Inspiration for e-learning course designs

True or false: Cover screens for e-learning courses influence our learners' perceived value of the course.

Maybe?


Cover Junkie is a fun site that curates magazine cover designs. While many of the designs wouldn't work for the typical corporate e-learning courses, there's still a lot we can learn about type, emphasis and composition from the examples

So, how do you approach course cover screens? Do you design anything special for the cover screen or thumbnail?

Is it more about "what's inside" that matters? Do consultants and/or vendors spend more time on course cover designs than internal training teams? Why?

25 Replies
James Brown

There is an old saying that you cannot judge a book cover but looks do play a huge role in everyday life. I know if I look at a book that has an attractive cover, I am more inclined to skim through the pages as opposed to something that appears boring to me. Looks have a very big influence on everyday  life. I remember watching an story with hidden cameras where they took models and average looking people and had them apply for jobs. The models were less qualified for the job than the average person and  the reporter proved that handsome people tended to get the jobs over smarter average looking people and they also got higher pay. The reporter made other examples which also proved that handsome people tended to get special treatment not experienced by the average person.

Knowing looks do play a pivotal role we need to have a nice looking cover for e-learning materials. Yes the content is really what makes the course but first impressions go a long way and if I see a mediocre cover my impression of the course will also be mediocre.

David Anderson

@James - that's so funny you mentioned judging books by covers. I was reading the other day that book cover designers can make up to $15k for a cover.  In e-learning terms, that's like, 100+ slides

When I worked in the vendor world, we always spent time on the covers. The covers were used in the product marketing and course catalogs. I wouldn't say they were always guru-level, but we spent time on it and  it was an important part of the deliverable.

@Mike - I tend to agree. If nothing else, it could be seen as taking pride in one's work. I'm really digging that Cover Junkie site.

James Starr

I try to put a little effort into the cover of the course. As the course author and designer, part of my goal is to make everything visually appealing. That includes the cover and the course slides.

I try to tie visual elements on the cover to the course content, even if it is only one object, in this case a road sign. I like to create mine in Photoshop because I have more control over certain object properties. 

Overall, there's no reason to spend all day on it but if you have the time, like my mom always says, "Do your best!"

(Certain elements have been removed  to protect privacy)

James Starr

James Brown said:

There is an old saying that you cannot judge a book cover but looks do play a huge role in everyday life. I know if I look at a book that has an attractive cover, I am more inclined to skim through the pages as opposed to something that appears boring to me. Looks have a very big influence on everyday  life. I remember watching an story with hidden cameras where they took models and average looking people and had them apply for jobs. The models were less qualified for the job than the average person and  the reporter proved that handsome people tended to get the jobs over smarter average looking people and they also got higher pay. The reporter made other examples which also proved that handsome people tended to get special treatment not experienced by the average person.

Knowing looks do play a pivotal role we need to have a nice looking cover for e-learning materials. Yes the content is really what makes the course but first impressions go a long way and if I see a mediocre cover my impression of the course will also be mediocre.


I couldn't agree more. As human beings, I think we are instinctively attracted to things that look great when only at a glance. It's when we dig a little deeper that we care more about the substance.

David Anderson

One of the books our team is reading is Seductive Interaction Design. There's a great section around "trust" and visual design:

[quote] Can you guess the most frequently cited factor for evaluating the credibility of a Web site? According to a 2002 study out of Stanford University, it is the “appeal of the overall visual design of a site, including layout, typography, font size, and color schemes,” (Fogg, et al., 2002). The look and feel of a site influenced judgments about credibility far more than other factors like structure, usefulness of the information, tone of the content, and name recognition! [/quote]

Steve Flowers

In most cases, I think most research supports aesthetic can have a profound effect on the choice to engage in a process or with a product. I say most because I don't believe anything is *always* true The aesthetic of an experience creates the environment - sense of space and place.

However, I think it's also important to point out that while aesthetic is important it is likely not the *most* important factor to the design of a product. A sparkle-turd is still a turd.

The Journal on Contemporary Aesthetics publishes some really interesting pieces. Here are two that caught my attention:

 http://www.contempaesthetics.org/newvolume/pages/article.php?articleID=584

 http://www.contempaesthetics.org/newvolume/pages/article.php?articleID=581

The first is on the value of fictional worlds (Why "Lord of the Rings" is worth reading). The second describes a functional model of aesthetic response. Really interesting stuff! I think motivation might draw a better description from the heavily philosophical sciences and the Gestalt than strictly through cognitive sciences / psychology.

