Imagine this: your boss messages you one morning, sends you a link to a dated-looking e-learning course, and says, “We need to get this information out to people ASAP. Can you just freshen it up quickly?”

An e-learning course on travel safety. The visual design is messy and dated, with clashing colors, lots of different fonts, and several images that aren
Your first instinct might be to toss the entire course out and start from scratch. But unfortunately, you don’t have time for that. Is there any way to quickly make over what’s already there?

Thankfully, the answer is yes! There are lots of simple visual design tricks that anyone—even if they’re not an experienced graphic designer—can use to revitalize stale or outdated courses. So the next time you’re handed an e-learning course that needs a bit more polish, try following these six steps to improve it quickly

1. Replace Weak or Confusing Images

Start by replacing or eliminating images that take away from the learning experience. Obviously, any images that are blurry, out of date, or unprofessional-looking need to go. But there are other ways images can be a distraction. For example, if an image is off-topic, it can be more baffling than helpful. And when there are lots of different images that don’t add any further information, they just read as clutter.

Looking back at our example above, there are multiple image issues we can quickly solve: 

  • Get rid of off-topic imagery. The topic is travel safety, but the background is a hospital and the character is wearing scrubs. Replacing these images with travel-themed options will feel more on-topic. As well, let's assume the on-screen character is part of a course scenario. In that case, she makes sense to introduce here. But if she didn't actually play a part in the course, removing her completely might be the best option.
  • Swap out low-quality images. The background image is a bit grainy. Even if the setting was right, we’d still want to swap this image file with something crisp. 
  • Scale images so they feel balanced. It’s confusing to have the character so much smaller than the background—and seemingly floating mid-air. Resizing her replacement to scale with the environment will make everything look seamless. 
  • Remove clutter. While the icons on the left are related to travel, they’re not adding any further meaning. This design would be noticeably clearer without their visual noise.

Here’s an updated version of the slide with those simple changes made: 

The same e-learning course, but with improvements made to the images. A number of unnecessary icons have been removed, the background has been changed to an airport, and an on-screen character has been changed from a doctor in scrubs to a woman in business casual clothing suitable for travel.
Sure, the design still needs some work, but you can see how it already looks noticeably better with just a few tweaks.

2. Simplify Your Fonts

With the library installed on your computer and the wealth of options you can download online, you, like most designers, might want to try out different fonts. But even if you’re not restrained by company font guidelines, remember that simple is almost always better.

Here are some simple guidelines to follow:

  • Stick to one or two fonts. In general, it’s best to stick to just one or two fonts throughout your course and use them consistently. You’ll notice that the example above uses three different fonts, all of which have slightly different designs—making everything look a bit off, even to non-designers. 
  • Consider readability. Our example demonstrates why it’s so important to think about readability—all those fancy font details make the content hard to decipher. Stick with options that have simple, clear lines and minimal fussy flourishes. And if you’re not sure what to watch for, look up serif and sans serif font types for good examples. For more advice to guide your font choices, check out this article: 8 Questions to Ask When Choosing Fonts & Formatting Text.

Let’s take a look at the example slide after we’ve applied that advice:

The e-learning course screen with updates made to the fonts. The multiple fonts in the original that were a hard-to-read cursive have been changed to one easy-to-read sans serif font.

See how it’s cleaner and easier to read? What an improvement! 

3. Tone Down Visual Effects

Visual effects are an area where less is often more. They’re not inherently bad—in fact, sometimes a drop shadow or gradient can improve contrast or give a design some energy. But it’s not always easy to know how to use visual effects well.

Our example is a perfect demonstration of this. The effects seem tacky and dated, plus they all seem to be competing for your attention. The easiest option is to avoid these visual effects entirely. But another good choice is to use just one or two, and only with a very light hand.

With that in mind, here’s one way to apply that advice to our example:

The e-learning course screen with visual effects removed. A gradient was removed from behind the course title and shadows and glows have been taken off of on screen shapes and buttons.
In this case we’ve just kept it simple. All the glows, gradients, and shadows have been removed, making the design substantially less busy-looking.

