The Rapid Elearning Blog

Looks matter.

We all like to think we’re not prejudiced and won’t judge something based solely on its looks.  But the truth is it’s very difficult to ignore the way something looks.  Just go clothes shopping with your teenage daughter and you’ll have the proof.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I routinely ask people I meet what they think about the elearning courses they take in their organizations.  One of the most common complaints is that the courses look unprofessional and uninviting.  And that equates to a course not worth taking.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - judging a book by the cover

You’re asking the learners to give up precious time and invest it in your elearning course and before they even start, they feel like it’s a waste of time just because of the way it looks.

Here are some tips that will help you design courses that look good.  Couple that with sound instructional design and you’ll have elearning courses that hook your learners from the start and never let them go. The book links to Amazon produce a small commission.

Understand How to Use Colors

Colors hook us emotionally so it’s important to use colors that look right together and fit the context of your course.  You don’t need to be a color scientist to know what looks good.  Generally, you can tell when you see it, even if you can’t really explain it.  The same goes with your learners.  However, it doesn’t hurt to know the basics about color.  This lets you be proactive and use colors to your advantage.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - color theory

  • Learn a little about color theory.  If you want some good resources to have on hand, here are two books you might like, The Elements of Color & Understanding Color: An Introduction for Designers.  At a minimum, read through Janet Lynn Ford’s site.  She’s put together a pretty good overview of color theory.  And, it’s free.
  • Coordinate your color schemes. There are a lot of good online tools that help you build matching color schemes for your elearning courses.  I start by picking a color from an image or logo in my course.  Once I have a color, I build a theme around it.  Using the online tools helps me think through the options and build a color coordinated theme.  Check out Kuler and their tutorial for some ideas.  Color Schemer is also a good site and easy to use.

Create a Fresh and Contemporary Design

Each era has its own music and fashion style.  Unless there’s a retro movement, you typically stay away from outdated fashions and pop culture.  In the same way, there are graphic styles that are fresh and contemporary.  And then there are styles that look old and outdated.  In what era does your elearning course belong?  Is the look of your elearning course the equivalent to the leisure suit?

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - nice design ideas

  • Be inspired by others.  The best way to know what designs are fresh and contemporary is to make a habit of looking at them.  I routinely visit ad agency and graphic design sites.  I’ll look at their project portfolios to get ideas about colors and design elements.  I shared some of this in my previous post on creating your own PowerPoint templates.   The more you look at other designs, the more you get a feel for what works and what doesn’t. Do what Patrick Haney and others do–create a collection of inspiring sites and images.  This way you’ll always have a resource for inspiration.
  • Have someone design the look for you.  Hire a freelance graphic designer to design a “look” for your course and then build some of the design elements for your elearning template.  An experienced designer can quickly build boxes, icons, and buttons for you to use in your courses, and it won’t cost you an arm and a leg.

Maintain a Consistent Look and Feel

One of the biggest issues with rapidly authored elearning courses is that they look like they were slapped together in PowerPoint.  There are five different fonts used, the images don’t look like they belong together, and they are of varying quality.  Some are nice and crisp and other are pixilated.  This doesn’t have to be the case.  With some forethought and practice, you can design elearning courses that “look like a million bucks.”

 The Rapid E-Learning Blog - goodbye screen beans

  • Learn about fonts and how they should be usedThinking with Type is a good book if you want to learn more.  I’ve really enjoyed The Non-Designer’s Design Book.  It covers the basics and helps you understand ideas about layout and structuring your information visually.  It also has good before-and-after examples. Here’s a good resource on using too many fonts.
  • Use consistent graphics and design elements.  In the same way your colors are coordinated, you need to coordinate the graphics you use.  Boxes, buttons, and arrows should all look like they are made up of the same style.  Don’t mix and match clip art.  Use the same style of clip art to maintain consistency.  It will make your content look like it all belongs together.  Also, once and for all, throw away the screen beans (unless of course you’re doing an elearning course f
    or Ninjas).
  • Maintain image quality.  Always start with the best image you can and go from there.   To avoid pixelation, don’t scale up small images.  You’re better off not using the image then you are putting a sloppy image on your screen.  You want everything about your course to look top notch.

Not everyone will become a graphic design pro overnight.  In fact, the goal isn’t to be a graphic design pro.  Instead, the goal is to understand basic design principles and then apply them to your elearning courses.

