It seems that when it comes to e-learning, well thought-out design often falls to the wayside. It’s understandable given that sometimes it’s just one person creating the content as well as designing the course, and those who don’t work with design often can find it intimidating, or even superfluous. But, it’s been proven time and time again that well-designed courses perform better than those that focus strictly on content.
So what makes a well-designed course more effective? Well to name a few examples – an attractive color palette makes the course inviting and easy on the eyes, appropriate fonts make the course look professional and increase legibility, and high quality photos will engage users while accurately enforcing the written materials. Below are a few quick and easy guidelines to take into account the next time you’re designing a course.
Using basic color theory
Some colors just ‘work’ together, and some.. don’t. While you probably have a few favorite color combinations of your own, you can utilize basic color theory to come up with some new color combinations that are guaranteed to work (it’s science!). One set of similar colors that are sure to play well together are those in an analogous color scheme. This is created when the utilized colors are touching on the color wheel, such as green, light green, and yellow. Another set that works well and adds a bit of contrast is a complimentary color scheme. This is a set of colors that are directly across from each other on the color wheel, such as blue and orange. Using these two simple rules will allow you to create hundreds of beautifully matching color combinations.
But, what does it all mean?
While it’s important to make sure your colors match, it’s equally important to make sure your colors are appropriate for the message you’re trying to convey. Every color has a meaning, and utilizing the wrong color in the wrong scenario can greatly hinder your course’s ergonomics or confuse users by portraying the wrong emotion.
For example, many large corporations use blue as their primary color as it portrays trust, loyalty, stability, and intelligence. If they were to use red as their primary color, a color portraying action, passion, and danger, the message they conveyed would be much different. Each color has several perceived meanings, and within each color, each hue has it’s own emotions associated with it, so be sure to think about the deeper meaning behind the colors you use and how it will affect your users.
Colors aren’t all whimsical meanings and pretty combinations, they need to be functional too. High contrast colors should be used to make things easier to read (this is why most large bodies of text consist of black text on a white background) as well as to draw attention to action items, such as a bright orange button popping off a dark grey background. It’s also important to keep your color-blind users in mind when designing your courses by making sure color isn’t your only method of delivering your message. If you’re utilizing a color-coded design, you should also make the information understandable to those who are color-blind via text labels or other visual cues.
Choosing the right fonts
Don’t go overboard
Grabbing six decorative fonts and throwing them in your course may seem like and easy way to grab attention (and it is, unfortunately it’s not the good kind of attention), but it’s much more effective to utilize just a few fonts per project. Generally three fonts should be enough. Any more than that and your course runs the risk of looking messy and unprofessional.
Keep it in the family
A great way to accomplish varying emphasis on your type without using a bunch of different fonts is by utilizing font families. These are sets of fonts created at different weights, sizes, and styles that still share many of the same traits. An example of this is the font family Helvetica. The family contains 21 fonts ranging from the professionally slim Helvetica Light to the poised-for-action Helvetica Condensed Black Oblique. Each of the fonts in the family carries a different look and message, but they look great when used together.
Stay away from using fonts from different families that look too similar. An example of this would be using Arial and Helvetica in the same project. They’re both sans serif fonts set in very similar styles. Using these two fonts together will look ‘off’ to the eye. A better approach is using font families that are obviously different and contrasting. An example of this would be using a bold serif font such as Rockwell Bold for your titles and an easily readable sans serif such as Arial for your body text. This creates distinct separation and will be much more attractive and readable to users.
The images below display an example of these font contrasts. The box on the left uses Helvetica for the title and Arial for the body, whereas the box on the right uses Rockwell for the title and Arial for the body, creating a nice contrast.
Using appropriate pictures
Drowning out white noise
A picture is worth a thousand words, so it’s important that your picture doesn’t fall on deaf ears. Often times, pictures seem to be used as an afterthought within learning courses. The slide is about construction so there’s a clip art picture of a stick figure in a construction hat. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with this, it’s really not adding anything to the course. Users are going to disregard the image and, if anything, it cheapens the overall design.
More appropriately, if the slide is about construction safety and a high-quality labeled photograph of a man wearing the appropriate safety gear is used, users are actually learning something from the photo and thus the picture has a purpose. Using a high quality photograph, especially one you’ve taken yourself, also creates a sense of professionalism and cuts down on the stock photo white noise.
Have some integrity
Sometimes it can be tough getting images to fit into the white space of a slide. It can be awfully tempting to grab a corner and stretch the photo vertically a little bit, or blow it up to 150% to get it to fit just right. But in doing so, the image’s integrity is ruined. Skewing, stretching, squishing, or any other manner of destructive image editing greatly reduces the quality of images, making them appear disproportionate or blurry. Rather than using the previously mentioned methods, get creative by cropping the image, adding a border, or re-arranging your assets to get the photo to fit. If you try those methods and the image still refuses to fit into your layout, it’s best to simply find a new image that better suits the area you have to work with. Your users will thank you!