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Seeing is Believing: Simple Graphic Design Tips To Improve Online Courses

by Jessi Nokes, Erin Sappington

April 13, 2010


by Jessi Nokes, Erin Sappington

April 13, 2010

Effective visual details will take your online training courses to the next level. Carefully selected colors and fonts, as well as integrated and polished pictures, graphs, and diagrams, make training more accessible and compelling while simultaneously increasing the credibility of your content.

After five months of hard work, you have just finished an online training course. You’ve spent hours interfacing with subject matter experts, double-checking facts, and working to ensure all the assessment questions are both clear and challenging. You've worked out all the technical bugs, and your coworkers tell you the student activity in the third section really kicks things up a notch. Now you’re finally ready to publish the course.

But as you are reviewing everything one last time, you can’t help but feel like something is missing. You can’t quite put your finger on it. The content is great, but everything looks just a little bit … drab.

The problem? You’ve overlooked the importance of keeping your e-Learning visually interesting.

When we design courses, we are often so focused on the content that we completely forget to put serious thought and effort into how we package our information. Things like font styles and background colors seem frivolous compared to good, solid facts and substance. However, visuals have a huge impact on how your audience will perceive the course you’ve worked so hard to assemble.

Let’s take a quick glance at the two courses in Figures 1 and 2. Which course would you rather take?


unattractive page with small text and small image

Figure 1: Would you choose this course?


lively page with attractive image of blood molecules

Figure 2: Or would you rather take this course?


Though both slides present the same information, chances are that the animation and color scheme of the second course piqued your interest much more than the plain white background and small image of the first. Even at a glance, these observations probably had some effect on your perceptions of the professionalism and validity of the two different courses. Because over 80 percent of the information our brains process is visual, there’s no question that the way the designer lays out content makes a significant difference in what initially grabs and maintains our attention.

You may think that incorporating good visual design into your lessons would require hiring a graphic designer or contracting other professional help. Fortunately, in most cases, you can significantly improve your e-Learning by following a few simple tips and tricks shared by some of the industry’s leading instructional designers and graphic designers. Paying attention to text, color, pictures, graphs and diagrams will deliver a tremendous difference in the first impression that your content makes.


In most online courses, text makes up a substantial portion of the visual stimuli. It’s important that you do it correctly. Follow these tips to get your text on the right track.

Tip #1: Rule of Six

The rule of six is pretty simple – include no more than six bullet points per page, and strive for each bullet point to have fewer than six words. You should have a decent amount of empty space, and pictures, graphs, videos or other material to balance out your words. Josh Barkle, an experienced graphic designer from the digital agency Imageworks, advises, “When it comes to text, less is definitely more.” Text-heavy slides are daunting, and learners will be less likely to read if all they can see is words.

Tip #2: Make friends with Arial and Calibri

Avoid cursive fonts and fonts with lots of embellishments. You may think they look nice, but chances are they’ll be difficult for many participants to read. You’ll have the most success with a simple sans serif font.

Tip #3: Develop a lesson style guide, and stick to it

Keeping your font sizes and styles consistent throughout the lesson keeps distractions to a minimum for learners. Create a style guide that clearly identifies what size text will be used for titles, text headers, bullet points, etc. throughout the lesson. Once you identify your “rules,” follow them. If your title on one slide is size 28, bold Arial font, the titles on all of your slides should be size 28, bold Arial font.

Tip #4: Avoid the temptation to make your title huge

“If it’s centered and it’s at the top of the page, your students will know it’s a title,” says Imageworks graphic designer Donald Jorgensen. “Bolding it and making it size 60 [font] won’t help you; it will just overwhelm the slide.” If your title is taking up a significant portion of the screen, it’s probably time to take it down a few notches.

Tip #5: Don’t overdo bolding

The same goes for using italics, shadow, or any other treatments intended to emphasize your text. Remember: if all your text is bold, (or italicized, etc.), none of it stands out. Use these treatments only for the most important words and phrases, and use them consistently.

You may be wondering …

What is a sans serif font and where can I find one?

Sans serif refers to any font without the little embellishments (called “serifs”) at the end of each stroke. Arial is an example of a sans serif font, while Times New Roman is an example of a serif font. Other sans serif fonts in Microsoft Word include Calibri, Century Gothic, and Tahoma.

  • Example of a sans serif font: AaBbCc
  • Example of a serif font: AaBbCc


Using color can work greatly to your advantage when making your courses visually interesting. Unfortunately, poor use of color can also work against you. The following suggestions can help you choose the right colors for your online course.

Tip #1: A loud background with colorful text is too much

You may think that bright colors will get your audience’s attention. But, while they may grab some people’s interest, most crazy color-on-color combinations will be difficult to read. Just like with text, graphic designers advise you to keep your color scheme toned down and simple. Understated solid colors should make up the meat of your slides, with bolder shades as accents.

