Visual design for learning content should be carefully planned and done with intention. I can hear your objection: We have a rapid development app, we have a corporate style guide, and the marketing department gave us a template. That’s all we need and all we use. (Ever.)

I disagree. You’re the instructional designer, responsible for your learners’ ability to successfully complete your courses and classes—and level up their work performance accordingly. As the instructional designer tasked with crafting the best learning content possible, are you really willing to delegate the essence of your work?

Visual design is so much more than making things pretty and fitting eLearning into corporate brand standards. It should evoke emotion, spark creativity, challenge learners to recognize the familiar—and much more. Visual design decisions should involve deciding how to make learning content easy to access for all learners, enhance the learners’ experience, and maximize retention.

Use visual design to improve LX

Visual design can do this in so many ways! Let’s go through 10 of these ways together:

  1. Visual cues, clues, and markers: These link learners to previous learning. Examples include images, icons, avatars, use of spot color, and color-coordinating key elements that relate to each other.
  2. Relieve cognitive load: Cognitive overload is a thing. Become a minimalist to reduce it. Discipline yourself to cut the number of words on slides, and make use of the audio track optional.
    Slides are free. Use the number you need. Eliminate busy slides with too many things going on. Instead, craft clean slides. To do this well, introduce key points of learning visually and verbally, but only one per slide. Challenge yourself to consider how best to present content visually instead of verbally.
  3. Repeat key learning points visually: As you build the visual design plan, specify how you’ll repeat key points of learning throughout the content. Plan to repeat the main points a minimum of three times, using three different ways to spark interest and encode the concept into learners’ short-term memory.
  4. Display completion progress and success landmarks visually: Identify completion progress and success landmarks and figure out how to make them visually apparent and available to learners. Use features of your authoring tool, such as “seek bars,” completed checklists, etc. Or, choose from the many add-ons available from the generous members of the user communities. There are also templates available for purchase.
  5. Use color, images, and pattern to link like items and concepts: Do not make learners guess what you mean. In your visual design planning, include the use of color, images, and patterns to link like items and concepts.
  6. Make course navigation accessible and obvious: Plan a clear presentation of all course navigation elements. Learners should be able to easily identify how to progress through the content. Be careful not to insult learners’ intelligence with unnecessary button labels, superfluous locked navigation, and the like. If you must “force” navigation or content completion in a particular order, explain why. Allow learners to choose their own learning paths whenever possible.
  7. Font use matters: Visual design addresses all of the visual elements, including the fonts. Choose standard fonts that are easily readable onscreen. During planning, stipulate minimum font size(s), as well as how bold, underline, and italics will be used (sparingly, and for specific types of emphasis). Use of fun, trendy, and pretty fonts does not necessarily improve the visual design, make the learning content accessible, or improve the learners’ opportunity for success.
    When using more than one font, limit the design to two fonts—usually, you’ll pair a serif font with a sans serif font. If you’re struggling how best to do this, check out font pairing guidelines found online (see resources).
  8. Use more images, illustrations, and graphics—and fewer words: Challenge yourself continually to present key learning and concepts visually instead of verbally.
    Stop grabbing images from Google images (or similar sites). Take your own photos, subscribe to stock photo and other image sites, and pay the nominal fees on curation/contribution sites. Look for images with Creative Commons licenses (see resources). Attribute every image appropriately and in keeping with the photographer’s or illustrator’s expectations. Don’t know? Then don’t use the image until or unless you have determined this.
    When using charts and graphs, reinterpret information brought in from a spreadsheet. Rather than present the numbers and statistics exactly as imported, call attention to the most important data by increasing the font size or using boldface and color.
  9. Use colors effectively: Use color to enhance the learners’ experience and their retention of learning. While it is true there are millions of colors, corporate branding standards often specify using certain ones. But you can also:
    • Use restraint; think about cognitive load.
    • Use color to draw attention to key learning points and to color-coordinate related content and key points.
    • Be careful with the use of red, bright orange, and bright yellow, as they will always draw the eye—and the learners’ attention—first. Be sure that’s what you want to do.
    • Whenever possible, choose high-contrast color combinations. This makes content more usable for most learners, and it makes your content more accessible.

    About those corporate templates and colors: Resist the temptation to give in and just use what the marketing department provides. Instead, determine how best to work with these folks to find solutions together. Prepare by crafting several examples that enhance clarity beforehand.

  10. Visual design inspiration is everywhere: We all consume content throughout our waking hours, especially on our phones. When crafting your visual design plan, consider how to better align learning content with the content we all interact with every single day. Think of the welcome screens for Netflix and Hulu, Google “cards,” website menus and layouts, etc.

These pointers are the culmination of years of designing and developing learning content—and much trial and error. Views expressed are all my own but have been heavily influenced by the works of many.

Learn more

Join Dawn Mahoney and Tracy Parish at the DevLearn 2019 Conference and Expo, where they are presenting an all-day workshop, “Visual Design for L&D.” The workshop is October 21, and DevLearn is October 23–25, all in Las Vegas. Discover practical strategies and real-world examples that will help you create better visual designs for your eLearning.



Canva color-palette generator
Color-scheme generator

Creative Commons

About Creative Commons licenses
Best practices for attribution
What is Creative Commons anyway?

Fonts and Font Pairings

Canva guide to font pairing
Font pairing made simple