Why Graphic Design Should Never Be an Afterthought

When you’re designing for e-learning, content is probably your first and foremost thought. While it should be, your e-learning’s aesthetic design should be a very close second. Think of it this way: you can have the most compelling information and deliver it using the best methods and theories, but if it looks bad aesthetically, nobody is going to want to look at it. The most fantastic training can be quickly overshadowed if it is presented in a way that the learner finds distracting, unorganized, or just plain ugly.
With that being said, let’s take a look at a few really simple things that you can do to make your training more aesthetically pleasing, therefore grabbing and keeping the attention of your learners.

  • Use Hierarchy

Look in any type of publication (magazine, book, newspaper, etc.), and you will see that they all have one thing in common: the use of visual and textual hierarchy. Consider a magazine article: not all of the words are the same size. Instead, the designers (or writers) have carefully crafted a purposeful medley of different title, header, sub-header, and body text sizes. The titles are the largest, drawing the user’s attention to what they are about to read. Headers are slightly smaller, and may introduce chapters or large ideas. Sub-headers fall under headers to separate different ideas within larger ones. Lastly, body text is the “meat” of the article. It’s the part that you spend time reading, and often, it’s the smallest text size. All of these sizes set parts of the article apart from each-other. It isn’t all the same, so it shouldn’t look all the same.

  • Be Picky About Fonts

Similar to being specific about hierarchy, it is really important to be specific about fonts. There are a ton of fun fonts in your computer’s library, but that doesn’t mean that you should use them. They are not created equal for each job, and it’s very important to consider what you’re trying to convey and achieve before you choose a font.
Consider this simple example: You’re creating a training for teachers that explains how to clean chalkboards. While you are putting together the process video, you realize that you have an amazing font on your computer called Chalkduster. The font looks like it’s written with chalk, so it’s perfect for the training. But here is where you need to be picky. The font may be perfectly suited for the training, but it is not legible for body text. Like we talked about in the last point, there should be a significant size difference between a header and body text. With that in mind, it makes sense that Chalkduster would not work as body text, because it’s small and isn’t conducive to quick, efficient reading.

Chalkduster Example

  • Choose Color Wisely

Color is one of the most basic aspects of design, so it makes sense that it can make such a big impact on e-learning. Before you even begin to implement color, think about the feeling that you’re trying to convey. Think about how certain colors make you feel, and what they represent. Consider stoplights- if your learners have already been conditioned to know that red means stop and green means go, you don’t want to make a “next” button red, and a “back” button green. Work with what you know about your learners or target audience, and move forward from there.
It is also very important that you are intentional about your colors. If you are representing a company and have to adhere to their colors or branding system, be sure that you do so. If you have full creative freedom, be sure that you don’t go too crazy. Too many colors gives the appearance and feeling of chaos, and that isn’t something that you want to convey to your learners. Pick a few colors that work well together, and use those.
Keep in mind that color is another way to provide hierarchy. Use bolder colors in your chosen pallet for Titles and headers, and try to stick to darker colors (especially against white) for the body text. Don’t ever use anything too light or bright for the body text, because it will make it hard to read.

  • Be Specific About Visuals

Similar to color, be sure that you really consider what you’re trying to convey before you use visuals. Images can be really great when they’re used correctly, or really terrible if they’re out of place or context. The topic of images is extremely vast, and deserves it’s own limelight, but for now I’ll just share the very basics.

 1. Images and Clip Art

As a designer, I have been trained to turn my nose up to clip art. BUT I have quickly learned that when it is used professionally and in the right context, it isn’t something to be afraid of. Unfortunately there isn’t a “perfect time and place for clip art” equation. That is something that you will have to decide for yourself. What I would recommend is to always use it professionally, and never over-do the amount of images you use.
My opinion and warnings on images in general are not as strong. As a matter of fact, if you have access to professional photos of or for your business, they are the best route to go. But if you don’t have those resources at your disposal, try to work with clip art or stock photos!

 2. Logos

This one is simple- if you are working for a company that has an established identity system with logos, use them! Don’t overdo it, but be sure to add the logo to build credibility and trust with your learners.
No matter what visuals you use, be sure to always use them with utmost professionalism. Here are a few good points to keep in mind when implementing visuals into your trainings:

    1. Never use an image if you do not have explicit permission or rights to use it. This can cause legal trouble for you and/or your company, and also tarnishes your reputation.
    2. Never stretch an image larger than it’s original size. This distorts the pixels and the image becomes fuzzy and distracting.
    3. Building off of number 2, be sure to always re-size a photo by keeping the same height to width ratio. Never drag either only horizontally or vertically. Like resizing it too large, this creates an image that looks unprofessional and amateur.

Now, what you should always keep in mind is that this can go the other way as well. Just like great content can be ruined by shoddy design, the best design in the world can’t make up for second-rate content. But that’s a post for another time!

I hope you’ve enjoyed these tips for implementing graphic design into your eLeaning. If you have any questions or other tried-and-true tips, we’d love to hear from you in the comments below!

Savannah is a Graphic Design Professor at Gila Community College, and is passionate about using design to better the world around her. She believes in researched design, and is a major proponent of paper before pixel. In her spare time, she enjoys painting, designing for small businesses and non-profits, and attempting any DIY she finds on Pinterest.

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