While the course is still dependent on solid instructional design and relevant content, coupling that with good visual design will make your course that much more effective and engaging for your learners.

If you have any tips or tricks, feel free to share them with us via the comments section.


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 e-learning, instructional design, and training jobs

Participate in the weekly e-learning challenges to sharpen your skills

Get your free PowerPoint templates and free graphics & stock images.

Lots of cool e-learning examples to check out and find inspiration.

Getting Started? This e-learning 101 series and the free e-books will help.

41 responses to “Why Looks Matter in E-Learning Courses (And What You Can Do About It)”

March 18th, 2008

Good points – you can also go way overboard on making the presentation look good. It is important to strike a happy medium between a well designed good looking presentation and one that is so full of bells and whistles that the entire idea of rapid development is lost in the process.

It bears mentioning that under Image Quality, Photoshop has some good tools to make images sharper and the colors more vibrant.

I MUST tell you how much I LOVE your blog! The information is SO incredibly valuable. YOU are making ME look good at my job! When I get rave reviews, I try to tell them I’m getting my new/wonderful/fun ideas from you. Thank you SO much for your Blog!

[…] Why Looks Matter in E-Learning Courses (And What You Can Do About It) – The Rapid eLearning Blog […]

As always, Tom, you’re “spot on.” I have enjoyed Robin Williams’ book, “The Non-Designer’s Design Book” and learned so much from it many years ago. Once you have your eyes opened to that way of thinking / seeing the world, you can spot poorly designed layouts very quickly. But throwing away screen beans just because they’re out of style and have been over used? That’s like saying no song should ever have a Yamaha DX7 keyboard sound in it (you know the overused sound of the 80s). Yeah it is overused. Yeah its out of style. But there are still situations where it can be used well – albeit those situations are rare. I’m not throwing away the screen beans! But I rarely used them in the first place, and will be even more judicious in my use of them (if any) in the future.

Thanks Tom!

March 18th, 2008


I am a new reader to your newsletter and it’s one of the best series of newsletters I’ve ever read. It’s straight and “to the point” with lots of valuable information.
I’ve been using articulate for a year and just to cover the basic needs of our company – now I see there’s so much more we can do. Your ideas spark new interest in making learning fun and exciting.

I’m going back to read ALL your archived newsletters.
Please keep it coming!!

Bravo! Excellent content in a posting.

Our company has been doing traditional in person training for years. In the last few we have branched out to audio, video, and e-learning too. We help people use different mediums to communicate their message and I’m always looking for ideas on how to communicate it. The resources and books you cited aligned with your message. It made me want to read on and share the content. Thanks.

Thanks for the feedback. I’m glad that so many find the blog useful. I do try to keep them practical and straightforward.

I think Mark makes a good point about finding the right balance. One thing that I do is take time to practice techniques. That helps me thing through some ideas and also come up with best practices.

Screen beans are a little pedestrian, however, they can still be used creatively. The main point is that if you use nothing but screen beans, now might be the time to change.

What we really need is a screen bean animation with them dancing to a midi composed with a Yamaha DX7. Now that would be sweet.

March 18th, 2008

Good points, all, Tom!

I can’t recall if you’ve addressed this in earlier posts, but another easy way to look more professional is to keep photos proportional when resizing them. It’s simply a matter of using the corner resize handles (sometimes in conjunction with the key) instead of using the side/middle resize handles.

If the resized photo doesn’t fit comfortably into the layout, then use the crop tool (located on the Picture toolbar in MS Office) to trim it down some more. Most of the time a cropped photo is better than the original. It can help focus the learner on the section you want them to see and generally allows you to make that section larger.

Thanks for the post.

Great information and very informative to see others tips/tricks. We are new to the creation of e-learning and will be using an authoring tool called FireFly so looking forward to learning and sharing.

Good point, Bob. One of my pet peeves is when people scrunch the images by scaling from the side or top. I’ll be sure the mention that in a future post.

Welcome aboard, KM.

I like using Pixie by Nattyware for choosing color schemes I like. It’s free: Yet another great post. Thanks, Tom.

March 18th, 2008


What a great post! I am also a new reader to your blog. In a past few days you have given me so much idea to make such a wonderful courses for our clients.

