Well-designed eLearning must have strong visual design and graphic elements; there’s no way around that truth.

“The thing is, eLearning is a completely visual medium, and pretty much everyone knows by now—even if they don’t necessarily follow it—that you’re not supposed to have a screen full of text,” said Connie Malamed, a learning and visual design consultant and author. 

The good news is, anyone can learn some basic visual design principles that will take their eLearning to a new level, regardless of delivery platform. “One thing that people don’t realize is that you do not need the ability to render or draw to improve your skills in visual design,” Malamed said. “Visual design and drawing are two separate categories of skills. There are some basic principles of visual design, and many overlap with art principles—but you do not need to be an artist to follow the principles.

“There are standard principles—and that’s what I teach in my workshops—for visual design that people can follow, and there’s no reason why they can’t improve their skills; I don’t care if they can’t draw a stick figure!”

For example:

  • Color harmonies—there are standard color harmonies for creating palettes that instructional designers can use in creating eLearning courses and slides
  • Unified design—repeating a shape, using a single typeface, and working with only one palette of colors are all ways to create unity throughout an eLearning course or program
  • Visual hierarchy—using color, size, or placement to create a dominant element that draws viewers’ eyes controls the order in which learners will see the elements on a page

“Mobile learning isn’t small eLearning”

“Not all eLearning can be converted to a phone,” Malamed said. Designers who are eager to embrace the mobile culture sometimes ignore this truth. “I think that eLearning for the computer and iPad is going to be quite different than eLearning for a mobile device. I would say mobile learning isn’t small eLearning.”

Malamed said that designers basically have two options:

  • Mobile-first—design eLearning specifically for the phone. In this case, she recommends using vector graphics, so that the graphics will scale up nicely for learners who use tablets or laptops.
  • Not for mobile—“If you want your eLearning to be graphic-heavy, and if the responsive version causes cognitive overload, just let people know that it’s not appropriate for a phone,” she said.

“Many complex information graphics are not going to work on a standard mobile phone,” she said. “You have to really think the design through.”

People consume content differently on different devices, and they might not want the same eLearning experience everywhere. “You have to really think it through instructionally— because context is most important in mobile learning. And consider if what you’re designing for a phone is going to be appropriate for a desktop. It’s a little tricky,” Malamed said. “It’s a different experience, learning from your phone. And I think that microlearning, games, and context-sensitive learning are more appropriate for the phone.”

Aligning graphics with goals

Whatever the medium, effective graphics are a key element of effective eLearning.

“What makes a graphic effective for learning is very different from what might make a graphic effective for advertising. So, we have to think of our goal. Even though we might use the same principles, we might use them in a different way,” Malamed said. “What makes a graphic effective for learning is that it is a relevant graphic and that it adds meaning to what the person is learning.”

In addition, the graphic needs to be aligned with the learning goal:

  • For learning goals that focus on recall of information, Malamed suggests an icon or photo that can serve as a mnemonic aid, something to jog their memory. “People have an amazing memory for pictures,” she said, suggesting showing the image together with the text. “By having two channels—a visual channel and a text channel—you might be more likely to remember it.”
  • For learning goals that emphasize analysis or synthesis of content, the instructional designer might turn to a complex infographic.
  • When coaching learners in problem-solving, or asking them to apply responses from a simulation to potential real-life situations, Malamed suggests a story with characters. “Show the characters interacting, using video or still photos,” she suggests. Learners are likely to remember the scenario and what the character did; this might help them remember how to solve the problem.

No artistic skill? No problem!

While graphics are necessary, an in-house art department is not. “The majority of eLearning that I see people produce does not include hand-rendered or computer-rendered illustrations,” Malamed said.

Instead of creating graphics in-house, most eLearning designers turn to stock photos and vector graphics or to companies that create images specifically for eLearning—cutouts of people, for example, that can be dropped into a page of content. Alternatively, designers can create their own photos—for example, of an employee wearing the company uniform. Vector graphics are scalable and can be used for illustrations, icons, or to represent concepts or ideas, Malamed said.

It’s worth the investment. “When people find something aesthetically appealing, it motivates them to keep going; it makes them think it’s professional; and it improves the credibility” of the eLearning, according to Malamed.

Learn more

Connie Malamed, a visual design consultant and author, will present a BYOL (Bring Your Own Laptop®) Pre-Conference Certificate Workshop, “Visual Design for eLearning and Slides,” on March 21 and a conference session, “Crash Course in Information Graphics for Learning,” on March 22 at Learning Solutions 2017 Conference & Expo in Orlando, Florida.