Tip #2: A white background with plain black text isn’t enough

Don’t go over the top with color, but don’t forget to use it, either. The 2008 white paper, “Color in an Optimum Learning Environment” by Willard Daggett, Jeffrey Cobble, and Steven Gertel (see the References at the end of this article), shows that color positively impacts learners’ performance when integrated properly into the learning environment. So, spicing up your course with color not only makes it look nicer – it may also help your students learn more effectively!

Tip #3: Go bold, not bright

If you’re looking for a color that will get people’s attention, Jorgensen advises that, “A solid brick red is preferable to a loud neon orange.” Don’t hesitate to use strong colors, but avoid fluorescent shades – they can be perceived as unprofessional, and some of your participants will doubtless find them hard to read.

Tip #4: Keep your backgrounds neutral

Avoid backgrounds composed of pictures, patterns, or heavy colors, unless they’ve been significantly faded. There are two reasons for this. First, you want your text to be readable. Second, you don’t want your background to distract from your content. Experiment with attractive, light shades for best results.

Tip #5: Stick to a consistent color scheme

 Just as with font and text size, it’s visually preferable to keep a steady color scheme from slide to slide. For example, if your background is a pale tan on one slide, you should probably keep it the same color for the duration of your lesson. The same goes for your text colors. Need some help creating a color scheme? is a great resource.

You may be wondering …

What if my organization requires me to work in a template with an unattractive color scheme?

Talk to your stakeholders and see if you can convince them to change their mind. You may consider sharing some of the facts from this article on how effective visual design enhances learning. Then, ask them why they are so attached to their template and work with them to keep what they like, while adjusting the color scheme to be a bit more learner-friendly. For example, if they want to use the colors in their company logo, see if you can work with them to tone down the colors or incorporate them elsewhere in the template.

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Article is spot on! We are in the early stages of building a new training program for our customer. This effort includes a number of changes to their current training program that we developed and has been in use for a number of years. With this new effort there is new Learning Management System, user interface, and SCORM compliant requirements—and yes the customer wanted a new look and feel. To accommodate, our team just spent the last week discussing and testing these vary same issues. Talk about timely! Your discussions on Text, Color, Pictures, and Graphics and diagrams were all very informative—and in our opinion spot on target.

Terry Holmes
Manager Courseware Development
FlightSafety Services Corp.
Great article. Good visual design is key! We always create a style guide to keep the whole team on track.
The six by six rule was intended for overhead presentations in a class with an instructor who provides additional information, not eLearning where the student is self studying. The screens do have to be balanced and not text-heavy, but the six by six rule is too limiting. Remember that eLearning courses are stand alone with no instructor to amplify the information. There needs to be enough information so that the students can get the information without going to an instructor.

Additionally, the traditional dark text on light background provides good contrast but can be glaring, especially long courses. There are many studies that show a dark background with light colored text reduces the glare (and headaches) while still keeping the contrast needed for easier reading.
Good article! Having a background in Graphic Design and Usability, this hit the spot. It validates what I've always preached.

Regarding the 6 x 6 rule, I believe in it as a guide, not as a rule. It serves well in face-to-face synchronous training. I think it can work in online training courses too if audio carries the details of the content. And when audio accessibility is an issue, you can provide links to the details.
Really good article ... Something else to keep in mind - light text on dark background can be difficult for those who are color blind.
too bad the article only prints part of the first page. Can this be fixed?
"eLearning courses are stand alone with no instructor to amplify the information"

ELearning is not limited to this definition alone, which accounts for the popularity of blended strategies in implementing eLearning. I don't think it should be assumed that the content is specifically meant for a certain size screen.

Take a look at this article on the many different ways content is being used for eLearning. Buried Alive: The Online Learning Content Challenge
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My comment about the 6 by 6 rule applied to self-study eLearning. The reply that it can still be good when accompanied by audio is a point well taken.
The reply that light text on a dark background is also correct, that's why I stated that you still need good contrast. Whether color blind (pigmentally challenged?) or not, the text needs to stand out from the background for ease of reading.
Good, basic article. eLearning can be complicated for someone not having a very good graps of graphics, layout and design.

The rapid learning blog has some good basic graphic and photos tips.

If anyone is interested in good visual design beyond, a few good resources are: Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds, Beyond Bullet Points by Atkinson and Michael Allens Guide to eLearning.

Also, Broderbund has a great royalty free site with over two million graphics for $40 a yr subscription - not bad for that many graphics, including photos.

Thanks jessi and erin for the article!
Very useful article.
Great points! After I began working as an Instructional Designer and eLearning Developer, I went back to school to study visual and interface design. It has really helped me create balanced visually engaging and interactive learning-- two things we just don't learn in traditional instructional design programs.
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