Graphic Design Tips for eLearning: 25 Fundamental Techniques

Instructional Design Basics Image

Looking for something you can do to create more effective learning experiences for your workers? Experiences in which the workers really learn and then transfer that learning to the workplace? We all are, right?

One of the easiest things you can do to help your workers learn is to create better training visuals that are well-conceived and designed. In fact, research shows that you can use better training visuals to dramatically increase your learner’s comprehension, retention, and transfer of behaviors to the workplace—and that’s especially true for “novice” learners who are new to a particular content area.

Want to know why this is true? Want to learn some techniques to help you learn how to design great training materials? Sure you do! Just keep reading (and looking at the example visuals, of course) to learn more. We’ve got some great graphic design tips for elearning for you below–for any type of training, really.

Why Do I Need Graphic Design Tips for eLearning (or other training)?

Well, let’s look at some reasons.

Better Training Visuals Improve Learning

So, first things first. Why is learning increased when the training materials include relevant visuals?

According to the well-accepted Dual Coding Theory, originally proposed by Allan Paivio, the brain has two separate systems for processing information. There’s one system for processing language (sometimes called the “verbal” system) and a second system for processing visual images. The brain can process information from both incoming “streams” at once, and the two streams of information work to support one another.

Well-designed training materials include information in both formats—language and visuals. And this leads to great training materials.

Do ALL Visuals Make Training Materials More Effective?

Although adding visuals to your training materials CAN increase their effectiveness, that doesn’t mean they ALWAYS do. For example, there are at least four cases in which adding visuals can decrease the effectiveness of the training. These are:

  • Adding a completely unrelated visual for purely decorate purposes—for example, adding a clip-art picture of a smiling sun in the corner of a PowerPoint presentation about hazard communication.
  • Adding a marginally related visual that does not directly support the learning objectives but seems “interesting”—for example, adding an image of a diamond wedding ring to training materials designed to teach proper mining techniques.
  • Adding so many images that the learner’s working memory is overloaded, or adding visuals that otherwise detract from the learning experience—for more on this, see the Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning by Richard Mayer.
  • Redundantly creating materials for both of the brain’s processing systems (see above) that compete with one another for the brain’s limited processing power—again, see the Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning by Richard Mayer for more on this.

So, it pays to know something about visuals and how they affect learning. And we’ll present some ideas on that below.

Here They Are: Create Better Training Materials with these Graphic Design Tips for eLearning

Now that you know that visuals can improve your training materials, wouldn’t it be great if you had some more helpful tips for creating those visuals? Well, that’s exactly what we’ve got for you—25 specific graphic techniques that you can use when creating your visuals for maximum training power.

The techniques listed below are drawn from the excellent book Visual Language for Designers by Connie Malamed.

visual-language-for-designers book image

We thank Malamed for the work she put into her book and we encourage you to read it cover to cover yourself (buy a copy here). You can also check out her blog, the eLearning Coach, for lots more great stuff from her.

But what are those graphic design techniques, you ask? We’ll cover all 25 shortly, but you’ll see that they fit into the following six categories:

  • Organizing visuals so the viewer will quickly and easily perceive the important elements–Use features that “pop out,” different textures to draw attention, and group items within the visual
  • Directing the viewer’s attention to the most important elements–Position elements within the visual, emphasize elements, make use of movement (or the appearance of movement), direct the eyes of the viewer, and provide visual cues
  • Using simplified visuals as that are easier to process mentally–Reduce visual noise, use silhouetted figures, make use of icons, incorporate line art, and let a single item represent larger numbers of the same item
  • Making abstract or obscure concepts easier to understand–Present the big-picture view, create easy-to-understand visualizations of data or other forms of information, use maps, and design visuals that include time as an element
  • Making complex, complicated information easier to understand–Present information visually in segments and/or sequences, use special views the human eye can’t normally see, and use the structure of a graphic to help reinforce the graphic’s intended meaning
  • Using emotions, storytelling, surprise, and humor to increase attention and learning–Add emotional elements to visuals, use visual storytelling techniques, create visual metaphors, and incorporate unexpected and/or humorous elements

Still curious? If so, read on, because we’ve provided 25 explanations and examples of graphic design techniques you can use to design great training materials. As mentioned earlier, the ideas are drawn from the book by Connie Malamed. The visual examples are drawn from training courses created by Convergence Training.

First Tip: Make it Easy to Find the Important Parts of the Visual

One way designers can use visuals to increase the effectiveness of training materials is to organize and present the different items on-screen in a way that makes it easier for the viewer to recognize and “pull out” the desired information. Three techniques for doing that are using features that “pop out,” using textures to separate items, and grouping items.

Use Features that Pop Out

Visual elements that “pop out” grab our brain’s conscious attention. Items on-screen may pop out for a number of reasons, including their size, color, shape, orientation on-screen, and more. For example, in the image below taken from a course on preventing back injuries, the yellow highlight on the spinal column makes it pop out from the rest of the image. This effectively draws the viewer’s attention to the spine as the audio narration speaks about the spine.

