe that failure is unacceptable and that mistakes should be treated as shameful anomalies on an otherwise (hopefully) pristine track-record of success.

On top of this, when it comes to creative work, we are also often taught that we should treat our creations as outgrowths of ourselves. In social studies classes, for instance, we may have been encouraged to write about our passionate beliefs, to debate them, and to persuade others. In art classes, we may have been taught that our art should provide a window to our souls, allowing us to reveal the deepest recesses of our innermost selves. And daily evidence on social media teaches us that a person's identity in our culture is ostensibly reflected and (therefore) judged by a limited number of creative artifacts, even if these artifacts are pithy statements posted at 3 a.m. That is, we are often taught to identify with our creations and to identify others by their creations—making our writing, art, and any other creative work a reflection of the true, albeit incomplete, self (Kimmons & Veletsianos, 2014).

Each of these beliefs is problematic in its own right, but when put together, they make creative design work very difficult, because they can lead designers (a) to avoid, hide, or ignore failures associated with their work and (b) to either refuse to evaluate their work or to defensively uphold poor work as an inviolate extension of the self, because acknowledging a reflection of the self as bad is akin to acknowledging that the self is bad. If you pour your heart into creating a learning app, and then I (kindly) tell you it's no good, you can interpret this to be a critique of you.

Designers in creative fields must always grapple with this tension, because, on the one hand, we are not merely technicians employing a color-by-numbers approach to design that relies on rigid conformity to an established recipe, but on the other hand, we also are not engaged in free-spirited, self-actualizing exploration through our work. Our goal in designing is to do something specific, our goal in learning design is to guide someone in learning, and though we can creatively apply our whole selves to this enterprise, at the end of the day, if we fail our goal, then we need to acknowledge that, change, and improve.

Good design makes us think, feel, or act as the designer intends. Good learning designers lead us to learn what is intended, through our thoughts, emotions, and actions.

Another way of framing this is that though many creative pursuits have the creator as the emphasis (e.g., an artist trying to bring their vision to life), learning designers have the learner as the emphasis, which means that all of our creative efforts revolve around their learning, not our expression or efforts, and if our learner fails to see, learn, or become what we want them to see, learn, or become, then our design needs to change. But, this often takes a lot of failure, a lot of reflection, and a lot of painful work. Thus, if there is any aspect of art to our work as designers, it is an outward-facing rather than an inward-facing art. Whereas much art merely exists to help the artist to understand and express oneself, our work must help learners to grow by understanding themselves.

Thus, learning design is both an art and a science, because it requires "critical and reflective inquiry informed by theory" coupled with "skilled craftsmanship and creative practice" (Maina et al., 2015). As an art, we must bring our whole selves to the creative pursuit of helping our learners, but as a science, we must also lose ourselves in the iterative problem-solving process of making errors, testing hypotheses, fixing mistakes, and continuously learning and growing.

To achieve this, the best learning designers are both artists and scientists, and they solve any apparent tensions between art and science by relying upon three principles: objectivity, critique, and experimentation.


Though "art" has various definitions, the famous artist Edgar Degas once explained that "art is not what you see but what you make others see." In part, I interpret this to mean that we as learning designers should approach visuals in an objective manner, wherein we separate ourselves from our design enough to analyze it as an objective outsider or to see it as others see it.

From this perspective, if your design doesn't work, it doesn't matter what your intent, reasoning, or justification was for creating your design the way you did. It has simply failed as an object.

This also means that any failure is not located in you as the designer but in the design itself; meaning that we as designers need to engage in practices that allow us to distance ourselves from our designs enough that we can evaluate them without becoming defensive. In practice, this means that any efforts we take to evaluate our products should be uncoupled as much as possible from our intents, feelings, and persuasive efforts.

Have you ever asked someone to give you feedback on something and they gave you criticism that you felt was undeserved? What was your reaction in that situation?

Most of us would rush to defend our creation, saying things like "well, this is why I did that" or "this is what I meant when I did that," but doing so undermines the entire purpose of receiving feedback because you as the designer are now trying to influence the user not through your design but through your explanation of your design. The problem with this, though, is that you will not be able to explain your design to every user who will ever use it. So, you convince yourself (and maybe the person giving the criticism) that changes don't need to be made when they are actually needed, and your end users are not benefited from the feedback simply because you felt it was necessary to defend the product rather than to change it.

To help in this regard, one practice I use in my classes is to have students quietly sit and listen to what others are saying about their designs, without interrupting, defending, or explaining why they did what they did. The other students might ask questions, make suggestions, or comment on things that they find confusing about the design, but through it all, the designer must just bite their tongue and try to understand what others are experiencing through their designs without muddying the water with their personality or persuasiveness. In some cases, I might allow the designer a chance to explain some things that were unclear after the feedback session is over, but this generally should only be done to clarify matters of scope or constraints or to clarify feedback rather than to minimize or delegitimize issues brought up by other students.

