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4 Tips for using visuals in instructional design

We have so many design apps and picture libraries at our disposal that it’s both an opportunity and a challenge to create amazing visuals in instructional design.

The upside is that anyone can build online training courses that look amazing and are very engaging. The downside is that everything is evolving so fast, and trainee demands are growing at an equal pace, making it rather difficult for instructional designers and trainers to stay on top of everything.

While visuals are very important, and there is a growing appetite for all things video, they shouldn’t simply take over all learning materials. Instructional videos have their place, and they are indeed very useful, but there are still many advantages of e-learning modules that contain text and images.

Read more: 5 Guidelines on how to design video-based training

Let’s explore a few tips on how L&D specialists can make the most of visuals in instructional design:

1. It’s important to integrate the visuals with the textual elements

As a common practice, I’ve seen designers who write the entire text and then add the visual elements to either highlight something or simply give the participants a break from reading.

I’m not saying this way of doing things never works. However, if the focus is on the written information and the pictures come as an afterthought, there’s a good chance that the two will not complement each other. The images will serve an aesthetic purpose instead of adding something of value to the learning experience itself.

The best way to employ visuals is to balance them with text, so they become integral to the content, not merely complementary.

2. Make visuals for the most important information

As I’ve mentioned before, e-learning visuals are meant to be more than pretty. Actually, they can be rather useful, as people tend to remember well-thought imagery a lot better than written text (regardless of its quality).

With that in mind, use visuals to emphasize the key points of the learning session. It’s also best to match the visual to the content – sometimes a photo will work; other times, you might need an infographic, a graph, a diagram, or even a video. It all depends on what you are teaching.

Read more: On the use of infographics in online training

It’s best to ask yourself what point you are trying to make before setting out to produce or curate content, and the focus should constantly be on your end goal.

3. Don’t overdo it

I have noticed (especially on Instagram accounts) a tendency to produce images with so many elements that one has trouble figuring out what is supposed to be showcased. This happens mostly when influencers are promoting various products. It’s a very ineffective manner of doing publicity.

The same goes for using visuals in learning modules. The human brain needs clarity and structure to learn. Clutter is detrimental to both, so having numerous images with too many elements defeats the purpose.

Unless you have an exercise of the “Where’s Waldo” type, there is absolutely no reason to add crowded images in an e-learning module. The same goes for colors – it’s best to stick to a color scheme throughout the material and use them to emphasize an important point and give consistency to the entire training module.

Read more: The neuroscience of attention and why instructional designers should know about it

4. Use visuals to illustrate complex concepts

My five-year-old son has a new fascination with Space. We are very proud of him and try to be encouraging. But some of his questions are tricky, even if we know the answers. It’s difficult to explain concepts like the universe or gravity to someone that young. Thankfully, there are picture books and a movies to guide us.

Of course, adults have the capacity to understand complex information, but visuals are still highly useful when there are difficult concepts in a learning module.

Depending on the concept, you can use mind maps, charts, diagrams, or infographics to summarize and organize the information. Even the driest content can be engaging if it’s presented in a colorful, easy-to-understand manner.

Read more: The antidote to dry content: using storytelling in technical training

Closing thoughts

Visuals are an essential part of e-learning and should be given proper attention. They are not an addition to the content; they are the content. So their creation and editing should be part of the initial design process to ensure their true potential is thoroughly harnessed.

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