Design learning design

A Learning Design System

Recently I had the pleasure of presenting with one of my team members about some of the work we’ve been doing. It was to a local UX group, Design for Humans, and it was an excellent opportunity to share our work. I’m not going to run through the presentation here, but I did want to riff on some things that came out of the night.

  1. I miss presenting. I don’t know if I’m great at it, but I feel good doing it. I know I’m not awful – but I’m also not the greatest at reading the room and intuiting where people are. That said, most times after I’ve presented, it’s opened up to absolutely fantastic conversations where I’ve connected with people through the ideas I was sharing.
  2. It was such a pleasure speaking to a design crowd. I’ll take any opportunity to speak, so I have ended up speaking to quite a wide array of audiences. Still, knowing I was talking to designers meant I could take shortcuts and not explain fundamentals, which made things much more straightforward.
  3. This also confirmed one of my beliefs that Learning Design is much more of a design discipline than an educational one — or at least it is while education remains focussed on teaching. Presenting some of the learning concepts did not introduce anything new per-se but confirmed practices they already knew and were baked into design practice. At the same time, it was great to value-add to the conversation and introduce new concepts about learning that can be used to aid their design.
  4. It was great to pull together the presentation because it made me realise how far we have come. This team and I have done some fantastic work together, and while our effort has been spread across several areas, it is all starting to coalesce. And what it is coalescing around is this idea of a design system for learning. Or simply…

A Learning Design System

My background in graphic and web design meant I was exposed to “design systems” quite some time ago. At university, we explored a couple of the Olympic design systems, starting in Munich and the recent one in Sydney (yes, I studied that long ago 😔 ).

The simple idea behind these design systems was to improve quality, efficiency and consistency when working on a large project or on an array of small connected projects. They weren’t meant for artisanal or small-scale projects because of the time needed to create one. When a design has to be scaled up to meet the demand of a large project, like an Olympic-sized event or even something as familiar as mass transit or an airport, it needs a system to work. You’re not just scaling up the job; you’re scaling up the number of people involved. It’s no longer one design; it’s 10, 20, or 50, all needing to work towards the same goal. You’re also looking at various vendors and contractors – sign writers, printers, display manufacturers, furniture designers, architects and landscapers. The design needs to hold up to multiple applications – from signage or posters and pamphlets – and media stretching from paper and canvas to digital and metallic.

When I started to think about a Learning Design System, it was with these things in mind. Our team was transitioning from the artisanal to becoming major producers. We needed to start developing ways of achieving consistency but also quality. We had to become more efficient without sacrificing our principles and practices of working. All of a sudden (and in hindsight, it was incredibly rapid) we had to scale up and out the various products and services we were involved in. We needed to move towards the professionalisation of learning design to meet the institutional needs and appetite.

I thought about this phase as our “craft beer dilemma”. We needed to move from the artisanal designs – the one-offs that were handcrafted that had made our name – to a much larger scale of design – bigger batches that meant more production, more hands and larger quantities. We went through a really tough phase of trying to work out how to do that, where to compromise, and where we needed to change – while simultaneously trying to hold onto our beliefs and reputation without becoming ‘sellouts’.

Connecting disciplines

One of the ideas I opened with in the presentation was that learning design was the application of User Experience Design to a specific discipline or industry. That many of the key concepts that make up UX design are directly applied to learning design:

While we don’t tend to make apps or websites, the same aims and practices are often evident in our work.

What we are both trying to achieve in our practice is to creatively solve communication problems using a range of media, and through the thoughtful design of an experience.

This cross-over and the idea of a multi-disciplinary approach have been a large part of my career. Bringing things from the Tech world into Education and attempting to also bring Education into Tech. The idea of Ed-Tech for me is bi-directional rather than the one-way street that seems to have been over the last decade. One aspect of tech that I think education can use more is the fore-fronting of design. What separates many products and services now is not their functionality but their user experience. And how do they go about constructing that experience? Through a design system.

The likes of Google, Atlassian, Shopify, Adobe, Salesforce, and the BBC all utilise a design system. While they more often than not focus on visual components of the design, there was always something here that resonated. The ability to create “components” with which to build. It reminded me of the “pattern language” that Mike Caulfield:

Just as a limited number of grammar rules produce an infinite number of sentences based on the needs of the moment, so learning design patterns combined with the circumstances and aims of instruction can produce infinitely expressive learning designs.

And Peter Goodyear:

Design patterns have a number of qualities which, in combination, give them the potential to be a useful way of sharing experiences in the field of networked learning. A pattern is a solution to a recurrent problem in a context.

