Mobile or Not, eLearning Needs Strong Visual Design
March 3, 2017 • Pamela Hogle • Mobile
Anyone can learn the basic principles of good visual design; applying them to eLearning can make it more effective.
Well-designed eLearning must have strong visual design and
graphic elements; there’s no way around that truth.
“The thing is, eLearning is a completely visual medium, and
pretty much everyone knows by now—even if they don’t necessarily follow it—that
you’re not supposed to have a screen full of text,” said Connie Malamed, a learning
and visual design consultant and author.
The good news is, anyone can learn some basic visual design principles
that will take their eLearning to a new level, regardless of delivery platform.
“One thing that people don’t realize is that you do not need the ability to
render or draw to improve your skills in visual design,” Malamed said. “Visual
design and drawing are two separate categories of skills. There are some basic
principles of visual design, and many overlap with art principles—but you do
not need to be an artist to follow the principles.
“There are standard principles—and that’s what I teach in my
workshops—for visual design that people can follow, and there’s no reason why
they can’t improve their skills; I don’t care if they can’t draw a stick
harmonies—there are standard color harmonies for creating palettes that instructional
designers can use in creating eLearning courses and slides
design—repeating a shape, using a single typeface, and working with only
one palette of colors are all ways to create unity throughout an eLearning
course or program
hierarchy—using color, size, or placement to create a dominant element that
draws viewers’ eyes controls the order in which learners will see the elements
on a page
“Mobile learning isn’t
“Not all eLearning can be converted to a phone,” Malamed
said. Designers who are eager to embrace the mobile culture sometimes ignore
this truth. “I think that eLearning for the computer and iPad is going to be
quite different than eLearning for a mobile device. I would say mobile learning
isn’t small eLearning.”
Malamed said that designers basically have two options:
eLearning specifically for the phone. In this case, she recommends using vector
graphics, so that the graphics will scale up nicely for learners who use
tablets or laptops.
- Not for
mobile—“If you want your eLearning to be graphic-heavy, and if the
responsive version causes cognitive overload, just let people know that it’s
not appropriate for a phone,” she said.
“Many complex information graphics
are not going to work on a standard mobile phone,” she said. “You have to
really think the design through.”
People consume content differently
on different devices, and they might not want the same eLearning experience everywhere.
“You have to really think it through instructionally— because context is most
important in mobile learning. And consider if what you’re designing for a phone
is going to be appropriate for a desktop. It’s a little tricky,” Malamed said.
“It’s a different experience, learning from your phone. And I think that
microlearning, games, and context-sensitive learning are more appropriate for the
Aligning graphics with goals
Whatever the medium, effective graphics are a key element of
“What makes a graphic effective for learning is very
different from what might make a graphic effective for advertising. So, we have
to think of our goal. Even though we might use the same principles, we might
use them in a different way,” Malamed said. “What makes a graphic effective for
learning is that it is a relevant graphic and that it adds meaning to what the
person is learning.”
In addition, the graphic needs to be aligned with the
- For learning goals that focus on recall of
information, Malamed suggests an icon or photo that can serve as a mnemonic
aid, something to jog their memory. “People have an amazing memory for
pictures,” she said, suggesting showing the image together with the text. “By
having two channels—a visual channel and a text channel—you might be more
likely to remember it.”
- For learning goals that emphasize analysis or
synthesis of content, the instructional designer might turn to a complex
- When coaching learners in problem-solving, or
asking them to apply responses from a simulation to potential real-life
situations, Malamed suggests a story with characters. “Show the characters interacting,
using video or still photos,” she suggests. Learners are likely to remember the
scenario and what the character did; this might help them remember how to solve
No artistic skill? No problem!
While graphics are necessary, an in-house art department is
not. “The majority of eLearning that I see people produce does not include
hand-rendered or computer-rendered illustrations,” Malamed said.
Instead of creating graphics in-house, most eLearning
designers turn to stock photos and vector graphics or to companies that create
images specifically for eLearning—cutouts of people, for example, that can be
dropped into a page of content. Alternatively, designers can create their own
photos—for example, of an employee wearing the company uniform. Vector graphics
are scalable and can be used for illustrations, icons, or to represent concepts
or ideas, Malamed said.
It’s worth the investment. “When people find something
aesthetically appealing, it motivates them to keep going; it makes them think
it’s professional; and it improves the credibility” of the eLearning, according
, a visual design
consultant and author, will present a BYOL (Bring Your Own Laptop®) Pre-Conference
Certificate Workshop, “Visual Design for eLearning and Slides
,” on March 21 and a conference session, “Crash Course in Information Graphics for Learning
,” on March 22 at Learning Solutions 2017 Conference & Expo
in Orlando, Florida.