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Graphic Design Tips for Accidental Instructional Designers

eLearning course materials need to be visually engaging in order to be effective. No matter how theoretically-sound your training content is, if it isn’t presented as an attractive package, participants will lose interest quickly. If you’ve never created an eLearning course or the role of instructional designer has been suddenly thrust upon you, this post is for you! Even if you never planned to be a designer, you became one when you first opened your authoring tool.

For starters, you need to know this: Good design not only grabs but keeps learners’ interest. If this sounds daunting, don’t worry! You can learn the basic graphic design skills you need, and you’ll get better as time goes on if you keep practicing.

Here are ten tips which will help you to drastically improve your design ability just in time for the next module.


1) Keep Clutter to a Minimum

“Designer or not, you can create clutter-free #eLearning screens”.

The first thing you need to do is to reduce clutter. If you only remember one tip, let it be this one! 

With so many elements vying for the learner’s attention in a cluttered screen, they are compelled to split their attention between reading, absorbing, and analyzing the information. Learners become confused and cannot fathom what to focus on. The human brain cannot function optimally if it is made to multi-task. 

Here are some tips to help you simplify your text-heavy screens:

  • Try to explain only ONE idea in one screen.
  • Curate content. Being able to create lean screens that shun the text-heavy look depends on your ability to sift through and filter content. Ensure that you highlight the critical pieces of information, say with bullet lists. 
  • Reduce the number of long phrases and lengthy sentences you use. 
  • Use voiceover or narration to provide instructions. This facilitates learning and eliminates the need to have too much text on screen.
  • Restrict the number of colors you use in the design to a maximum of three in most cases and pay attention to the number of fonts you use (no more than two). Fonts can add interest to your content but use too many of them and it can become distracting. 

2) Make Your Design Easy to Read

You will agree that besides being  beautiful, your eLearning course design needs to be functional. Course participants need to be able to READ the material if they are going to learn anything. Your text needs to be easy on the eye and legible. This means you won’t put yellow text on a white background or blue on black. Keep the contrast between your text and background high to ensure learners can understand all the information presented. You should also make sure your font can be read on multiple devices.

3) Go beyond text

It can be tempting to throw all the existing text you have in a PDF, but unless something REALLY helps learners grasp what they need to know right now, it isn’t helpful info. Your purpose is to get your audience to learn the info to be better at their job, not to load them up with large amounts of boring text. 

Learn how to represent information visually. Instead of using large chunks of text to describe a product or a scene or an event, use an infographic. For instance, a diagram or a chart does a better job of conveying the underlying relation between two objects than a few lengthy sentences.

Don’t think you need to get too fancy! Simple icons from sources like Font Awesome and Feather Icons can help to break up blocks of text.

Read more: Bring Your eLearning Designs to Life with Simple Shapes and Icons

4) Choose the right images

To expand on the previous point, you should note that not just any image will suffice. Some course creators choose images as an afterthought. They prepare all the text then try to find images which they can toss in. However, you should spend some time carefully choosing high-quality images which add something to your presentation. Choose photographs that captivate you because of their composition, quality and the story they tell. Even if you don’t know photography terms like the rule of thirds, choose images which speak to you. Chances are they’ll speak to your learners as well. If you choose poor quality images, it can reduce the impact of the entire course.

“Users pay close attention to photos and other images that contain relevant information, but ignore fluffy pictures used to “jazz up” webpages.” – Jakob Nielsen.

This means that your learners will ignore the irrelevant images anyway. However, if they do notice them, it will be with frustration as they try to figure out why the image is there.

5) Create Designs with Your Learners in Mind

When you’re focused on the subject matter going into our eLearning course, it can be easy to forget the importance of the consumers of your course.

The importance of understanding the target audience cannot be stressed enough. If you don’t know your target audience, that’s the first step to created irrelevant and boring courses. 

What colors would they like? Should the design be formal or modern and fresh? Even if your course design looks good to you, you need to think about whether it will achieve the desired outcome and if your target audience of learners will be engaged.

