As an e-learning developer, I’ve worked alongside graphic designers for years. And what’s always fascinated me is how creative they are. As someone who frequently struggles with instructional designer’s block, I was left wondering how they come up with such great ideas so easily. That got me thinking: What if I tried to approach course design like a graphic designer? I sat down with a couple of graphic designers and tried to pinpoint what fuels their creativity, so I could maybe harness that same power. Here are a few things that stood out to me.

1. Find Inspiration Everywhere

Graphic designers draw inspiration from all aspects of their lives. Whether they’re walking down the street, watching a movie, or browsing the internet, something is bound to catch their eye and they file it away for later.

The lesson here is that it’s important to glean inspiration not only from other e-learning courses, but also from the seemingly unrelated things we encounter in our daily lives: like movies, games, or even books. As you go through your day, keep your eyes open for visuals you could adapt and use in your courses. Then, make sure to take a photo or screenshot and jot down your ideas somewhere so you can reference them later on.

Note that while finding inspiration in other people’s work is totally normal, you should never copy what someone else has done exactly.

2. Stay Up to Date on the Latest Trends

Graphic design, like e-learning, is constantly evolving. You’ve got to keep your ear to the ground if you want to stay relevant. One of the ways graphic designers stay up to date on the latest trends is by participating in online communities like Dribbble where they can share their work, get feedback, and see what other graphic designers are doing.

Sound familiar? That’s because it’s exactly what instructional designers do here on E-Learning Heroes! If you’ve never participated in our e-learning challenges, now is the time to start. It’s the perfect opportunity to hone your skills, try out new things, get feedback from the community, and see what other e-learning designers are creating. And, of course, check out all the cool examples and downloads for more insight on the current e-learning trends.

3. Make a Mood Board

Before diving into a project, many graphic designers create a mood board or a collage of images that represent the style they’d like to adopt. In addition to helping designers brainstorm ideas, mood boards also serve as a tool to get buy-in from clients on the design direction for a project. This saves them the heartache of spending a ton of time on a design, only to find out that it’s not even close to what the client had in mind.

As instructional designers, we could do the same thing with our e-learning projects. On our mood boards, in addition to visual design ideas, we could add instructional design ideas—such as what kinds of interactions we’d like to include or overall approach we’d like to take for the course (i.e., storytelling, gamification, etc.).

Having something tangible to show your clients while explaining your project ideas will make it easier for them to understand and sign off on them.

And thanks to tools like Pinterest or GoMoodBoard, creating and sharing mood boards is super easy. So why not give it a try?

4. Embrace Project Limitations

Unlimited time and money might seem like an ideal situation for any project, but—in addition to being unrealistic—it can actually hinder your creativity. Instead, graphic designers use project limitations to fuel their design ideas. If they have more time, they might spend it researching new design possibilities and come up with something revolutionary. If they have less time, they might stick with something simple that they know will be effective. Without these constraints, they could find themselves uninspired, unsure of what direction to go in.

As instructional designers, we should strive to view our own project limitations in a positive light and see them as an opportunity to get creative instead of as a roadblock. For example, if you’re pressed for time, why not use a tool like Rise so you can focus on your content and not worry about the design and navigation? If you have a little more time—and you want a more custom look and feel—design your course with Storyline.

Hopefully this insight into the way graphic designers think and work will help unleash your creativity.

What about you? How do you fuel your creativity? Share your tips in the comments section. And don’t forget to follow us on Twitter and come back to E-Learning Heroes regularly for more helpful advice on everything related to e-learning.

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Garth Shaner