Because of my job, I look at quite a few elearning courses. One thing common to many of them is that they lack graphic design structure. This makes sense on a few fronts.
First, most of the people I talk to don’t have a graphic design background. So they tend to do very basic design work, if any at all. In addition, even if they wanted to do more, most don’t have a budget to hire a graphic designer or buy the appropriate graphics. On top of all of that, applications like PowerPoint provide a lot of free graphics and templates and it’s easy to rely on those for the design part of the course.
While these limitations are legitimate and present some obvious challenges, there’s no reason why you can’t learn some basic graphic design concepts.
When building elearning courses, everything on your screen should be there because you intended it to be there. It’s not like you go to get a cup of coffee and come back to find a bunch of screen beans in your course having a party.
Here are some previous posts that may help you build the graphics you need. Also, there are plenty of books on graphic design to help you get started. I like these three:
- The Non-Designer’s Design Book. Simple and easy follow. Good examples.
- Design Elements: A Graphic Style Manual. Covers a lot about graphic design basics.
- Slide:ology. Not a lot of hands-on instruction; but offers a broad overview with some good ideas.
Most rapid elearning designers aren’t also going to be outstanding graphic designers. However, with some practice you can be a competent graphic designer. The books above can help move you in that direction.
Good Graphic Design Creates Meaning
The essence of graphic design is structuring the visual elements on the screen to contribute to the meaning of the content. Like I stated earlier, nothing on the screen should be there by accident. Instead everything should contribute to the meaning of the course’s content and objectives.
For example, some shapes convey meaning even if they don’t contain any significant content. Here’s a simple example. An arrow implies movement. We tend to start at the tail and move towards to point. Combined with context, the arrow graphic helps reinforce the content and makes it more memorable.
Recently someone sent me a file where the content on one of the screens was shaped like a pyramid. If you’re doing an elearning course on ancient Egypt, a pyramid on the screen makes sense. Other than that, a pyramid shape on the screen implies meaning and should be intentional.
Typically a pyramid implies a hierarchical structure, like layers that build on each other. Without any other context, a pyramid generally will tell you that the information is weighted based on its position in layers and that there’s usually some sort of interconnected sequential relationship.
That’s the power of the graphic design elements. You can use shapes and diagrams to contain meaning that doesn’t need to be explained. This helps the learner learn the content. You can also direct the learner’s eye around the screen based on the type of shape and its placement.
However, in the screen I was looking at the pyramid shape existed solely because that’s what the person wanted to put on the screen. Other than “it looked good” there was no reason to have a pyramid.
This is a good example of how to confuse the learner. The visual structure of the content implied a relationship and meaning that didn’t exist. In fact, the only reason I noticed it was because I assumed the content had a certain relationship based on the pyramid layout. However, when I advanced a few slides I was confused. So I went back and realized that there was no relationship between the information and how it was stacked in the pyramid.
In her book Slide:ology, Duarte does a great job detailing all sorts of abstract shapes and diagrams that imply some concept. Many of them are relevant to the types of information seen in elearning courses. It’s worth reviewing if you have the book.
The main point in all of this is that nothing on your screen is there by accident. How you organize content on the screen implies meaning whether it’s intended or not. Everything you place on it should contribute to meeting the course’s objectives.
So if you’re just getting started, invest some time in learning basic graphic design concepts. It will help as you build your elearning courses. Don’t worry about being a professional graphic designer. Just spend some time learning the basics and build from there. The worst thing that can happen is that you build courses where the graphic elements are more meaningful to the course’s content. And that’s not a bad place to be.
Upcoming E-Learning Workshops & Events (2015)
- September 23 & 24 (Vancouver). Community-based elearning workshops focused on practical tips & tricks. You can register for one day or two days. To learn more & register, click here.
- September 29 (Las Vegas). Want to learn to get the right look and feel for your courses? Join David Anderson and me for a fun and active hands-on workshop. This topic is by far one of the most popular of the ones we've covered in any of our workshops in the past.
- September 30 (Las Vegas). Going to Devlearn? Swing by the Articulate booth and say hello.
- October 28 & 29 (Philadelphia). Community-based elearning workshops focused on practical tips & tricks. You can register for one day or two days. To learn more and register, click here.
- November: Just added! I'll be in London, Dublin, Berlin, Paris, Belgium, and Utrecht. Details coming soon.
Free E-learning Resources
Want to learn more? Check out these articles and free resources in the community.
Here’s a great job board for elearning, instructional design, and training jobs
Participate in the weekly elearning challenges to sharpen your skills
Lots of cool elearning examples to check out and find inspiration.