4. Streamline Your Colors

Color can do a lot to grab people’s attention, set a mood, and even make a design feel on-brand. But it’s also an area where simplicity and consistency are key to making it all work. Right now, our example uses numerous colors that are fine on their own but look chaotic when used together.

By reducing the number of colors, we can quickly make this design feel more harmonious. A helpful technique for this is to create a color palette—a small number of colors that all look flattering together and are used consistently throughout a design. This article on five ways to choose color palettes for e-learning shares practical approaches for choosing the right colors for your project.

Let’s preview what our example might look like if we simplified the color palette a little:

The e-learning screen with a simplified color palette. The chaotic colors of the original have been switched to a more subdued color scheme of blue, white, and charcoal.

See what a difference that makes? Also, if you look closely you’ll notice that I added a subtle blue tint to the background as well to pull everything together and create more contrast with the on-screen text.

5. Trim the Text

Another change that can make a huge impact on your course aesthetics doesn’t initially seem connected to visuals at all: cut down your copy. By stripping out unnecessary details, you can buy yourself a ton of extra room for increasing font sizes or adding space between design elements. Not only that, but simplifying your copy also reduces cognitive load, making it easier for people to learn.

Here’s what our example looks like after applying this tip:

The e-learning screen with simplified on-screen text. The course description has had several redundant sentences removed, freeing up a lot of on-screen space.

As you can see, by taking out the repeated ideas and words, we were able to shorten the text significantly while still conveying the same message. And while it wasn’t a required cut, swapping out the “NEXT” on the Next button for an arrow shows how images or icons can help a slide look less text-heavy.

6. Fine-tune the Slide Layout

Now that we’ve created more space, we can use it to rework our sizing and layout. This can include doing things like:

  • Increase the font size. Since our example’s course description was drastically cut down, there’s now space to enlarge the font and make it easier to read.
  • Adjust the size of content boxes. Since there’s less text, it makes sense to pare down the size of the white rectangles and Next button to fit the content better.
  • Align slide objects. When design elements are placed haphazardly on the slide, everything looks sloppy and unpolished. But lining things up with each other—like the edges of the white rectangles—instantly improves things. And what’s great is the alignment guides and on-screen grids in apps make lining everything up and putting consistent space between items so much easier than it used to be. Haven’t used grids to improve a layout before? This article shares how they can help improve your e-learning designs.

All this layout fine-tuning helps things look visually organized. It also establishes consistent white space—the empty space between design elements. That white space creates visual breaks in your design, keeping things from looking cluttered and even potentially reducing cognitive load.

Here’s our example again with more consistent spacing and alignment. It’s amazing just how much tidier everything looks now.

The e-learning screen with adjustments made to the font size and alignment. The course description font is now larger and more readable. The layout has even margins around the edges of the screen. And the title and course description background rectangles are aligned with each other.
Want an even better look at the new alignment? Here’s that same screen with the main alignment lines and margins highlighted in blue. 

The updated e-learning course screen with an overlay. Blue lines on the overlay show the margin and alignment lines used in the layout redesign.
As you can see, with just a few guidelines the layout becomes substantially more polished.

Summary

And there you have it! With just a few simple tweaks, you can update the design of an older e-learning course so it feels more current. The fixes in this article take minimal time and next-to-no graphic design experience to follow, but it’s incredible what a difference they can make. To wrap things up, let’s revisit where we started and just how far these six steps got us:

Before

The original awkward and dated-looking e-learning screen.

After

The final revised e-learning screen, with on-topic images and simplified text, colors, and layout.

It’s like night and day, isn’t it? And it only took a couple minutes.

Want to learn even more about the design techniques covered in this process? Take a deeper dive with these links:


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 additional design tips you use to spruce up old e-learning courses, be sure to share them in the comments.

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Ross Dewstow