Another practice I use in my classes is to encourage students to nurture some distance to their projects, to take breaks, and to come back with fresh eyes regularly.

Have you ever entered a room with a terrible smell, like that of a baby's diaper that needs changing? Even if it's terrible, if you stay in the room long enough, you gradually begin to not notice the smell at all. This is called olfactory overload or fatigue, and it is a physiological response our bodies have to smells that presumably helps us to identify potential dangers but to also acclimate to non-dangerous environments that initially seem bad.

When applied to design, as you labor over a product for hours, something that you initially would think is ugly, painful, or confusing gradually becomes nice, comfortable, and clear in your own mind. As you make an ugly website, by the end of the process you'll probably think it's not so ugly after all, like the dirty diaper that you no longer notice, because you know all of the blood, sweat, and tears that went into creating it.

The problem with this is that any new learner who views your product will instantly smell the diaper. Yes, if they stick with it long enough they'll eventually probably stop noticing it, too, but they will likely not have the same incentive as you do as the designer to do so, and do we really want to subject our learners to such experiences?

By taking a break and coming back with fresh eyes, you reset your sensors and can more closely experience your design as your end learners will. This also allows you to create some distance with your design and to take feedback more openly, recognizing that the design you have created and the process you went through to do so are two different things.


To successfully merge the art and science of learning design, we need to be able to both give and receive criticism well. Critique comes from ancient Greek and refers to the faculty of discernment or judgment, which involves reflective examination of the object of one's critique. In design, critique is commonly used as a way to guide designers forward and should be employed as "a formative, conversational method of interaction and assessment" (Hokanson, 2020).

To be clear, critique isn't merely sharing our opinion about how a design makes us feel but is rather a "systematic and objective examination of an idea, phenomenon, or artifact" (Hokanson, 2020). Thus, it involves collecting and sharing evidences, analyzing specific design elements, and iteratively improving designs to better achieve their aims. This can require us to develop functional vocabularies to meaningfully communicate with others about our designs and also requires us to solicit (and act upon) feedback about our work from learners, other designers, and various stakeholders.

Because critique is an objective activity, it is focused on the object of the critique (i.e., the design) and not the designer or the critic. This means that critical comments should be framed and understood as wholly involving deficits in the object and not the designer, such as "this design is deficient in this way" and not as "you have deficiencies as a designer in this way." This distinction may seem subtle, but it makes a huge difference as designers attempt to figure out how to move forward amidst criticism, especially if the critique is severe. In educational settings where faculty and peers are trying to help designers improve their design skills, this is especially important to help novice designers to keep improving and moving forward rather than becoming defensive or disheartened when their designs are poorly received.

As the iconic Bob Ross would say, "We don't make mistakes, just happy little accidents." In this same spirit, as designers unmask design deficiencies via critique, any such deficiencies should be viewed as encouraging and formative opportunities for improvement and adjustment rather than discouraging and summative judgments of what has been done.

Though this may be easy to say, in reality, critiques can often involve deep emotions, both on the part of the designer and the critic. Though attempting to be objective, the critic is nonetheless a human with biases, assumptions, feelings, and attitudes. Rather than being a weakness, these characteristics are actually necessary for the critic to provide feedback to the designer that is actually authentic to the goal of the design, which has as its target learners who are themselves emotional beings. Though the varied emotional responses of a critic are not of much benefit to the designer on their own, they can be useful as insight into learner emotional responses more broadly and should be framed, limited, and shaped toward that purpose. Thus, if a critic has either a positive or negative reaction to an aspect of a design, it behooves the critic to ask themself "Would others react similarly to this or is this just me." If it is a "just me" emotion, then it is probably of little use to the designer for improving the product, but if it is indicative of an emotional reaction that might be shared by the target learners, then it merits the designer's attention.

In the designer's case, however, emotion should be as compartmentalized and distanced as possible, allowing the designer to thoughtfully consider and evaluate critique, alternatively accepting or rejecting suggestions for improvement on objective merits rather than attachment or emotional investment.

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Hokanson, B. (2020). Design Critique. In J. K. McDonald & R. E. West (Eds.), Design for Learning: Principles, Processes, and Praxis. EdTech Books. Retrieved from

Kimmons, R., & Veletsianos, G. (2014). The fragmented educator 2.0: Social networking sites, acceptable identity fragments, and the identity constellation. Computers & Education, 72, 292-301. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2013.12.001

Maina, M., Craft, B., & Mor, Y. (2015). The art & science of learning design. Springer.

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