Chapter seven - Design Languages

This chapter summarises the research on design languages and considers how this relates to the notion of a learning design language. It provides a useful contextual background to the discussions in later chapters on the visual representations we have developed as part of our work and a tool for visualising designs that we have developed, CompendiumLD. It draws in particular on Botturi and Stubbs (2008) who provide an authoritative account of design language research. Botturi & Stubbs demonstrate that there is a plethora of languages available to choose from; ranging from sketch-oriented languages that facilitate the creation and representation of the grand view of a design to more formal languages that enable detailed representations of specification and/or implementation details of a design. Botturi et al. (2006) define a design language as ‘a set of concepts that support structuring a design ask and conceiving solutions’. They go on to define a design language as a mental tool that can be expressed and hence communicated through a notation system (i.e. a set of signs and icons that allow representing a design problem or solution so that it is perceivable by our senses).

Gibbons et al. (2008) argue that design languages are an important aspect of instructional design. They define a design language as a ‘set of abstractions used to give structure, properties, and texture to solutions of design problems. Hohanson, Miller and Hooper (2008, p. 19) suggest that a design language is what designers use to communicate designs, plans and intentions to each other and to the produces of their artifacts, citing Gibbons and Brewer (2005, p. 113). Rose (2001) argues that understanding visual representations is a learned skill. Hence visual languages serve several purposes: i) to communicate a message through a visual or functional language, ii) to provide a synthetic idea, image or metaphor of complex ideas and iii) to create a grammar or produce meaning for its use.  Gibbons et al. (2008) argue that design languages: i) encourage disciplined design practice, ii) give organisation to the growth of design fields, iii) helps give historical context to evolving design fields and v) connect practices of a design field to theoretical concepts.

Botturi e al. (2006) argue that educational modelling languages have emerged as conceptual tools to help designers deal with the increasing complexity of designing for learning making effective use of new technologies and pedagogies.  They argue that they allow the development of reflective practice and potentially enhance a more thorough understanding and reuse of elearning. Derntl et al. (2010) suggest that a shared design language is one mechanism for dealing with design complexity and the requirements of communication in interdisciplinary design teams. They argue that designing for learning needs both beauty and precision; and show how different design languages can be used to present these. They state that ‘We are in no way suggesting that beauty and precision are in opposition to one another, nor even that they are mutually exclusive concerns. We make the distinction merely to further stress the competing demands on instructional designers for maintaining a grand view of the learning experience while also addressing the myriad details of an effective end product.’

Stubbs and Gibbons (2008, p. 35) suggests that visual representations serve two purposes in design: 1) they can be used during design as part of the design process to represent some aspect of instruction before it had to be produced or represented, this may be in the form of storyboards or flow charts and 2) they can be part of the content that is being produced. They also argue that design drawing can aid the designer by reducing cognitive load during the design process and because design sketched are an external representation, they augment memory and support informational processing.  They also suggest that another view of drawing is similar to Vygotsky’s description of the relationship of language to thought. Substituting drawing for words, Vygotky says: ‘Thought is not merely expressed in (drawings), it comes into existence through them.’ Languages in general provide advantages that are particularly useful in design. Firstly, they allow thought to be communicated so that good ideas don’t get lost. Secondly, they provide a focus of attention that permits higher-power processing and anchoring of thought. Thirdly, they provide the ability to question and judge the value of the thought – to construct thoughts about thought. Jackendoff (1996) suggests that there are two stages to the design process: i) sketches to try ideas out and ii) as design progresses the drawings become more formal, more governed by rules and conventions.

Massironi  (2002) has produced a taxonomy of graphic productions, which categorises design drawings by their form and purpose. He distinguishes between representational (physical reality) and non-representational (abstract concepts) drawings. Botturi (2008, p. 112) identifies two types of languages: i) finalist communicative languages, which serve the purpose of representing a complete instructional design for communicating it to others for implementation, reuse or simply archival and ii) representative, which help designers think about the instruction they are designing and support its creation. The ability to express an idea, allows people to better analyse and understand it and to make better design decisions. In contrast, McKim categorises abstract graphic languages into seven types: Venn diagrams, organisation charts, flow charts, link-node diagrams, bar charts and graphs, schematic diagrams and pattern languages, (McKim, 1980)whereas Laseau (1986) categorises them into four main types: bubble diagrams, area diagrams, matrices and networks.

Design languages exist along a range of continua. Gibbons and Brewer (cited in Gibbons et al., 2008) describe several dimensions of design language variation: i) complexity-simplicity, ii) precision-nonprecision, iii) formality-informality, iv) personalisation-sharedness, v) implicitness-explicitness, vi) standardisation-non-strandardisation, and vii) computability-non-computability.

