No one wants to read your handouts.  They’re ugly and boring…or worse yet, copied from an old workbook.

Are you still giving old-school worksheets to Generation Snapchat?

I was.

“What do I have to do?” kids would say.

“Read the directions!… You didn’t read it yet.” I’d point, I’d show them where the passage asked them to do something.  I’d explain till I was blue in the face.  I’d even read it to them.

Finally, I realized something.

My handouts were awful.  They were boring…and ugly to boot, walls of text in old-style font and very little white space.  Students were skipping key information because finding it put them to sleep.

Drone, drone, drone, blab, blab, large block of text, fact, fact, large block of text, drone, lecture, lecture, drone, drone blab…

The Magna Carta was shorter and more engaging.

Are your handouts like this?  Are they long and boring, chunks of black text going on and on to the end of time?

If so, it’s not your fault.   It’s what we experienced in school, and for many of us, it’s how we were trained.  Did you ever take a class in graphic design?  I thought not.  But I bet you did get a few lectures on “How to Create a Really Long Rubric” and “Writing Teacher Directions No One Will Read.”

I’m guiltier than most–I’m a historian.  Is there a field out there with more reading and less white space?  I teach about dead people, but I don’t want to kill any off while I’m teaching.  My students were dying of boredom the minute I passed out a paper.

The solution is right in front of you…it’s simple!

Get out of the school mindset–NOW!

Instead of looking at examples of teacher handouts, skip straight to the graphic designers.  Take your lessons from the marketing world instead!

Marketing people spend millions hiring people to write copy, create logos, and place designs on ads that’ll catch your eye and make you buy.  They space every word, choose every color, and use modern typography.  Ever wonder why you can tell an ad from the 50’s just by looking at the lettering?

Are you still using that lettering? Worse yet, are you still using the same handouts?

Things change in education, you need to change your things up, too.  My writing was the first thing that had to go if I wanted to engage students.

“I had to beat the academic out of you,” said a friend giving after I published my first book.  “It used to be painful to read what you wrote.”  It stung, but he was right.

Nobody read my academic writing, but people read my marketing copy, my blogs, and my satire. When I started using them in school, results rose.

Here’s how you can produce handouts your students will read, learn from, and maybe even compliment:

Learn about Typography:  If you’re still using the same Arial-only approach, or worse yet, Comic Sans, don’t.  Typography comes in many types, widths, and styles. Designers alternate them to show contrast.  Pick two fonts you like that seem to be opposites.  Use one for your headlines and the other for your body.  Try choosing one with serifs–the little finishing strokes on the bottom of the letters–and contrast it with one sans-serif.  Use bold to accent headlines, and change up sizes to show important concepts.  You can download new fonts into your platforms, or if your school has a budget for Adobe Type Kit, that’s where I find my goldmine. Fonts are everywhere–experiment with them and have fun.  You wouldn’t eat the same breakfast cereal every day–get some variety in your font toolbox.

Use a design program.  Professionals use Adobe InDesign to make their layouts, but you can use Canva for free.  Canva only charges you for using premium elements, which are all well-marked.  You’ll have more than you need for free.  It’s intuitive and easy to use if you play with it.  You can now insert design blocks created by professionals, put callouts, use the most cutting edge icons–or design and upload your own diagrams as well.   Convert your old handouts to Canva-inspired works of art today!  Download in print or web-quality resolution, all for free.

Less is more.  I lose the students when I try to put a lecture with a few “Do this” directions.  Use bullets, good spacing, and edit out unnecessary details. If the handout’s still too long–make it two.

Reread your directions–then cut them in half.  If your directions are more than a few sentences, they’re probably too long.  I look at some of my old handouts and say, “Huh?”  Short and simple produces the best results.  If the assignment is complex, break the directions down into numbered steps, a checklist, or different organizers with room for students to write or type.

Use callouts.  You know that arrow that points you to the “Buy now!” button, or that big fancy badge that says “Only (3 easy payments of) $19.99!”  That’s a callout.  Use callouts and arrows to point to the really important things.  Students’ eyes will go right there.  Then, discuss that point.

Use symbols to unify your ideas across handouts.  Use universal logos in all your handouts to represent a command or action.   Think beyond this one handout.  If you use little logos for certain actions and commands, students will be prepped and ready to jump right in the minute they see them.  Think of how the “Dummies” books uses the target with the arrow or the lightbulb.  Every time you see them in any book, you know just what to do.  Create a little “Do now” symbol or a “learn this” that you use in every one of your handouts.

Always have illustrations. Everything you put out should have at least one cartoon, diagram, picture, or figure on it.  In graphic design, a picture or logo’s worth a thousand words.  It will be for your handouts as well.  The image for this post was made with WordSwag, a program I can’t recommend enough.

Avoid complex rubrics.  We have rubrics with fifteen sentences in each box.  I can’t even read the boxes and I find myself going “check, check, check.”  “That looks pretty good to me.”  I started making my rubrics simple using alternating texts, graphics, logos, and icons.  I simplified them and put them, often including jokes.  The results were astounding.  Expectations were clear, but students looked forward to reading them.

Get students to design things.  You’ve got artists. Ask them for cartoons, designs, and art on a regular basis.  Then, incorporate their work into your designs.  It gives them a sense of ownership.

Change with the times.  You ask your students to edit their work–edit yours too. If you’ve been teaching for a while, you can reuse the concepts, but the students and design changes.  If you edit your work, you’ll get better responses from your crowd.  Don’t be afraid to leave the handout behind and try your hand at posting online, uploading your handouts, making videos to go with them, and using multimedia slide shows on Keynote or including some WordSwag graphics for your Question of the Day.

Start learning about graphic design today.  Even if it’s an area you never considered before, you’ll be amazed at how much fun you have, and how quickly you see results.

Before long, you’ll want to redo every old handout you ever made–I know I did.  It was more work for me, but it was fun and refreshing, and seeing students smile and dive right in to work–to look forward to papers rather than frown–made all the difference in the world.