The Lego Pieces

One of the things I struggled with in previous iterations of attempting to implement a pattern language was the granularity of the pattern. What I wanted to do in a learning design system was to create something akin to the building blocks of a learning experience. From these pieces, you could quickly create bespoke experiences that suit the topic and style of the course. Essentially the opposite of a template – whose shape and structure are set, you pour in the content regardless of the intent. I wanted to create something adaptable and as simple as Lego. Something that you could use to create any experience – from a day to a week to a semester. And possibly something that could work across delivery options, platforms and modes.

I started this time not with the patterns but with the learning. I returned to Laurillard’s work as it resonated with me and the concept of Learning Types (rather than styles) appealed to me. A desire to expand on a couple of terms (adding in Evaluative to cover reflection and feedback) and to get more consistent terminology (all as adjectives) led me to define the types of learning.

Types of Learning

  • Assimilative – Learning through presented information.
  • Investigative – Learning by seeking information. 
  • Formative – Learning by trying 
  • Discursive – Learning by engaging with other perspectives
  • Productive – Learning by creating artefacts
  • Evaluative – Learning through feedback
  • Social – Learning with others

These worked well to help define the various types of experiences we could give to students. We could move away from thinking in media and mediums, blended or online or face-to-face. These Learning Types help us as learning designers, but they don’t necessarily make it easier for others to work with, especially our collaborators, course authors and stakeholders. So from the Learning Types, we constructed the Activity Types.

Activity Types

  • Acquisition = Content
  • Investigative = External Resources
  • Formative = Practice
  • Discursive = Discussion
  • Productive = Assessment
  • Evaluative = Review
  • Social = Interactive

These Activity Types help define the experience and what we need to create in the course for the student to learn. They provide a way of structuring the learning experience; from this, we can start the course design. At this point, it’s the big picture, we are looking at things at a course level, but by using the link between the Learning and Activity types, we get a better sense and shape of what we are looking to create. We can quickly identify issues and ensure a variety activity ensures a better learning experience.

Where we get to next are our patterns. Patterns form the Lego blocks from which we can build an activity or learning sequence. The patterns form the “components” of our design system. They can be used in multiple ways, reconfigured and repurposed to suit our desired experience.

In our first iteration, they provided a relatively quick way to construct a learning sequence, provide feedback and direction, and provide scaffolding for course authors. Rather than a blank page, what we have been able to do is construct supportive structures for authors to develop their course around. They can bring their subject matter expertise to bear without also needing to manage the lesson’s foundations and structure. This scaffolding has been incredibly useful in our adoption of a more agile approach to learning design.

(I have more to write and share on Learning Patterns – so I will save that deep dive for later.)

We have developed the underlying features of a Learning Design System – one that allows us to unite pedagogy, student experience and the development process required to create a course. All of this is customisable, bespoke and unique to the course we are working on, the students we are designing for, and the course author we are working with. There is still a way to go in developing the practices around the system – how we work with it and do so effectively – but we have made a significant start.

There’s also a lot more to write about! We’ve also been working on our style guide and how we have worked to link pedagogy and aesthetics; there’s the way we have adopted Miro as a core design tool; and the development of a “smart storyboard” that has become central to the production and management of our courses.

Moving towards this systemic approach to learning design seems like we are heading in the right direction. It’s been slow and incremental sometimes, and then we make a giant leap. It’s been just over a year since I started to pull all of these ideas together, and we have created so much already – yet there’s still more to do. I remain focused on creating a toolset that will allow Learning Designers to spend more time designing and applying their efforts to the creative aspects of the role. To work on the problems faced in learning and teaching and develop innovative solutions that can improve the experience and delight students and teachers.


By Tim Klapdor

Passionate about good design, motivated by the power of media and enchanted by the opportunities of technology.

3 replies on “A Learning Design System”

As you say more to write, very interested in your use of Miro and other approaches to implementation. FWIW, all this very much echoes, for me, the recommendation from Ellis and Goodyear (2019) that institutional strategy around learning and teaching should shift “to infrastructures and service interfaces for a manageably small set of particularly valued activity systems” (p. 188).

Ellis & Goodyear –

Thanks, David. I’ve always been inspired by concepts like being ‘protean’ that have helped guide my thinking in this regard. It’s been nice to put something into practice in this space and apply some of the learning from past projects and attempts. I’ve developed a presentation around the ‘Language of Learning’ and used this to describe how we can use this work – not as structural forms but as a language to speak with to aid design. I’m sharing that with our broader team next week – curious how it will go down.

Great blog! I find your building blocks of a learning experience to be very interesting (I love LEGOs, so I am fascinated with the idea!). I am wondering how transformative learning experiences relate to the model design? Can the blocks help us to design more choices for learners (to support the learner agency on design level)?

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