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4 Design principles to keep in mind when creating online courses

This post has been updated on August 19, 2020.

Everyone likes beautiful things. Our human brain is wired to give priority to visually appealing, eye-catchy things over less than beautiful ones. This stands true in all sorts of situations, from choosing our friends to scanning a website.

I don't know about you, but whenever I have to offer a gift to someone I cherish, I put some thought not only in the gift itself but in the wrapping as well. Wrapping presents takes more time, requires some tools, and steady hands, but I honestly think a sloppy wrapped present is incomplete and inconsiderate — no matter how useful it is, or how badly the receiver wanted it.

As teachers, you offer your students education. To some extent, education is a gift.

Your students are lucky to have you as a guide in their journey of acquiring new knowledge. You're constantly improving your teaching skills, your school offers a learning management system that can boost learner performance, and you do your best in creating engaging online courses.

Too many teachers focus on the educational part of their courses, and simply ignore or forget about making them beautiful as well. Don't get me wrong, the educational part of online courses is very important and should receive its due part of focus. But there's more to an engaging course than great content: great looks.

Don't worry, you don't have to become a graphic designer, on top of your teaching job, but some design principles can come in pretty handy when creating online courses. Here are just 4 that you should keep in mind:

1. Create a visual hierarchy

I'm referring mostly to text here, but you shouldn't limit to text only when you work on the visual hierarchy of your course.

The title should get the most important spot on the page, and stand out compared to all other elements. Subtitles should also stand out, but not as much. You could use the same font for both of them, but choose a smaller font size for the subtitles.

The text in a quote should have at least one characteristic that will distinguish it from normal body copy; you could use italics, or a different shade of text color, or both. The same applies to captions for images and graphics if you want to use them; italics, a different shade, or a smaller font size can do the trick.

And don't forget to make important words and phrases bold and italicize words here and there, where necessary.

You get the point. Everything should stand out on a page compared to the text in normal paragraphs — those that hold most of the knowledge you're supposed to transfer to your students. Well, only the footnotes have the smallest font size on the page and are stuck at the bottom of it, but who uses footnotes anyway?

This visual hierarchy helps the learner navigate on the course page and easily find the most needed information.

2. Align your elements

If you like to use justify alignment for your text, please stop. Pretty please. Maybe the perfect lines in the right and left on the page look nice, but what's in the middle hurts the eye. Don't do this to your eager-to-learn students.

The only centrally aligned text should be that in the title. OK, maybe a poem could join in, but not always.

Your safest bet will always be the left alignment, as it's the easiest to follow by the human eye.

As for the right alignment, that works best for languages that are normally written right to left, like Arabic or Hebrew. If your course has nothing to do with such languages, you should forget that a right-align button even exists in your editor when it comes to text.

Pictures and graphics need to be aligned as well. But in this case, you have more room to play. You can align all visual content right, left, or centrally, but remember to be consistent. More on that later, under the last design principle I approach in this post.

If the elements on the page of your course are aligned correctly, the users can focus on what's important. They'll follow the visual hierarchy your carefully created instead of dwelling too much on an out-of-place element.

3. Use contrast

Contrast can be your best friend when designing your online courses. But contrast can also be your worst enemy. Be careful of what colors you choose, and how you use them. If you don't want to watch your every step when creating a course, remember: less is more. Three is just as good as a feast.

Use only two colors for text. One should be neutral, the other should stand out. Use the neutral color for the most part of the text. There are more than 500 shades of grey, so I'm sure you'll find one that works for you. Sprinkle the other one — the statement color — throughout the text: subheadings, bullets in lists, highlighted words, links, and so on. Just don't overdo it.

The third most important color of a course page is the background color. It must go well with the other two. Considering the most books and notebooks have white-ish pages and dark lettering, you could adopt this idea for your course. Just like grey, white has hundreds of shades you can choose from.

Please avoid the combination of pure black with pure red, yellow, green, blue, or purple. Each color has its hues, tints, and shades, and one of these variations is always better than the pure color. If you don't believe me, check out this infographic. Your students will be thankful you did.

4. Be consistent

This applies to everything above and more.

Use the same font for each title and subtitles, the same formatting for normal text, quotes, image captions, and footnotes. Create or crop your photos to the same dimensions, and align them on the same part of the page. Stick to your color theme, and don't change each color's use in the middle of the course.

When you're pleased with a lesson that you did, transform the visual elements into templates, so that you can use them later. You don't have to replicate it entirely, but re-use things that seem to work. Maybe next time you can play with font pairing, but keep the color theme. Maybe another time you'll change the color theme as well, but continue to use a shape that seems to work best in a certain corner.

Whatever you do, implement these changes from one course to another, not in the middle of a lesson. Each course should have a consistent design.

Your students will develop a sort of familiarity with the visual elements of your course, and so they'll be less distracted during the learning process.

Over to you

The four design principles that teachers should follow when creating online courses have come to an end. Obviously, a four-item list is anything but exhaustive. Online design is more complex than that.

What else would you add to the list? Share your opinions in the comments section below!

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