There was a time when instructional designers didn’t need to worry about graphics. Among other things, the skills and tools were highly specialized, which meant that instructional designers or technical writers wrote and graphic artists did graphics.
Today, almost every authoring tool contains a graphic drawing component, and your boss knows it. “Hire a graphic artist? You’ve got to be kidding me. Why can’t you do it yourself?”
Of course, there are a number of reasons why you shouldn’t have non-graphical people doing their own graphics, but if you think that your boss will have a change of heart and hire a professional graphic designer to help with your project, you may be making a big mistake.
It would be better for you to learn a few reasons why graphics that other people create are better than your graphics, and to take the steps needed to make your graphic images appear more professional.
Left brain versus right brain
As a rule, when you write descriptions of processes or procedures, you use your left brain, but graphic designers utilize their right brains (creativity) more than their left.
Does that mean you cannot create your own graphics? Absolutely not. But you should be aware that it will be easier to create your graphics if you separate the two tasks. Write your text first, and then review it later with a focus on graphics – and with your mind in right-brain mode.
As you review the text, identify “visual clue” words that lend themselves to graphics. For example, if the text describes a program that runs under another program or within a certain operating system, “under” and “within” are visual clue words that will help you to create an appropriate graphic.
Another excellent idea as you review your training materials is to think about “showing and not telling,” according to Andy Chan, Assistant Professor of Graphic Design at Massachusetts College of Art. For example, if you are creating content relating to data center servers, it is a good idea to use a photo of a server to reinforce your point. When readers see the server photo they have a reference point. The next time the learner comes across an actual data center server, your content will come to mind.
“And remember,” Chan adds, “people retain images longer than data.”
Some specific guidelines
There are a number of fine points in the use of graphics that will give your production a more professional appearance. Here are the key ones.
People “read” graphics the same way as text, and in most cultures that is left-to-right, top-to-bottom. Content creators who are not graphics professionals commonly overlook this very simple rule. If you have a graphic that has a start and finish to it, start the graphic in the upper left and end it in the lower right.
If your graphic is not a start-to-finish one, keep in mind the viewer’s eye will “enter” the graphic on the upper left, so you should not bury an important part of the graphic in the lower right or the lower left.
A simple step that will make your graphics look much better is to use gradient fills for your graphic objects. One of the easiest ways to identify amateur graphics is a flowchart that has text in a white box (or worse, flat blue!).
Gradients add depth to your graphic objects and make your graphic more aesthetically pleasing to the eye. A simple two-color gradient using white and one of your theme colors goes a long way to make your graphic look more professional.
Additionally, adding shadows to your gradient objects can enhance them one step further. Even though the page is flat, and the background often white, doesn’t mean your graphics have to be.
Microsoft’s announcement in the early 1990s that TrueType fonts would be part of their Windows operating system was both the best thing and worst thing that happened to the world of graphics. Suddenly, non-graphics people everywhere had access to numerous fonts that they could insert into their drawings. And that’s exactly what they did: Every graphic had numerous fonts.
If you want your graphics to look professional, stick to one or possibly two fonts per graphic. If your graphic is going to be displayed online or projected on a screen (in a PowerPoint presentation for example), use a font from the sans-serif family.
And do not underline your text for emphasis! We used underlines on typewriters when there were no other choices. Today, underlines imply hyperlinks – and bold or italic looks more professional.
Arrows and Arrow lines
Limit the line “pointers” in your graphic, and whenever possible, make your arrow lines at 90-degree angles. Graphics that have lines at every angle possible look more complex and it is more difficult to quickly view the connections between text or a number and the area where you are pointing.
Use the correct arrow head (arrows when you are pointing at something or an oval if your endpoint is inside an enclosed area) and always use the same size arrow head for all the arrows in your graphic. Make sure that the line thickness is the same for each of your lines.
As with the fonts, you shouldn’t abuse your color choices just because you have so many to choose from. One or two colors are sufficient for most graphics, and it is a good idea to use gradients as a variation instead of using a third color.
If your company or client has a branding guideline booklet, try to use that as much as possible. Just about every graphic tool has the ability to determine RGB or CMYK values for any color in an open graphic, so even if you don’t have a branding booklet, open a screen capture of the company’s Web page, determine the color values, and then use those in your graphics.
Don’t forget that eight to ten percent of people are color-blind and red-green color blindness is the most common form. Thus, if you are choosing a color key for your graphic, you can use red or green but avoid using both.
Also with regard to your color choices, if you are creating graphics for viewing by international audiences, remember that red is perceived negatively (danger or death) in many cultures.
Photos are generally more professional than cute cartoon clipart, and PowerPoint has added many photo options in its clipart library. Use photos whenever possible. (Editor’s Note: See the columns by Patti Shank that address the effective use of clip art.)
