The challenges

What are the challenges of design and editing in the 21st century?

I think there are three challenges which are perennial but have become more critical given the nature of today’s audiences, and two which are largely new and arise from the use of digital media.


A fish, whose attention is attracted by a tasty fly.

Readers these days have more potential distractions and calls on their time. Arguably they have shorter attention spans and certainly a lower tolerance for material which does not demonstrate its interest or relevance quickly. All this creates a challenge for attracting and sustaining reader interest and motivation.

I first learned the importance of audience interest as a lecturer in medical history at the University of Cambridge. Most of our students were medical students, taking the subject as a minor option, so unlike most of my colleagues, who lectured on their own research topics, I couldn’t deceive myself into thinking that they would have a longterm interest in the subject. Instead I had to think: what would be of interest and relevant to future doctors?

Later, as a development editor at Learning Materials Design, I got invaluable experience in designing for reader engagement, each of our bespoke products being intended for a different audience. Most memorably, during work on a guidance pack on sustainable environmental management for a WWF/NatWest partnership, it became clear that we had at least three different audiences to consider: an owner-manager of a small business of 10 employees would not be interested in the same things as a facilities manager in a medium-sized enterprise, and a director of a medium-sized business would have yet another set of interests. They all needed to be addressed separately, in a different style.


A fish putting together flatpack furniture.

Readers already have extensive access to information, so what they usually need is not more information but a way of making it their own, part of their understanding, their life. The challenge is to design materials which allow for, or actually encourage, readers’ active participation in making them meaningful.

In educational materials, this involvement is achieved through the pedagogy known as “active learning”, in which I was apprenticed and mentored at Learning Materials Design by Jane Wolfson, the Director, formerly of the Open University School of Education, and Richard Freeman, formerly of the National Extension College and the Open College. I learned to see “learning activities” and feedback, rather than didactic presentation, as the most critical aspect of teaching through materials, which gave the company a unique approach during the rise of what came to be called “e-learning”. Unlike e-learning companies with a technology background, which equated learning with the delivery of “content” through CD-ROMs or websites, we applied our existing educational analysis to the new media, taking advantage of the new forms of interaction and communication which they afforded.


A fish swimming after many others, towards the same destination point.

Producers of materials have increased expectations that their investment will achieve a desired result –that their readers should be informed, motivated, entertained, or successful in completing the course – and want to know that the materials will achieve those results effectively. It’s therefore the responsibility of an editor or designer to see that materials are constructed so that they lead readers to the desired outcomes.

That all writing is (or should be) writing for a purpose is something which I learned from Peter Searby, my PhD supervisor, who had a reputation for getting students through the writing-up phase by keeping them strongly focused on the strict requirements of a PhD thesis. At Learning Materials Design, I learned how to align materials to educational purposes, discovering the importance of specific learning outcomes in controlling a subject matter expert’s natural tendency to expound their subject without thought of what a learner might be supposed to get out of it. Although LMD was primarily a producer of learning materials, we frequently became involved in clients’ promotion of our training, and so I also learned how to write and edit for marketing and communications, for outcomes such as awareness, interest, desire and action.

These three perennial challenges of engagement, involvement and alignment, are in my view the key elements of learning design, or more generally communications design, with the addition of assessment in the case of formal learning.

There are two further challenges for design and editing which are newer and arise from the use of digital media.


A fish looking lost and confused, beside a signpost and attempting to read a map.

Any digital publication will have many elements, possibly very many, so organising them so that a reader / user can easily find the particular element they’re looking for becomes a significant challenge, especially when a typical user’s mental model is different from the information architecture planned by the designer. The challenge here is in placing and labelling elements for a user’s frictionless navigation.

Pioneering the production of digital materials at Learning Materials Design, I quickly realised that the new medium would require visual design to be combined with authoring from the start, instead of being relegated to a final stage as with printed materials. To be better able to brief designers, I studied the early writings of Donald Norman and Jakob Nielsen, who between them had virtually created the concept of “usability”. At the Open University, I applied this learning to the inconsistencies and confusions which were proliferating on module websites, with too many labels being vague and unhelpful and important items left undiscoverable by students. In discussion with editors, learning technologists and the OU’s Student Experience team, and with the support of user testing, I developed guidelines and exemplar websites to help establish new standards and conventions and generally improve the level of website usability.

User experience

A fish singing into a microphone "I did it my way!"

A reader’s experience of a rich digital publication may be unique, dependent on which elements they select and in which order, and how other parts of their life affect their use of the materials. The challenge is to design the probability of a good and rewarding experience for each reader / user, when you have absolutely no control over how (or whether) they use the materials or what that experience will be.

I first became aware of the uniqueness of user experience during the 1980s, when I wrote and published a well-reviewed text “adventure” game for home micros: watching users playtest the game during development showed me how poorly I had anticipated what they would do or want to do. I now see a close analogy between games design and learning design: in both, your aim is to give the user an experience in which they face challenges and receive feedback on their efforts to overcome them, but you can only prompt them to take certain courses of action through design of the environment and the provision of visible affordances. It was to study user experience of online learning that I undertook doctoral research at the Open University’s Institute of Educational Technology, using the direct observation techniques of usability testing to investigate how learners responded to the opportunities and challenges of self-directed learning.

Cartoons by