Botturi et al. (2006) described a number of commonly used design languages. A design language of particular importance is IMS Learning Design (IMS/LD), which is based on the Educational Modelling Language developed by OUNL. IMS/LD represents a learning design, referred to as a ‘unit of learning’, which is a sequence of activities described in the form of acts in a play. It describes the roles and activity sequences within an environment of learning objects and services. Properties, conditions and notifications can also be defined to further fine tune and specify the design.  UML has also been adapted for use in elearning contexts. Botturi et al. describe E2ML, which is based on UML, as a simple design language coupled with a visual notation system consisting of multiple interrelated diagrams. Agostinho (2008) lists three types of E2ML documents: goal definition, action diagram and overview diagram. At the other end of the spectrum, the AUTC project has developed a design language that is much more practitioner orientated. It is based on work by Oliver and Herrington (2001) who identified three elements associated with a learning design:

1.      The tasks or activities learners are required to undertake

2.      The content resources provided to help learners complete the tasks

3.      The support mechanisms provided to assist learners to engage with the tasks and resources.

These three elements are used to describe a learning design, as a temporal sequence, with the tasks or activities being undertaken in the centre and the associated resources and support mechanism for each tasks or activity represented either side. Agostinho et al. (2008) argue that the AUTC visual learning design representation can be used to facilitate dissemination and reuse of innovative pedagogical strategies in university teaching. Boling and Smith (2008) describe the range of mediating artefacts that are used to support design both as process and product. They highlight the importance of sketching and consider the interplay between the two modes of metal representation required for sketching – propositional (largely symbolic) and analogue (quasi-pictorial, spatially depictive). They reference Goldschimidt (1991) who argues that there is an oscillation between propositional thinking and descriptive thinking during the process of design.


Boling, E., & Smith, K. M. (2008). Artifacts as tools in the design process. In D. Merrill & M. Spector (Eds.), Handbook of research in educational communications and technologies (3rd Ed ed.). New York: NY: Tailor and Francis.

Botturi, L. (2008). E2ML: a tool for sketching instructional design. In L. Botturi & S. T. Stubbs (Eds.), Handbook of visual languages for instructional design: theories and practices (pp. 112-132). hershey, New York: Information Science Reference.

Botturi, L., Derntl, M., Boot, E., & Figl, K. (2006, 5-7th July 2006). A classification framework for educational modelling languages in instructional design. Paper presented at the ICALT 2006, Kerkrade, The Netherlands.

Botturi, L., & Stubbs, T. (2008). Handbook of Visual Languages for Instructional Design: Theories and Practices: Information Science Reference %@ 1599047292.

Derntl, M., Parish, P., & Botturi, L. (2010). Beauty and precision in instructional design. Journal on e-learning, 9(2), 185-202.

Gibbons, A. S., Botturi, L., Boot, E., & Nelson, J. (2008). Design languages. In M.Discoll, M.D.Merill, J. v. Merrienboer & J. M. Spector (Eds.), Handbook of research for educational communications and technologies. Mahway, NJ: Lawrence Erbaum Associates.

Gibbons, A. S., & Brewer, E. K. (2005). Elementary principles of design languages and design notation systems for instructional design. In J. M. Spector, C. Ohrazda, A. V. Schaack & D. A. Wiley (Eds.), Innovations in instructional technology. Mahway, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Hohanson, B., Miller, C., & Hooper, S. (2008). Commodity, firmness, and delight: four modes of instructional design practice. In L. Botturi & T. Stubbs (Eds.), Handbook of visual languages for instructional design: Theories and practices (pp. 1-17). Hershey, New York: Information Science Reference.

Jackendoff, R. (1996). The architecture of the language facility. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Laseau, P. (1986). Graphic problem solving for architects and designers (2nd ed.). New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold.

Massironi, M. (2002). The pyschology of graphic image: seeing, drawing, communicating. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erbaum Associate.

McKim, R. H. (1980). Thinking visually: a strategy manual for problem solving. Belmont, CA: Lifetime learning publications.

Oliver, R., & Herrington, J. (2001). Teaching and learning online: a beginners guide to e-learning and e-teaching in Higher Education. Perth: Edith Cowan University.

Rose, G. (2001). Visual methodologies: an introduction to the intrepretion of visual materials. Thousand Oaks: CA: SAGE publication.

Stubbs, T., & Gibbons, A. S. (2008). The power of design drawing in other design fields In L. Botturi & T. Stubbs (Eds.), Handbook of visual languages for instruction design: theories and practices (pp. 33-51). Hershey, New York: Information Science Reference.



2 Responses to “Chapter seven - Design Languages”

  1. Sheila MacNeill Says:

    Hi Grainne

    Just a point about IMS LD - it’s not just a design language it also provides a runtime environment allowing an actual instantiation of a design, which many other design languages do not. However the runtime services outlined in the original specification have been difficult to develop (leading to systems like LAMS which are LD “inspired” but provide a comprehensive implementation of the spec - although it can export level A and B I think). This post I did a while back might be useful summarising developments on IMS LD

    In the Design for learning programme, not many of the projects used any kind of formal design language however, we were able to map a cross section of outputs into IMS LD - see mapping project outputs report at

  2. Martin Oliver Says:

    Funnily enough, my PhD was related to some of this, albeit in the context of learning logic rather than design. One of the most important things I learnt from that was that the expressive power of a language is a payoff: the kinds of powerful representations that experts used was hard to learn and easy for newcomers to misinterpret. Less formal language was more approachable, but I was still left with the aphorism that any cue, misunderstood, becomes a miscue. So yes, language is really interesting, but I’d suggest it really needs discussion in relation to communities of language users, rather than entirely in the abstract.

    This is an interesting selection of languages for design, but I got to the end feeling it was orienting rather than analytic. Are the later approaches that are given better, in some way? Do any of them credibly chop learning up into plannable “fragments”/units? I’d be interested to hear some thoughts in relation to those kinds of issues too - but maybe I’m jumping the gun on what’ll be coming up in future chapters.


    “a set of concepts that support structuring a design ask and conceiving solution” - design task

    “e as a ‘set of abstractions used to give structure” - end quote mark missing

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