I just want to share what color scheme we use in order for us to create a template for our elearning. You can visit this site Hope this could help. 🙂


March 19th, 2008

I am thoroughly enjoying your blog entries and believe that good consistent colour and design are significant tools for keeping the learner motivated and engaged in your content.
However, from an accessibility angle ensuring appropriate contrast between colours is a must for me – an easy to use tool can be found at:
Many thanks

I helped redesign a course within Blackboard using the kind of design approaches you might associate with commercial websites (consistent color scheme, icons, banners etc) and everyone who’s seen it wants one of their own.

The key was to get the client involved with the design, so that they had a feeling of ownership and enthusiasm which transmitted itself to the learners. Whether you do so by design or not, your materials have a visual identity which needs to sit well with those that use them.

“you can also go way overboard on making the presentation look good” – Mark

Mark, I think a common mistake people make is assuming a “good looking” presentation requires a lot of extra effort. Not true. Extra “bells and whistles” don’t necessarily equate a beautiful design (in fact, they often equate a poor design).

Sure, I could slop together something that looks bad faster than doing something that looks good, but I think it’s damaging to the “rapid development” concept to assume that good design can’t (and shouldn’t be) mandatory.

March 19th, 2008

I will have to take the time to check out your many links.

One of the things I often notice when looking at other people’s presentation is that they lack consistency. This can be, as you said, using a variety of graphic styles. But it can also including making the font larger because the page has less text or smaller to fit more text on the page. It can also include having an object dance around, up and down or left and right, as you advance through a sequence of pages.

It seems that many people look for an excuse to not like taking online training. I wish that people would look forward to taking training and know that it will improve their performance instead of thinking, “Boy, that narrator has such a strange accent.”

[…] Kuhlmann has an excellent post on the importance of visual design in eLearning (my personal driving philosophy and the reason for the eQuixotic blog) on his Rapid E-Learning […]

I occasionally develop training materials at work but haven’t had any formal training in this area. What a wealth of information. Thank you for providing this resource for those of us who stumble through the process. There is hope!!

We have been involved in developing e-learning courseware for the maritime industry over the last 4 years. We work with a number of maritime academies and universities. The biggest stumbling block in e-learning is the teacher, who has been doing the job face-to-face for years that works or he/she thinks that to be so.

The Instructional Designers are not teachers (most of them are glorified graphic designers) and they tend to get over- involved with multimedia without thinking of the student engagement who is learning alone without the supervision of a teacher.

If we could convert some teachers into IDs, we shall see real progress. e-learning can do most, while blending that with some face-to-face counseling and guidance could achieve good learning outcome.

March 19th, 2008


This is good stuff!!!! You hit it right on the nail with the colors, as many individuals are color blind. This is one of the main things learners complain of.

Typically, what I try to do is stick to the basic color scemes that is your basic blues, browns, greens and reds. Or, I use a format that is related to the company colors. This seems to go very well. It helps me market the course as well.

Thank you so much for this information. I feel like we should be paying you or at least contributing ideas to this wealth of knowledge.

That’s my two cents worth!

March 19th, 2008

SD is right about teachers seeing technology as being antithetical to what they do best: teach. I work in higher education and a lot of teachers see the online environment as a place to park course documents, handouts, powerpoints etc. They use the standard layout and icons of the VLE and it looks pretty drab. Fair enough, their teaching takes place in classrooms, but a lot of their learners expect to be able to carry on learning and participating outside of the classroom.

Too little of what passes for elearning is about creating engaging interactions, environments and experiences that encourage learning, it’s what Tom calls ‘data dump’: here’s the info, go read!

I have been in content development for 14 years and decided to give the e-learning thing a go two years ago. I have for the past two years been actively involved in developing blended learning strategies for my clients and have been searching for a cost effective development tool. It is amazing that everyone who starts out wanting to implement e-learning want ‘dancing bunnies’. It always takes a long time to get them to understand that ‘dancing bunnies’aren’t always the right solution as it often does not get the message across. The tips you provide make it so easy to explain to people what and why.

Since reading your mails, I have gained so much confidence and using powerpoint is probably one of the smarted tools ever. No more flash in many instances – what my clients love about the elearning I’m now producing is that they can now do editing and maintenance themselves – no extra costs. They feel very empowered and so do I!

I cannot wait to receive your mails. Thank you so much for your insights and tips and links. Much appreciated.


Just wanted to let you know to keep up the good work on this blog. We have just downloaded the trial version of the articulate software and this blog has helped give us so many ideas.


