Think Seriously About Graphic Design when Developing eLearning Courses

Many of my previous articles have focused on the importance of following solid instructional design principles when developing online courses. In this article, I would like to focus on a different, but equally important facet of design, namely graphic design. There is one shortcoming that I see over and over when reviewing online courses in higher learning. For the most part they are uninspiring to look at, and, at times, downright ugly. And this can have more than just aesthetic implications for the learner, it can also make it much more difficult for the learner to engage with and comprehend course material and instructions.

Here are some of the common graphic design faults I come across in online courses, regardless of content format (e.g. HTML, XML, Flash, Word Docs, PDFs, slide shows, etc.):

  • Text dumps: large amounts of cluttered text unbroken by white space, images, graphics, contrasts or highlights;
  • No sense of hierarchy of content, no focal points to indicate relative importance of content / information;
  • No consistency in approach with respect to font styles and sizes, alignment, icons, shapes, colours, links, etc. (one course I once reviewed used so many different font styles, sizes and colours on one page that it resembled a ransom note);
  • Use of garish colours and combinations of colours that do not work together and make it difficult for learners to engage with content;
  • Use of cheesy clip art images.

Why does this matter? Keith Hampson, a management consultant to higher education, put it this way in a recent issue of Today’s Campus:

“The importance of design to digital education starts with this simple fact: by moving the locus of education from the classroom to the digital environment, we necessarily change the factors that determine the quality of the student’s experience. In the digital environment, design plays a far more important role as a determinant of quality than it does in the classroom.  “Screens” (laptops, smart phones, tablets, etc.) are heavily design-dependent. The quality of design in screen-based environments dramatically influences the end-user’s experience.”

Hampson goes on to say that good design and good education share the same goals; to engage users, to communicate complex ideas effectively, to maximize understanding, and to encourage participation and interaction. He also notes that good design of online learning experiences could be a key competitive differentiator for a higher education institution if one decided to take this very seriously.

How then do we remedy bad graphic design in online learning? Firstly, hire in or contract in such expertise. It is not something that comes naturally to most faculty or most instructional designers. Good graphic designers have a natural eye for clean, functional design, along with the formal education, training and experience to put these principles into practice. Secondly, set up graphic design standards for your online learning, just as you should have a set of instructional design best practice standards.

The quality of graphic design has a tremendous influence on the learning experience in an online course. It could mean the difference between learners routing around in a filing cabinet of impenetrable documents, or being fully engaged by a beautifully laid out and seamless learning environment. In the former case, they waste a great deal of time and effort just trying to make sense of what is what and to find their way around the maze. In the latter case, they can get right to the learning content, activities, interactions, collaborations, etc., because the design of the course (or, more aptly, lack thereof) does not get in the way.

Share this post

Latest Articles