Consider these unfortunately all-too-likely training scenarios:

  • Learners’ eyes glaze over, they start snoring … or, more likely, they quickly click through dull, text-heavy eLearning screens without reading them
  • Learners struggle to figure out how to launch a training module, fail to navigate through it in an order that makes sense to them, or, after repeated attempts to learn the rules of a game, simply give up
  • Learners complete required training, sail through assessments—and consistently fail to meet performance targets or show any change in results

What’s the common denominator? Poor design.

Design may be the problem in all of these cases, but the solution is different for each. Why? In some cases poor design has to do with flaws in instructional design, while in others the problems can be solved with improved visual design. However, visual design cannot compensate for poor instructional design—and vice versa.

What’s the difference between visual and instructional design, and why are both essential to creating successful eLearning? Those are great questions that this article will answer.

“Design is a gateway: it is the first thing people notice, so if they have to work to get past your design to get to the heart of the content, they are already tired and irritated by the time they get there,” said Crystal Rose, The eLearning Guild’s manager of web development and design, in an email interview. “It could also prove to be less effective if you aren’t properly emphasizing the right parts of your message. Good design will help navigate people through your content as opposed to creating additional roadblocks.”

Instructional design is …

Instructional design is primarily about content, learning goals, and performance. It is the development of training programs, including specific lessons or modules, in a way that transfers knowledge, teaches skills, or changes attitudes and behavior. Instructional designers (IDs) must consider:

  • Learning needs and goals—In a corporate eLearning framework, these relate to specific business needs and goals
  • Learners’ needs and environment—This covers a range of factors, including learners’ familiarity with the technology where they will use the eLearning, and the environment and tasks where they will ultimately apply what they’ve learned
  • What success looks like—Defining success criteria offers clues as to how to present information to learners, what types of assessments are appropriate, and how learners should ultimately use that information
  • How competent learners must be—Competency falls on a continuum ranging from learners acquiring basic familiarity with a topic to becoming unconsciously fluent (able to perform the skill in their sleep)

While the structure and format of lessons is a part of instructional design—including questions of whether to create learning games, simulations, asynchronous eLearning, job aids, or some other format—what the content looks like, and the nuts and bolts of how learners interact with it, is not. That falls under visual design.

Visual design is …

Visual design is a broad field. Here’s a great description from Skillcrush, an online community for creative thinkers and doers: “Visual designers are the creative visionaries behind everything from your favorite websites and apps to brand logos and eBook covers. They are the graphic designers of the digital world we live in, and they play a crucial role in designing the online experiences we interact with every day.”

What your eLearning looks like—the color palette, the typeface, the layout and navigation, the appearance of buttons and other interactive elements—is the result of visual design. When learners can’t read the type or are distracted by too many decorative elements or don’t see crucial navigation elements, that is a failure of visual design. On the other hand, when text and images dance together in a beautiful partnership that eases learners through a course, mesmerized, that is a triumph of visual design—or a successful blend of great visual and instructional design. “People can get motivated when an experience is aesthetically pleasing and unmotivated when it is not,” Connie Malamed, a learning and visual design consultant and author, said in an email interview.

Visual designers’ skills encompass elements of graphic design and user interface design. They have to understand the elements of good design, like color theory and balance and consistency. They also need to understand how elements work together and how learners interact with webpages. They might create icons and infographics, pair typefaces, and select color palettes.

Great eLearning needs great design

“An effective design provides a positive experience, which is motivating,” Malamed said. Great content presented poorly will not reach its audience because learners won’t or can’t get what they need from it. Beautiful eLearning that has irrelevant, inaccurate, or incomprehensible content won’t accomplish its goals because learners won’t get what they need from it. That’s why instructional design and visual design are equally essential to the success of your eLearning projects.

Where should you start?

  1. Instructional designers launch an eLearning project by defining scope and content. They also determine a format: Will this be a game, a simulation, a mobile tool? Something else? The decision should be based on the learning goals and business needs.
    “Content should be driving design, not the other way around,” Rose said. “When starting a project, you need to understand what your stakeholders’ expectations are—if they want something that should take five minutes of your time, or a long-term project that may take weeks or months. For me, scope also includes budget, stakeholder expectations, resources (team members, tools, and other assets).”
    Malamed agrees. “The visual design has to be aligned with the audience, content, environment, and instructional strategies so that in learning products, the visual design supports the instructional design,” she said. “No matter how beautiful a design and user interface, if a product is not aligned with human cognitive architecture, it can’t be successful.”
  2. Then it’s the visual designers’ turn. “I think the first thing to do, once IDs have determined that a course is the solution (and perhaps the type of course), is to take out a sketchbook and to sketch thumbnails,” Malamed said. “Thumbnails are small sketches that help people visualize ideas.”
    “Poor visual design can impair the success of eLearning for several reasons,” Malamed added, including providing extraneous information or clutter that makes it hard for learners to focus on what’s important. In addition: “When the design is random, unintentional, and messy, it can affect how a person perceives the credibility of the information.”
  3. Finally, feedback and teamwork polish and perfect the project. “Communication between teams is key to producing a great product. Teams (design and content) should understand the strengths and weaknesses of each other,” Rose said. Critiques of a visual design should be based on learning principles, not personal preference, and sound instructional design principles should not be discarded to accommodate an attractive visual element. “You don’t want your design to cause a distraction and overpower the content; bad design can do that,” Rose said.

Often, the design “team” is a single individual doing both the visual and the instructional design, Malamed notes. This might make some aspects of the process easier, but it also underscores the importance of understanding both instructional design and visual design principles—along with having a solid grasp of the subject matter and knowledge of the learners’ needs and abilities.

“Knowing your audience, understanding the topic matter, and researching the data on effective design will help immensely,” Rose said. “If you don’t know the topic or audience, you can’t properly do your job.”