The trouble with designing eLearning in 2019 is that with all the different options and formats available, a designer may have a feeling that something in the visuals of an eLearning project isn't quite right. The problem is putting your finger on what's wrong and knowing what to do about it. But help is available! Bianca Woods suggested some visual design ideas recently during an interview.

The good, the bad, and the ugly

BB: What's the most "difficult" thing about visual design?

BW: In my presentations I use examples of the feeling people have when they know a visual design isn't working for them but they can't articulate why. Talking through this helps people recognize where that feeling comes from, and how visual design best practices are a good fit for them.

So a lot of things are a little tricky, but I think the most difficult thing is a lot of people think that they just can't do visual design or that there's people who can and people who can't. Maybe this came from bad experiences in school. A lot of people stop doing visual art or visual design because they they started out being really excited about things like drawing and then eventually they thought, "Oh, I'm just not good enough at that." And also, for a lot of people in learning and development, we have given them these rapid development tools that require a certain amount of visual design skills to use, but the tools don't give them any real help. It is difficult being someone who doesn't feel design is their skill set, and yet being in a situation where they're being asked to do these things without any training. I don't think that feels really great for a lot of people.

BB: So if that's the case, is there technology that can help the people like me who believe they can't even draw a straight line?

BW: Yes, thankfully, and it's one of the great things about the growth in visual design apps available right now. There's so many really simple, easy-to-use apps and web-based technology that can give anyone at least design training wheels. They're not a complete substitute for a trained designer.

Some apps can build your existing design skills and help you out with a lot of similar tasks. One that a lot of people in our industry use is called Canva. It's a web-based service. They also have an app, and it has a bunch of design templates and design assets that can be used for different purposes. I'm not someone who's normally in favor of apps that claim to be complete approaches for visual design—I find a lot of them aren't very flexible. I do talk about Canva a little in my presentations because I think Canva put a lot of thought into not just making attractive templates. They made templates that are easy to customize without accidentally making them kind of hideous. But my sessions are a lot more about teaching people techniques rather than tools.

BB: Is good visual design a matter of talent? And what if you don't have any talent?

BW: So there's a question I get asked a lot. I used to be a classroom art teacher so I got asked it a lot in that context. People would say, "I'm coming into this class and I don't have any art skills. I don't know how I'm gonna do this class." There are different opinions about this but from my perspective, I think there's a lot about design that is not just a skill you're born with. A lot of it really is practice and trying things out and learning about design concepts. And that's something anyone can learn.

People see professional designers and see how drastically different what they're able to do is from them, and they go, "Oh well, those people must just be talented and I clearly don't have that talent." But what they don't see is the hours and hours and hours that a talented person has put into building up those skills. With visual design skills, a lot of it is the work you put into learning and practicing. If someone's really interested and wants to put in that time, they can absolutely build those skills.

For people who only have to do this on occasion, they don't have to become a trained graphic designer. There are some really nifty tips and tricks that anyone can learn how to use that work really well in the context of the things we are called on to do in learning and development.

BB: Can you get close enough with a template? Could you send the result that you developed by using the template application to someone who does have the skill and the experience? Then they could come up with something good. Is that something that could work?

BW: Oh, yeah. It sounds like you're asking if that is appropriate. It depends on your relationship with the designer, but a lot of the times that can be really helpful if you're not someone who's comfortable drawing out what's in your head. Sometimes a template or just hacking something together really roughly on paper or really wrestling with something like PowerPoint, can be a good way for you to visually communicate to the designer what you're kind of thinking about. And, you know, if you have a good designer and you have set that up in advance, you can tell them, "I'm going to send you something really rough, this is not what I want the final thing to look like, but I just wanted you to have a sense of what I was pondering." You can send that to them and have an open conversation about that. A lot of times that's a really easy way for them to better understand what you're hoping to get.

BB: So if you do a sketch on the back of an envelope or a cocktail napkin, that's good enough sometimes.

BW: Oh yeah, it's something that people who aren't trained designers sometimes do. And I've seen people who are professional designers or professional animators do what we would in the art world call thumbnails, which are really, really, really rough little sketches—they're really, really sloppy—but they're done incredibly quickly and you do them to test out an idea or share an idea with someone before you commit to the final version. And I kid you not, they're super sloppy looking even when they're done by professional artists, but they're a great tool for communicating an idea and getting someone to buy in or understand it before you spend hours and hours making the final product.

BB: For eLearning, what's the most important element of good visual design? Is it layout, color, or what?

BW: I think it is hard to say just one. If I was to tell someone where to start, what would make the most impact on what they're doing if they're not someone who's comfortable with visual design but want to get better at using it for eLearning, I would say white space. White space is the empty space that's in between individual design elements. It's not always "white", it's just open. Sometimes in our industry we are pressured to keep page count down, to cram as much information onto a screen or a page or slide as possible. So we have this challenge where we're pushed by circumstances and subject matter experts and partners to make a very, very dense thing from a visual design perspective. The challenge from a learning perspective is not only is it kind of ugly, but also you have the problem of cognitive overload; those empty spaces from the design actually give your brain micro-moments of breaks between looking at one thing to another. Those little tiny breaks actually are shown to make a huge difference in keeping your brain from being overloaded with trying to process new information. It has benefits to people taking in and retaining information and so can make a huge difference. It's also not that hard to do. I explain this in my sessions, and it may be the most important design understanding I help some people develop and put into practice.

Want to learn more?

Connie Malamed will expand on Bianca's tips in her session, "Crash Course in Visual Design" during the eLearning Foundations Online Conference December 11-12 2019.


  • How to diagnose visual design problems
  • How to keep visual design from getting in the way of learning
  • Best practices for better visual design
  • How to work with visual design pros

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