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5 graphic design rules to keep in mind when creating online courses

Do you remember your first training? I remember bits of mine. I do recall it was fun and interactive and the trainer had a special technique for helping us remember important information. She would write it on the flip-chart in different colors, or use small drawings to mark an idea. These visuals acted like triggers when we had to remember something: “the blue clove list”, “the red shamrock page” or “the green quote”.

Visual and graphic elements stay longer on your mind than plain text. But with online learning, you no longer have sharpies and flip-charts. You get something better: visual design for content creation. That means technology is here to help all instructional designers—even those with less artistic skills—to create courses that are engaging, interactive and visually appealing.

You could just take that written content you have in your online course right now and add a few flowers, stars, and shamrocks. Or better yet, use images, graphics, and videos. It will not only look prettier but it will better address all those different types of learning.

5 graphic design rules to keep in mind when creating online courses

I bet some of you have raised a suspicious eyebrow by now. It can’t be all that easy, can it?

Well, you’re partially right. If graphic design was so easy that everyone could do it, professional graphic designers wouldn’t exist anymore. Sometimes you just have to work with the best.

But most online courses don’t have to win an international prize for design; they just have to deliver new knowledge in a way learners will remember it. You don’t need to draw anything by hand, but you do need to keep in mind a few ground rules about design when you start to add visuals into your course:

  1. Avoid “overdressing”

    You want your content to be more appealing, but throwing graphics, pictures, videos, and pie charts altogether on one page could get a little overwhelming for learners, get them confused and make them miss out other really important things.

    Visual elements are supposed to guide the focus, not steal the attention. If you found a really good video but you already have enough pictures, list it as a resource or reference it as a web link (look out for the Resources area in your LMS and put it there for everyone to access it).

  2. Use blank space

    When you want to single out an idea, don’t be afraid to leave some blank space before and after the text. It makes it easier to be spotted by the learner. Be aware of the audience as much as possible. With so many people accessing learning materials from their mobile phones, try to use a bigger spacing between lines, they will appreciate it (try not to overdo it though, a 1.2-1.5 should be enough).

    Also when dealing with very technical content, larger space between paragraphs is like a small break to assess and digest the newly acquired information. It is just like pausing after an important idea when giving a verbal presentation: the audience gets a few seconds window to let that idea sink in.

  3. Choose the right colors and fonts

    Keep clear of strong colors. A bright red is perfectly ok for signaling danger, but when it comes to learning content, go for a shade or tint of red (you have a wide variety of choices). Or you could just pick an already existing color scheme. The most important thing to keep in mind is that people perceive colors in subtle ways and you can manipulate their perception of your online course through your choice of colors.

    Also, when making a point, TRY NOT TO USE CAPS LOCK FOR ENTIRE PHRASES OR PARAGRAPHS (it’s just like shouting) or emphasize things with a “crazy” font. The regular font with a bolded phrase or an italic one usually does the trick without hurting the brain or the eyes.

  4. Choose images and graphics carefully

    First of all, make sure they are in theme with your content, and they show the right message. A very good course can be easily ruined by the wrong pick of images and visual elements. If you can't find the perfect one, you could try your hand at creating it. There are plenty of free resources online with intuitive user interfaces that make it easy to create visual content, from simple pie charts to infographics.

    If your course is meant for an ethnic group or a minority formation, try to adjust the whole content, especially the visual elements. Cultural differences are everywhere, so my advice would be to do a little more research when you create a course for learners from Saudi Arabia, Russia, China, Japan, or any other culture that you don’t know very well.

    And of course, don’t forget about the copyright. There are some pretty good free resources you can use in the e-learning environment. If your budget allows it, by all means, go for the paid ones.

  5. Keep the balance

    When a course has more learning modules, try to balance out the visual elements thought the entire content. If you have two modules filled with images, the next one with just plain text, and the next one in four different colors, things will get very confusing and hard to follow. Take a step back, as they say, and view it as a whole. If it looks off-balanced, fix it.

Closing thoughts

There’s no winning pattern you can follow when designing your content. These are just some ground rules I recommend following. There are so many particularities that can make or break a course.

Read more: Top 26 Sites For Free Online Graphic Design Courses

My advice to you: adjust, adjust, adjust…

Ask for feedback from your learners after they take the course. They can offer valuable insight and help you improve. And when in doubt, just ask a professional.