Rethinking the College Textbook

Visual Anatomy & Physiology

This book is unlike any other college textbook you have ever seen.

As I sit here in my local Starbucks, I see several college-age students struggling to absorb difficult material. At one table a young lady is working with an older mentor, trying to understand advanced accounting principles. The more of it I overhear, the more confused I become. Two other students are tackling economics over a table full of charts and graphs while muttering phrases like “government oil” and “maximum revenue”. This has me thinking about just how hard learning can be.

We have been designing textbooks for over a decade now. And not just any textbooks, but anatomy and physiology textbooks. I look at these beautiful and outrageously detailed books and wonder what it would have been like if one of them had mysteriously appeared on the bench of Leonardo da Vinci back in the fifteenth century. He would have been astonished. His notebooks reveal a mind hungry to understand both the construction and function of the human body. Here it all is, Leo, in one colorful package you can hold in your hands. Here are the answers to your many questions as well as countless more you don’t even know enough to ask.

VAP Sample Spread

This is a typical spread in Visual Anatomy & Physiology.

Put that same book in the hands of today’s students and I suspect they would be less impressed. It’s funny how as we are designing textbooks, the potential users of a book become something of a hovering presence. We learn a little about this audience by way of information that flows upstream through the publishers. But much of what we “know” about them comes from our own imaginations, which is not necessarily a bad thing. We constantly and reflexively ask ourselves how both students and professors will react to what we are doing, and our answers are largely driven by our own experiences both learning and teaching.

I would love to believe that today’s students are motivated by a burning curiosity about the subject — and I’m sure that some are. But the much more common phenomenon is a kind of triage attitude. Our primary A&P book represents a single two-semester course. Nobody in their right mind would assume a student could really learn all of the dense and detailed information in this 1,200-page book over two semesters during which he or she is probably taking 3-4 other challenging courses. So those students constantly ask themselves “what parts of this do I really need [to pass the course] and what parts can I skip.”

This poses an interesting challenge for the designer. Does this element I’m working on fall into the “must have” category, or will it end up “on the cutting room floor?” And if it is in the skippable category, why is the student tempted to skip it? Or perhaps more germane, if the student is going to skip it, why put it in the book at all?

The answers to these questions are complex, and have a lot to do with one very peculiar fact about textbooks: this big-ticket item is purchased by the students, but almost never selected by them. Professors select the books, but they don’t use them to learn the subject (that happened a long time ago). Students don’t select their textbooks, but the book selected for them is their only real shot at learning the subject. Think about this for a minute. From our vantage as designers this creates a set of peculiarly mixed motivations. For most products, attention directed toward pleasing the end-user will strongly motivate them to buy the product. With textbooks though, the end-user — the student — just isn’t part of the marketing equation.

Well, you might say, professors want their students to succeed, don’t they? If they see a feature that will help their students, won’t that motivate them to select a better book on the student’s behalf? I’m sure this does happen. But I also know that if my college professor was responsible for picking out a car that would be perfect for me, the chances of her choosing the same car I might choose for myself are infinitesimal — even if she is really trying. Even worse, there are some professors who just aren’t trying. Some believe “hey, learning this stuff was hard for me, why should it be any easier for today’s student?”

So, what happens when the goals of the true purchasers are in conflict with the goals of the true end-users. Did you really have to ask? The purchaser always wins.

But let’s go back to our perspective as designers. All of this is peculiar, and somewhat depressing, but in the end it just makes for an even greater design challenge: how do we make a textbook that is an irresistibly attractive package for the professor, but still treats the student like an important customer.

We saw that goal as an exciting challenge, and we designed a book to meet that challenge head on. Visual Anatomy & Physiology, published by Benjamin Cummings (Pearson’s medical and scientific imprint) is unlike any other textbook you have ever seen. A standard textbook features running text with occasional images used to reinforce a point visually, but our design for this book turns that model inside out. There is no running text. All the material is divided into concise two-page units built on rich, informative illustrations.

This new approach provides a much more memorable and engaging experience for the students. The short modules allow them to tackle information in discrete chunks. Each module provides immediate review questions, with more review questions on the section and chapter levels to reinforce the material.

The initial feedback from some professors was basically “no way you can cover everything in a book like that.” But it’s all there. This is not a dumbed down or remedial book, and to drive that point home, the principal author would sometimes bet professors that they couldn’t find a topic in their favorite A&P texts that was not covered in our book. No professor ever won that bet.

Despite some resistance, lots of professors were immediately excited about this new approach. But what about the students? Even as we were developing the design, Pearson was already testing it. The most frequent response from students seemed to be “when can you do this for all my textbooks.” And the numbers showed why. When “Visual” was used, formerly C students became B students and formerly B students became A students, almost across the board. That’s a win-win right there.

JIM GIBSON earned his BA in English (yes, English) from the University of Virginia. Nevertheless, he has enjoyed a long career in the graphic arts that spans a broad set of technologies, skills, and interests. Since the early 1980s he has operated his own design studio with an impressive list of satisfied clients.