David Lindenberg

I agree with what has been said.  Of course what's on the inside is more important, but the cover is our first experience, be it a book or a learning module.  I think it's primarily about two things: credibility and engagement.  Having a well designed cover (book or elearning) goes a long way to your credibility.  If you have a bunch of mismatched Clipart on your cover, I'm going to be a little skeptical, which thus questions the credibility of the product.  Regarding the engagement, having a well designed cover can draw people in and elicit their curiosity.  They may still hate the book or product, but you will at least have drawn them in to check it out.

Holly MacDonald

Ah, the halo effect if my first year Social Psych is right (things that are beautiful are perceived as having other good qualities, too)...probably does apply to e-learning s well. I also think about the science of persuasion (Cialdini) as part of "cover" design. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Cialdini - while I don't always execute on it, it does give you some things to think about...  

Mayra Aixa Villar

Hi everyone! I completely agree with your ideas about the importance of cover screens for e-learning courses. They help us to attract clients and learners as well as to show our professionalism. Now, Steve has mentioned some interesting research perspectives on aesthetic, and I´d like to add that from the point of view of Multisemiotics, composition, images, colour and typography are all considered meaning-making devices, i.e., they all serve a purpose as they contribute to get the general message across. We all know that an image can be much more effective than a piece of text to communicate our ideas, right? So, I think it´s worth investing time and effort on employing these devices to reach maximal efficiency in communicating the intended information to the learner from the very beginning.

Gerry Wasiluk

Agree totally.

At my former company, use of corporate-branded PowerPoint templates (or the use of design elements in them with the "corporate fonts") is most strongly and heavily encouraged for all e-learning, both internal and external.

While this can sometimes deter creativity is does give the first slide in a course a branded, professional look.  Rightly or wrongly, The company wants all e-learning to indicate that any time that it is from them.  Tough to fight the need for corporate branding sometimes.

Folks make judgements early about a course, perhaps in the first few seconds.  Better to look professional and eye-catching from the start.

James Brown

When I design my e-learning covers I always try and apply the CARP principals. (Contrast - Alignment - Repetition - Placement). I also employ things I have learned in my various art and photography courses that I have taken over the years. I use to think of Power Point as a slide show but this site has given me new found inspirations and uses which is definitely helping me as I'm developing my e-learning portfolio.

David Lindenberg

James Brown said:

When I design my e-learning covers I always try and apply the CARP principals. (Contrast - Alignment - Repetition - Placement). I also employ things I have learned in my various art and photography courses that I have taken over the years. I use to think of Power Point as a slide show but this site has given me new found inspirations and uses which is definitely helping me as I'm developing my e-learning portfolio.

I saw @TomKuhlmann in Nashville and he referred to it as CRAP.  I'm sure he gets a lot of mileage out of that one. 
James Brown

Actually CRAP is what you get when you do not follow CARP. You also need to incorporate aesthetics which can only be learned by taking art and photography courses. In my many years of academia I have taken a number of courses including art history, art, photography and instructional design courses which gives you the ability to not only recognize crap, but explain why crap is crap .

Natalia Mueller

I can't believe "sparkle-turd" didn't get picked up sooner. Seriously, Steve. Awesome. 

I always create some kind of cover that represents the overall graphic design of the whole course. That doesn't necessarily mean crazy fancy. Sleek and clean is good too. My thoughts are that it's one of those things you notice when it's NOT there. The cover is giving the learner their very first feel for the course. I would imagine that most of the time when it's well done, it actually goes unnoticed and any opinion is suspended until they get inside. I'm good with that.  It's when something is amiss, dated or straight up bad that it catches attention. I know how I feel when I see a course like that. The credibility of the course is damaged before I even see the content. The content may be solid, but it automatically has to overcome my initial opinion. 

If it IS just a sparkle-turd, a great cover with a bad course, all the cover does is delay the inevitable for a few seconds.

I feel the same way about fonts. You often only notice when it's the wrong one. But that's a whole nutha topic...

David Anderson

Even B movies get their own posters and not some generic movie studio template posters where only the title's changed.

It's not about tricking the learners into thinking the course is more than it is.  It's not like I'm suggesting you hire David Carson-level artists to come in and sparkle up a dull course with an interesting cover. The same e-learning designers who built the course would also build the cover screen so it would still be representative of the overall course. 

What would be different would be the thumbnail or library image would not be the default, auto-generated image from the first frame of the first slide.

Doug Mattson

I try to create a cover screen for every course I develop. My hope is that I can get the learner's attention and generate some interest in the topic. I know AIDA (Attention, Interest, Desire, Action) is most commonly used in marketing - and I think it has made its way into corporate learning as well. I guess not every course can be an award winner from start to finish - but I try to influence what I can.