3 visual design concepts

As much as content creators don't want to admit it, learners pass judgment on courses before they read a single word. If a course isn’t visually appealing or they’re presented with a wall of text, it doesn’t matter how engaging the material is, they’ll struggle to get through it. 

If there’s a graphic designer on your team, this is easy to fix. But what if you’re a solo course creator or don’t have access to a visual design professional? If you don’t know the first thing about graphics, you might feel overwhelmed with all the choices. Like what colors should you use? And which fonts? Oh, and what about imagery? 

If that scenario sounds familiar, you’re in the right place. Luckily, you don’t need design experience to create courses that look professional. The trick is to focus on a few key things that make a big impact on the visual design of your courses. Let’s take a look at three visual design concepts that’ll transform your courses in no time. 

1. Contrast Is Cool

One of the most common mistakes course designers make is failing to develop contrast.

If you’ve ever stared at a course slide and wondered, “What should I be looking at?” you’re not alone. As a learner, your focus is drawn to what stands out as different. If everything looks similar, there’s no focal point. 

The same goes for slides where everything is different, but no one element is emphasized. Contrast helps learners visually organize the slide objects and directs their eyes to what’s important.

Let’s walk through three things designers can focus on to help the important stuff stand out.

Text

The first thing we’ll look at is text, since it’s the major communication tool in most e-learning courses. By default, that makes it an important graphical element. While the majority of your text is going to be of similar weight and color, there are still design tricks you can apply to ensure learners see what’s important.

One of the easiest ways to make text stand out is to use a different, larger font for your titles. In this example, you can see how switching up the font for the section heading and making it noticeably larger than the body text ensures it stands out.

unformatted text

Heading and body text look the same

text with header

Heading text is larger than body text

If you’re feeling adventurous, try using a font with a “big personality.” Think something stylized, like Pacifico. But use a light touch, as stylized fonts can make your text harder to read and cause accessibility issues if overused. For help deciding how to format your text, check out this article: 8 Questions to Ask When Choosing Fonts & Formatting Text.

Color

Color is another great way to effectively guide your learners through a slide and help them focus on what’s most important. Adding a touch of color makes content really pop. Have a look at the text paragraphs below, for example.

text with header

All text is the same color

blue header text

Heading text is a different color

Notice how much more that second title stands out, because it’s blue and not black? It’s a quick fix that really makes a difference.

One thing to watch out for, however, is using too many colors. While there’s nothing wrong with using multiple colors, the goal should be to emphasize the things you want learners to pay attention to, not show off that you know how to use the color formatting palette. Also, choosing colors that don’t contrast sufficiently with the background can affect the readability of your content, like in the first two examples below. This article, Contrast Considerations for Accessible E-Learning, has excellent advice and multiple resources to help you master contrast.

faded text

Too little contrast = hard to read and determine what’s important

too many colors

Too many different colors that don’t contrast sufficiently with one another = hard to read and determine what’s important

contrasting colors that don

Good contrast = easier to read and determine what’s important

 

If there’s not enough contrast, nothing stands out. If you try too much differentiation, then it’s difficult to figure out what to focus on. Just the right amount of contrast makes your content pop. 

Graphics

OK, now we can talk about graphics. When you have multiple graphics on the same slide—for example, if there’s a scenario with multiple characters—it can be hard for learners to know which one to focus on. An easy way to make the character who’s currently talking the main event visually is to adjust the transparency or saturation of the other characters, so they fade into the background. Another way to make one specific graphic stand out among the rest is to make it brighter while also making the other ones darker. 

This contrast makes your focal point stand out more. Take a look at the graphic below to see this in action.

20% of employees contribute to 80% of profits

woman in foreground with coworkers in background

See how your eye is immediately drawn to the character that isn’t faded out? Because the other characters have lower contrast, they lose focus and become part of the background—making the un-faded character the clear focus of this slide.

2. Consistency Is Key

Most course designers build e-learning using a wide variety of content: technical guides provided by your clients, documents, courses provided by SMEs. They might even use content they’ve sourced or previously created themselves.  

The downside of pulling content from multiple sources is that it can create inconsistency, especially if you reuse graphics. You can unintentionally introduce a clashing color palette, image styles might be wildly different, or you could end up adding another font to the mix. More subtle things can happen as well, such as inconsistent instructions or wording, or maybe the navigation elements aren’t always the same.

To avoid this, pay close attention to any course elements you borrow from other courses—even your own—and make sure they follow a consistent design. Here are four areas to pay particular attention to:

  • Navigational elements: Objects such as buttons, menus, and icons should share a common theme or design style. Navigational elements should also be placed in the same place throughout the course. Did you use a Next button on your first slide? Make sure you don’t accidentally change that to a Continue arrow halfway through!
  • Graphic elements: The style and theme you choose should complement your course topic. The graphics are the “visual voice” of your course and should have a connection with one another. For example, you don’t want to mix and match hand-drawn, sketchy arrows with high-gloss, pixel-perfect stock icons. The graphics you choose should have a similar look and feel.
  • Font choices: Remember what we talked about earlier in relation to text styles? Establish a basic style guide for your course to include heading, body, and caption fonts, and stick to those fonts for your entire course. 
  • Colors: Select a harmonized palette at the beginning of your project and define the way each color will be used in your course designs. Programs like PowerPoint, Photoshop, and Storyline 360 allow course designers to create custom color palettes so new colors aren’t inadvertently introduced during development.

Consistency is also important when designing courses with accessibility in mind. Using the same navigation elements on each slide keeps learners from having to “relearn” navigation over and over. And if you pick accessibility-friendly fonts and colors, you don’t want to accidentally undo your work by introducing slides with formatting that's not accessible. 

3. Get with the Grid

Throwing elements onto a slide without a grid will make your content look unpolished and unfinished. Even worse, it can cause learners to struggle to figure out how to follow the flow of information (or spend their time figuring out why things look “off”).

The good news is that it’s easy to align your content using a simple grid. A grid is a layout created with intersecting horizontal and vertical lines, which you can use to structure content and organize graphic elements, such as images and text.

Grids allow you to organize your content easily and consistently. Even better, most popular course creation tools have options to let you snap slide elements to the grid. Some, like Storyline 360, will even show helpful guides so that you can align elements with each other as well.

Before - No Grid

crayons with no grid

After - With Grid

crayons with grid

 

See how the grid makes it easy to ensure the objects are evenly spaced, making the slide look more balanced? Using a grid is a simple way to up-level your designs.

Want to learn more about using grids during the design process? Check out this article: Use Grids to Improve Your E-Learning Designs.

The Bottom Line

Once you master the basic tools of contrast, consistency, and alignment, you can produce professional-quality courses and communicate visually with your learners. Now it’s time to experiment with your new skills. So try out each of these elements in your next e-learning project and tell us how you did by leaving a comment below.

Looking for more visual design inspiration? Check out these articles!

And remember to follow us on Twitter and come back to E-Learning Heroes regularly for more helpful advice on everything related to e-learning. If you have any questions, please share them in the comments.

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Bhavesh Kapadia