Good article. Color and font are important material of eLearning course.

March 24th, 2008

The best advice I’ve ever gotten is “Reduce the ink-to-information ratio as close as possible to a ‘one-to-one’ ratio.” Mark, in the first post, is right in the sense that “overboard” is usually at odds with “rapid.”

March 24th, 2008

Dave and SB grasp the point that I was trying to make. Many bunnies equates to less rapid. Bunnies may look good but does it really help the person who is trying to extract useful information from that page of instruction? Maybe or maybe not. I have been doing this for over 20 years. I started with Apple Pilot on a Apple 2 with a whopping 48k of memory. (Yes, I do still have it.) Mainly I do recurrent training for commercial pilots so is it really necessary to animate the fluid flow through the hydraulic filter when a simple colored line and perhaps an arrow will impart the same information? Maybe not but the customer sometimes really really wants that dancing bunny so I spend an hour drawing dots that “flow” through the little pipe.

Gotta give the holder of the checkbook what they want. You try to heard them toward more training faster, cheaper and with more bang for the buck. In the end it is a question that they have to answer for themselves.


Good discussion and thanks for all of the feedback. I think Mark makes a valid point that you can spend a lot of time designing graphics that might not really bring extra value…and this doesn’t mean that what you do design is placed on the altar of looking bad.

One of the things I really enjoy about working with PowerPoint is the ability to pre-build complex animations and then when I need to use one just inserting the slide (or copy/paste the animation) and swapping the placeholder content. This works really well in PPT2007.

This brings a balance to the point Mark makes. It allows you add a level of complexity to the course without losing the rapid. Of course, all of that is tempered with real need versus just adding bells and whistles for the sake of the bells and whistles.

I also think that the more people practice more advanced techniques the better they become at building them and this means you don’t have to spend a lot of time building your content. For example, when I first started using PowerPoint for elearning it took me longer to build a scenario. Today, I can build the framework for a scenario in minutes and can complete an entire scenario with graphics in just a couple of hours.

What great information. Being new to design and e-learning, I’m amazed how many tips and ideas everyone is willing to share. I could spend the whole day reading all the links. I have added this site to my favorites.

Beautiful! Today as I came out into my garden and admired the massive bunch of roses I was completely absorbed. The color, fragrance and soothing combination of the gentle pink hue with the light green of leaves was breath taking. I fully agree if we make the starting of the course inviting, the learner will happily enter the course and a happy beggining can lead to a happy journey through the course and an equally happy ending. Thanks for sharing

April 13th, 2008

hi Tom

I would like to ask you if you can help me finding Doctorate programs in E-learning! I was trying to locate some of these programs in US schools, but most of which are directed toward the technology in general not the elearning part of it!

what do you think!

That’s a good question. Perhaps some of the other blog readers have some insight. I’ll ask around. I’m working on a blog post about personal development and that will be a good way to get others to add comments about schools.

April 28th, 2008

I, too, am a fan of your blog and find many useful insights and ideas. One resource I recommend to others is the book e-Learning and the Science of Instruction by Ruth Colvin Clark and Richard E. Mayer. Dr. Clark’s research is about how adult learners respond to eLearning inputs. Even something as simple as where information or controls appear on the screen affect the learner’s ability to connect with the learning so giving thought to your design is truly important. She may also be a resource concerning Doctoral programs in eLearning that focus on the Learner rather than the technology. Her website is:

Hello Jo, Thanks for the feedback. Dr. Clark’s resources are really good. I routinely recommend her to my readers. I also like the book she did with Richard Mayer. In fact, I referenced it in this blog post on getting started.

[…] Lastly, Tom Kuhlmann at Articulate wrote a nice blog entry about Why Looks Matter in E-Learning Courses (And What You Can Do About It). […]

[…] what kind of web design should we choose? You can find it out on Tom Kuhlmann’s blog: “Why looks matter in E-learning courses“. According to him: You might be losing your learners before the even start the course […]

Hey, this is quite an informative article. Every time i make PPT presenations I get confused what colors should I use. This articles has many useful links which might prove useful in the next PPT and elearning course we design.

January 25th, 2010


I have just started designing courses and these few tips have been really helpful.

Thanks a lot.

@Roopa: welcome to the blog and thanks for the feedback.

[…] Resources: Articulate (Tom) did an article on why looks matter. e Learning Templates that look great and are branded. Fresh Articulate […]