When using photos, it is often good idea to add some depth to the photo. The easiest way to do this is to add a shadow to the image, and a thin outline border can sometimes be a nice touch as well. These make a photo stand out.
Many photo subscription Websites offer royalty-free images. The costs are based on usage (i.e., per download, monthly, or annually) and many of these Websites offer search filters to help you find what you are looking for. Since the subscription model is fee-based, many of the photos may be exclusives not in general circulation – a plus if you don’t want your images to be associated with another company.
A graphic that is jammed with text or graphics appears busy, cluttered, and complex, making it difficult to read. White space is not simply empty space. It is an important part of the graphic that provides a balance and easy readability.
Chan sees white space as “a focal point on the page so that the viewer’s eye is not lost searching for the main idea. The reader should immediately understand the message you are presenting. Just like a large heading title gives emphasis to text, white space gives necessary separation for the eye to ‘pause’ and absorb the heading title before reading the rest of the paragraph.”
While there is often a need to add as many details as possible to a graphic, do not overlook the value of white space for readability and understanding. If the detail requirements make your graphic appear cluttered, create two (or more) of them. For example, one graphic can be a high level overview of process and then two subsequent graphics can show “Part A” and “Part B” of the process.
Training in the use of graphic tools
I know what you’re thinking. If my company isn’t going to hire a bona-fide graphic artist to help with our graphic needs, then they probably won’t be shelling out money to send me to a training class for my graphics tool. You’re right, of course. But don’t forget that those “other people” (your competitors, if you will) have been trained and that’s just one more very important reason why their graphics are better than your graphics.
Give up? Never!!!
In case you don’t know how this game is played, here are some options for getting the training to make sure you have the skills to handle your graphics tool(s).
Option A: Training saves your company money
Approach “management” and make sure they understand how excited you are that they are allowing you the opportunity to take on graphic development tasks because it will help your career. (That’s at least half true, isn’t it?) Next, suggest that sending you to training will leverage the financial return on their decision to have you wear two hats instead of just one.
Has your boss fallen on the floor laughing yet? If not, tell them that you are going to enroll in a formal training class at a local training facility.
Formal training is really a great way to go if you can possibly do it. Professional trainers use professional training materials to teach you the skills in the book and, in most cases, other skills if you ask nicely during the class. And you get a certificate that means much more than having a friend of a friend teach you.
Option B: Online instruction
Lynda.com. A great alternative to attending formal training at a training center is http://www.lynda.com/. Another great alternative may be tutorials offered by the publisher of your graphic tool. For a fraction of the cost of attending a formal training class, you can access a well-designed training lesson, get almost as much valuable information, and get a formal certificate as well.
If you’ve never had the pleasure of taking a course on Lynda.com or from a publisher’s support site, do it soon.
Option C: YouTube and online screencasts
In case you haven’t figured this out by now, YouTube is not just about home movies of kids named Charlie biting fingers, or people who babble nonsensically while recovering from anesthesia. Those kids are now using YouTube to watch someone explain math better than their teacher did earlier that day. The adults are using YouTube to learn how to do home repairs and more. It goes almost without saying that you can find legitimate help for your graphic skill deficiencies as well.
Yes, it’s true that a number of the instructional videos on YouTube are informally designed with a tongue-in-cheek presentation style. But if you can get over the “entertainment” attempts of videos such as You Suck at Photoshop, there is legitimate content that can help you improve your skills.
The best starting point to find some guidance to help build your graphic skills is at YouTube EDU:
This allows you to search for videos tagged as educational instead of searching in the vast universe of all YouTube videos. Search on a tool name or simply on graphic design and your problem will quickly transform from trying to find a training lesson to picking the best one for your needs.
Along the same lines as YouTube solutions, you can find a number of valuable “mini-lessons” in screencast sites such as jing, screenr, and screencast-o-matic. It is sometimes a little harder to find information through the main page of the screencast Websites, but search engine searches that include the name of the screencast site will display many useful links.
And finally, to
keep your skills and knowledge up-to-date, use your Twitter account
to search for graphic and tool information. (What? You don’t
have a Twitter account yet? It’s definitely time to put this on
your To Do List – and to do it!) A weekly search on #graphics
or #graphicdesign or #
Will your graphics ever be better than other people’s graphics?
I’d like to say that if you adopt just a few of the tips in this article, and take the time to train yourself on graphic design and the tools that you are using, your graphics will be better than other people’s graphics.
But let’s face it: there is still a creative flair to graphic design and you simply may never have that flair. But you can make your graphics much more professional simply by following some of these steps, and sound graphic design goes a long way to give you an edge in this field.
If you are patient and practice these skills, it won’t be long before someone says, “Hey, that’s pretty nice!” And then you’ll know you can wear that Graphic Designer hat proudly as you create your own graphics.