Design great training materials: Features that Pop image

Create Better Training Visuals Example: Features that Pop

Image taken from course: Back Injury Prevention
Course library: Health and Safety

Now let’s look at a second example taken from a course on crane and hoist rigging. This image of the “sling angle” used in rigging uses a highlight to draw the viewer’s attention to the angle created by the sling—and that’s what the audio narration is talking about at the same time.

eLearning Graphic Design Example Image

Design great training materials: Features that Pop

Image taken from course: Crane and Hoist Rigging Safety
Course library: Equipment Safety

Use Textures

One of the first things our brain does to group the items in a visual into related units is to analyze the visual texture. Designers can use texture to guide the viewer to recognize and focus on important items on-screen, to separate the foreground and the background, and to provide a sense of depth.

For example, consider the image below, taken from a course on crane, hoists, and rigging. It uses three different textures to effectively represent the blank background, the core at the center of the wire rope, and the strands that surround that core. That makes it easy for the viewer to focus their attention as the audio discusses the different parts of the wire rope.

Create Better Training Visuals Example: Using Texture Image

Create Better Training Visuals Example: Using Texture

Image taken from course: Wire Rope Basics
Course library
: Operations & Maintenance

Or, in this example, taken from a course on slips, trips, and falls, texture helps to draw the viewer’s attention to the cracked and uneven surface of the broken concrete, which presents a tripping hazard.

Design great training materials: Using Texture Image

Create Better Training Visuals Example: Using Texture

Image taken from course: Slips, Trips, and Falls
Course library: Health and Safety

Group Items

One effective tip is to arrange items on-screen in ways that suggest they are associated with one another. Designers can do this by placing items near one another in space-or next to one another in time if it’s a video. They can also do this by representing items with the same or similar shapes and textures, or by arranging items to form a symmetrical figure. Likewise, items that don’t have these elements in common tend to look unrelated to one another.

For example, this image of the “pictograms” required by OSHA’s new Hazard Communication 2012 standard clearly suggests that the eight images on-screen, represented in similar shapes and textures and arranged to form a symmetrical shape, are all associated.

Design great training materials: Grouping Items Image

Create Better Training Visuals Example: Grouping Items

Image taken from course: Hazard Communication 2012 (GHS Alignment)
Course library: Hazardous Materials

In our second example, taken from a course on trenching and excavation safety, the arrows are grouped on-screen and colored to draw the viewer’s attention and to illustrate a point. The grouped red arrows on either side of the trench represent the gravitational force that could lead to a cave-in, while the grouped green arrows represent the shoring used to prevent a cave-in.

Design great training materials: Grouping Items Image

Create Better Training Visuals Example: Grouping Items

Image taken from course: Trenching and Excavation Safety
Course library: Health and Safety

Let’s review. We just covered three ways how to design great training materials with elements that immediately grab your workers’ pre-conscious attention. They are:

  • Creating elements that “pop”
  • Using texture
  • Grouping items

These techniques make it easier for your learners to quickly focus their attention and draw out meaning when they first glance at a visual. Using them in your training materials will help your learners understand and remember more.

Second Tip: Direct the Learner’s Eyes and Attention

Another way visuals designers can effectively use visuals in training materials is to direct the viewer’s eyes to the important parts of the screen or, as Malamed says in her book, “through the structure of the graphic.” Five ways to do that are to use position, emphasis, movement, eye gaze, and visual cues. We’ll look at each below.

Position Items within the Visual For a Reason

A designer can use the boundaries of the visual to create a “frame,” and then place visual elements within that frame in a manner that guides the learner’s eyes through a path or sequence and/or gives hints about what is the most important element on-screen.

For example, consider the image below from a course that explains how to perform a job hazards analysis. It takes advantage of the eye’s natural tendency to read from top to bottom and left to right to create a “visual hierarchy” of information. In the top left, we learn we’re analyzing the “What?” of the JHA’s four-step “Where?/What?/How?/Consequences” sequence, and as our eyes scan to the right, we see that the sharp blade is an example of the “What?” that defines the hazard.

how to design great training materials: Using Position Image

Create Better Training Visuals Example: Using Position

Image taken from course: Job Hazards Analysis (JHA)
Course library: Health and Safety

Now let’s look at a second example, taken from a course on ergonomics. The worker’s spine is located directly in the center of the image, making it easy for the learner to focus on the risks of working in awkward postures.

Design great training materials: Using Position Image

Create Better Training Visuals Example: Using Position

Image taken from course: Ergonomics for Industrial Environments
Course library: Safety and Health

Emphasize Items

Another way to direct the viewer’s attention is by using emphasis. Malamed notes that the artist can do this by varying size, tone, color, texture, shape, and more.

For example, the image below, taken from a course about emergency action plans, uses the contrasting colors of yellow and green to emphasize the importance of knowing the best way to evacuate your work area in the event of an emergency.

Design great training materials: Adding Emphasis Image

Create Better Training Visuals Example: Adding Emphasis

Image taken from course: Emergency Action Plans
Course library: Safety and Health

Or, in this example, taken from a course on fall prevention and protection, the red color of the scaffolding creates contrast with the blue background of the glass building, immediately directing the learner’s eyes and attention to the scaffold and its position “at height.”

