ATD Blog

Why Aesthetics Matter to Learning

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

In the morning, do you reach for a favorite coffee cup or select an attractive outfit to wear to a meeting? Did the sleek and modern design of your smartphone influence your buying decision? What about your go-to websites? Are you drawn to the ones that are attractive and well-designed rather than those that are cluttered and difficult to read? 

You would probably agree that the visual design of a product influences your choices and buying decisions. And you most likely know that people prefer to use attractive products rather than poorly-designed ones. But you may not realize the extent to which design can impact a person’s emotions, which in turn affects how people think and learn. 

A Common Misconception

Many of us have a common misconception—fueled by outdated science—that emotions and cognition are two independent functions. At one time, researchers were certain that cognition and emotion operated as two separate systems. Underlying this theory was the idea that emotions and feelings were a lower order function as compared to higher order rational thinking.

Current research has basically done away with these older theories. We now know that emotion and cognition are interdependent. Emotions are crucial for quickly assessing a situation and for making decisions. There is also much data to show that positive emotions are particularly important for learning, solving problems, creative work, and innovation. This is because positive emotions, in most circumstances, enable more flexible and adaptive thinking (Isen, 2002).

Aesthetics Evoke Positive Emotions

Although instructional design typically focuses on the cognitive aspects of learning, a new line of research is now exploring the affective dimension too. Known as “emotional design,” this research looks at the ways a learner’s feelings and mood can influence motivation and learning results.

One obvious way to influence people is through visual aesthetics, or the appreciation of an appealing design. Thus, the importance of visual design in learning is gaining in stature and will become increasingly important in years to come. Initial research has already shown that evoking positive emotions in learners through an attractive visual design (layout, colors, imagery, etc.) can help facilitate a successful learning experience (Plass et al., 2014).

As a learning experience designer, this presents new opportunities for success. It means visual design is another channel for reaching your audience and influencing learning outcomes. It means that by making e-learning courses, training slides, and other materials visually appealing, you may be able to increase motivation and enhance the learning process by influencing the learner’s emotions.


Some Ways Aesthetics Can Enhance Learning

Here are four of the many ways that aesthetics can evoke positive emotions and in turn, facilitate learning.

Enhanced Value. People make rapid judgements based on sensory input and are instantly attracted to aesthetically pleasing objects, while rejecting those that are unappealing. Learners quickly judge the materials they use in a similar way. Not only do well-designed materials increase the appeal of the learning experience, learners will be more likely to judge the materials as credible and valuable. And perceived value is an important factor to adult learners. 

Increased Motivation. When learners experience positive emotions (which can be evoked through an attractive visual design), it can foster intrinsic motivation or the desire to learn without an external reward (Heidig et al., 2015). In addition, with an attractive design, the learning tasks are perceived as less difficult when compared to a neutral design (Um et al., 2012). 

Avoidance of Negative Emotions. One factor of an appealing design is its usability or how easy it is to attain one’s intended goal. In multimedia course design, the goals will vary according to task—navigating, playing videos, completing exercises, and taking tests, for instance. A design with a pleasing aesthetic will have the simplicity required to enhance task completion. It will help users avoid the negative emotions associated with poor designs, such as frustration and dissatisfaction, therefore enhancing the learning experience. 

Perceived Ease of Use. In the groundbreaking book, Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things (2005), author Donald Norman demonstrated the significance of aesthetics. He presented research showing that people perceive well-designed objects as user-friendly. In one experiment with an ATM machine, subjects perceived the attractively designed screen as easier to use than the unattractive screen design, even though both had the same buttons and functionality. Visual aesthetics enhanced the user experience. 


Considering how we are influenced and impressed by beautiful designs, it’s not surprising that aesthetics can have a significant impact on cognition and learning. By improving the visual design of e-learning courses, slides, learning portals, and similar learning tools, you can have a powerful effect on the learning experience. And isn’t that a common goal of learning professionals everywhere? 

For more visual design tips from Connie, check out her new book Visual Design Solutions


Heidig, S., Müller, J., & Reichelt, M.  Emotional design in multimedia learning: Differentiation on relevant design features and their effects on emotions and learning. Computers in Human Behavior, 44, 81–95, 2015. 

Isen, A. Missing in Action in the AIM: Positive Affect's Facilitation of Cognitive Flexibility, Innovation, and Problem Solving. Psychological Inquiry, 13(1), 57-65, 2002.

Plass, J., Heidig, S., Hayward, E., Homer, B., & Um, E. Emotional design in multimedia learning: Effects of shape and color on affect and learning. Learning and Instruction, 29, 128–140, 2014. 

Um, E., Plass, J., Hayward, E., & Homer, B. Emotional design in multimedia learning. Journal of Educational Psychology, 104(2), 485–498, 2012.

About the Author

Connie Malamed teaches instructional design skills at the Mastering Instructional Design community. She is a consultant, author and speaker in the fields of online learning and visual communication. Connie is the author of two books—Visual Design Solutions and Visual Language for Designers. She also publishes The eLearning Coach website and podcast. She was honored with the Guild Master award in 2018 for contributions to the learning technologies industry.

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