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6 Tips on using visual elements in online course design

Online course creators are often focused on the content of the course – getting all the relevant information in, making sure every source is correctly cited, organizing the information in a way that is logical and easy to follow. It’s only natural, as this ensures that the quality of the course is top-notch and that is great.

There is, however, another crucial aspect that sometimes gets put on the back burner even though it should be equally taken into consideration: the visual elements.

When people only hear or read information, they're likely to remember very little of that information just a few days later. However, if a relevant image is paired with that same information, people retain it much better. The forgetting curve is real, but visual elements certainly play a role in postponing it.

6 Tips on using visual elements in online course design

Wrapping your course materials in a nice visual way is not that hard, and shouldn’t take much time. Here’s what to consider when using visual elements in your online course:

  1. Make visual content relevant

    When you start putting together the visuals you will use in your course, you need to look for pictures that do more than get attention and are aesthetically pleasing. Every piece of visual content needs to be closely linked to the material presented in the course.

    The questions you should be asking yourself are:

    • What is the message do I want to deliver?
    • Is there an emotion that should be evoked?
    • Is there an immediate action the learner ought to take?

    The ultimate point of the imagery you use in your course is to aid with information retention – it’s a good idea to have a few beta-testers to see if that goal is achieved.

  2. Include images of real people

    Images that show real people who are looking directly at the learner are more powerful than those of objects, stunning landscapes, or groups of people who don’t seem engaged as they go about various tasks. People are drawn to eye-contact so that’s why you should include images of real people in your course design.

    When people gaze at us, we are immediately drawn to them. Similarly, a face that is alive with emotions will catch the learner’s eyes readily and remain etched in their memories for longer than an inexpressive face.

    It’s best to search for images of people who may look like your target audience (when they are spruced-up).

  3. Seek to evoke emotions

    Effective visuals address the learners’ emotions and have the power to engage them. In order for them to connect to and remember the images you choose it’s best to either intrigue them or amuse them.

    Keep in mind that your purpose is to make a strong connection to the audience. Since people remember better situations and information they feel something about, the goal is to pick visuals that rattle something inside the viewer.

    That being said, it’s advisable to avoid imagery that is overly dramatic or that may prove offensive to some. You’ll be able to pick the best ‘emotionally-charged’ image if you know who your learner persona is, background, preferences, and values considered.

    Read more: The entrepreneur’s guide to buyer personas for online courses [Part 1]

  4. Go for familiarity

    As I have mentioned above, it’s crucial that you have a good idea about who your learners are. Once you have that down, it should be fairly easy to pick those visuals that they will feel accustomed to.

    Employing familiar icons, symbols, and imagery will facilitate the learning process, as people will see similarities, discover connections between what they already know and new information. We humans learn by forming associations so it’s important to have something that feels commonplace when new and complex information is presented.

    Using familiar icons also facilitates the learning process by helping learners spot similarities, decipher underlying patterns, and form cognitive connections. When you have a heterogeneous audience that doesn’t have a similar background it’s best to use visual metaphors to make points that stick.

  5. Never compromise on image quality

    You want your course to look its best. There is a very unprofessional appearance that comes with low-resolution pictures. High resolution means that the picture is clear, sharp, and all the relevant details are clearly visible.

    If the learner can’t see well what is depicted, the picture will result in frustration rather than in higher information retention rates.

    However, like with most things, moderation is best; you don’t want to choose pictures with tremendous resolutions because those will slow the course down as they will make it difficult to load the content. You can use a number of free apps online to resize the images so that they fit the course without diminishing in quality.

    Read more: Top 5 photo editing tools for online course creators

  6. Beware of copyright laws

    Google search (even the photo version) is meant for just that: search. It’s not a place you should download imagery from, as there is a good chance it will be protected by copyright. Almost every picture you find online has various types of rights attached, even if that is not apparent when you conduct the inquiry.

    In order to avoid potential issues, you can either specifically look for royalty-free images (you’ll only have to pay for them once) or tap into the great potential of Creative Commons. The resource was created to help all those who create content, whether they are writers, video makers or designers, to use already existing content without having to pay for it. Everything from text to video or sound can be used while being appropriately attributed.

    Read more: What you need to know about copyright for online courses

Wrapping up

It’s true that one image can be worth a thousand words but only if it’s carefully chosen, taking into consideration audience preference, visual quality, and relevance to the content it’s supposed to enhance.