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?
Figure 1: Would you choose this course?
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? http://kuler.adobe.com 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.