Design great training materials: Adding Emphasis Image

Create Better Training Visuals Example: Adding Emphasis

Image taken from course: Fall Prevention and Protection
Course library: Safety and Health

Add a Sense of Movement

Yet another way to direct the viewer’s attention is through the use of “movement” in the image. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to use animation (though that can be useful), but that the image conveys a sense of movement. This can be done with repetition, lines, curves, three-dimensional depth, and other techniques.

For example, the arrows in the image below effectively explain the motion of the parts within a pump and the motion of the fluid through the line and the pump itself.

Design great training materials: Adding a Sense of Movement Image

Create Better Training Visuals Example: Adding a Sense of Movement

Image taken from course: Pump Basics
Course library: Operations and Maintenance

The image below, which explains the “lay” of a wire rope, doesn’t show active motion but does show the related concept of direction. The image is from a course explaining wire ropes, in particular from a discussion about the lay of a rope. Wire rope can have a right lay, in which the strands are wrapped to the right around a central core, or it can have a left lay, in which the strands are wrapped to the left. The arrow in the image effectively communicates the direction of the wrap, and therefore the rope’s “lay.”

Design great training materials: Adding a Sense of Movement Image

Create Better Training Visuals Example: Adding a Sense of Movement

Image taken from course: Wire Rope
Course library
: Equipment Safety

The same concept can be used to show a process. For example, the image below, taken from a course on chemical process safety management, arranges the different elements in a job process within a straight line to help demonstrate their sequence within the process and the concept of a process in general.

Design great training materials: Adding a Sense of Movement Image

Create Better Training Visuals Example: Adding a Sense of Movement

Image taken from course: Process Safety Management (PSM)
Course library: Hazardous Materials

And our final example, taken from a course on line breaking, the use of three-dimensional representation is one of the techniques used draw attention to the pipe in the foreground. (Pop quiz—how many other techniques can you notice in this one image?)

Design great training materials: Adding a Sense of Movement Image

Create Better Training Visuals Example: Adding a Sense of Movement

Image taken from course: Line Breaking Safety
Course library: Health and Safety

Use “Onscreen Eyes” to Direct the Eyes of the Learner

Another trick of the trade is to use eyes within the image to direct the attention of the viewer’s eyes. Specifically, a designer can draw attention directly to an eye (or eyes) within the image, or direct attention in the direction that a person within the image is looking.

For example, this image from a course on first aid at the work place uses the man’s eyes to direct the viewer’s attention to his hand, where an amputation injury has occurred. You probably noticed this same technique in the line-breaking graphic during the pop quiz just above, no?

Design great training materials: Using Onscreen Eyes to Direct Viewer's Attention Image

Create Better Training Visuals Example: Using Onscreen Eyes to Direct Viewer’s Attention

Image taken from course: First Aid for Common Injuries
Course library
: First Aid

Or, in this example, taken from a course on fire safety, the man’s eyes help to direct our attention to the fire extinguisher on the wall.

Design great training materials: Using Onscreen Eyes to Direct Viewer's Attention Image

Create Better Training Visuals Example: Using Onscreen Eyes to Direct Viewer’s Attention

Image taken from course: Fire Safety
Course library: Safety and Health

Add Visual “Cues” to Direct the Viewer’s Attention

A final method for directing the viewer’s eyes—and their attention—is to use visual cues. These cues can include arrows, color, highlights, captions. For example, this image from a course on valves uses a line, color, and caption to help explain which part of a valve is the bonnet.

Design great training materials: Using Visual Cues Images

Create Better Training Visuals Example: Using Visual Cues

Image taken from course: Valve Performance
Course library: Operations and Maintenance

Or, in this example, taken from a course that explains how doctor blades work in the process of making paper, the yellow lines below draw the viewer’s attention to the angle between a large drum and the doctor blade (this angle affects the amount that the paper coming off the drum is “crumpled,” more correctly known as creping).

Design great training materials: Using Visual Cues Image

Create Better Training Visuals Example: Using Visual Cues

Image taken from course: Yankee Dryer Creping Basics
Course library: Pulp, Paper, Tissue, and Corrugated Board

There you have it. Five ways to direct the viewer’s attention to the most important elements of a visual. They were:

  • Using position
  • Using emphasis
  • Incorporating movement
  • Directing the eye gas of the viewer
  • Adding visual cues

Training visuals that use these techniques really boost the end result—changing your workers’ on-the-job behaviors.

Third Tip: Use Simplified Visuals to Ease Comprehension

In her book, Malamed discusses the importance of simplifying images in order to increase comprehension and retention. Simpler visuals allow

Jeff Dalto, Senior Learning & Performance Improvement Manager
Jeff is a learning designer and performance improvement specialist with more than 20 years in learning and development, 15+ of which have been spent working in manufacturing, industrial, and architecture, engineering & construction training. Jeff has worked side-by-side with more than 50 companies as they implemented online training. Jeff is an advocate for using evidence-based training practices and is currently completing a Masters degree in Organizational Performance and Workplace Learning from Boise State University. He writes the Vector Solutions | Convergence Training blog and invites you to connect with him on LinkedIn.

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