So, identify your learners, what they need to know, do and feel before going ahead with an eLearning design. Here're some useful resources to start:

6) Use Visual Hierarchy to Organize Your Content

You should arrange, scale and size the varying elements of your design in a way that indicates their importance. This is called visual hierarchy and it ensures that your most important points are emphasized. Think about how your eyes are drawn to the largest elements on a page first. Sometimes it’s the only thing you read. You don’t want your learners to miss out on the key points because you displayed them in a smaller font. Consider whether it would be more impactful to organize your content into paragraphs or bullet points and whether you will highlight key points with color or place them in a box. Also, don’t forget to leave blank space so that each element has enough space around it.

7) Use Consistency and Repetition

Repetition is one of the basic tenets of design. It ties all the different elements together and strengthens the look of the overall design. This means all the screens in your design should look like they belong together. Beyond the aesthetics, consistency makes it easier for learners to follow the content and it elevates the overall quality of your work.

Think about how a book uses one font for the body text and another for chapter titles. Think about how each page is numbered and not just some. If these things were done in a haphazard manner, you would probably be too distracted to really take in the content. You may even give up before finishing the book. This is how learners will relate to your course if you don’t use consistency and repetition.

Repeat some design element throughout your course whether it be font, color or icon type. These help with creating the visual hierarchy which was discussed above. Buttons, photos, and other graphics should all have some quality which makes them consistent. As you get more experienced with design, you’ll develop your own style. Consistency will help to make your brand recognizable.

8) Make Sure the Main Message is Clear

Learners often have limited time so you need to make sure they can grasp the key takeaways as soon as possible. Their eyes will be drawn to the most prominent thing on the screen first, so you need to make sure it’s the most valuable thing. Use color, size, and placement to highlight key graphics, photos, phrases, buttons or numbers . Since learners may scan through the course without stopping at every screen, you need to ensure the key points jump out.

Tip: Ask a co-worker or someone else with fresh eyes to look over your course. Then ask him about his first impression. If he was bored or was distracted by a blog or his smartphone, then you need to rethink your design.

9) Use Contrast to Highlight What's Important

When you want your viewers’ eyes to be drawn to a particular element within other elements, you can use design tools like contrast to make it stand out. A very basic version of creating contrast is when you bold a phrase within a paragraph. Your eye is instantly drawn to that difference. You can also do this with shape, size, typography and a COLOR.  Colors are linked to emotion and they affect how learners feel when they interact with your course content. This means the hues you use can influence learners’ overall perception of your course.  

Use contrasting shapes and colors and contrast between text (size and color) and background (color) to achieve the following ends:

  • To make critical pieces of information stand out
  • To create visual points of interest
  • To draw attention to specific visual elements
  • To engage the learners and keep them interested

Don’t Overuse Contrast: Obviously highlighting out an entire paragraph isn’t a great idea, nor is using multiple contrasting elements on the same screen. Emphasize the most important element only!

Before Using Contrast: Before contrasting elements in your screen design, ask yourself what you want to accomplish? What do I want my learners to see or interact with? Once you’ve answered that, take your primary element and put in a bright color to contrast it with a darker or more dull background or make it bigger to grab attention immediately.

Grab this free guide: The Complete Guide to Color Combinations in eLearning

Also, you might like: 9-Point Checklist for the Perfect eLearning Course Design

10) Always, Plan Your Design

Most people who are new to eLearning course design don’t plan before they fire up the authoring tool. They begin creating the course and then start to think about what they want to accomplish. However, you’ll realize you work much more quickly if you have a plan in place. Even a general outline can help you tremendously.

In eLearning we call this "outline" a "storyboard".Some of the benefits of using this tool are:

  • Sequence instruction and show how different elements relate and fit together;
  • Make sure you, clients, and team members are all on the same page;
  • Document changes and previous ideas.

Learn how to create your first storyboard here: A Simple Guide to Creating Your First eLearning Storyboard

These are just some of the ways new instructional designers can create courses which engage participants and encourage learning. Incorporate these tips into your designs and your course is likely to be much more effective. As you begin to develop your own graphic design style, you may want to break some of the rules.

Read Cammy Bean's Book: The Accidental Instructional Designer. It covers nearly every aspect of the e-learning design process you should know. 

Read more: Dear eLearning Designers, Please Stick To These Basic Design Principles

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