Design space

Design tips for instructional designers

In eLearning Basics, eLearning Design by Fran.Heathorn

These days a job ad for an instructional designer doesn’t just list the requisite skills of working alongside SMEs and structuring courses from a variety of complex source materials. Since the advent of more user friendly authoring tools, it likely also has design and development requirements. Traditional instructional designers would once have expected to hand over development to qualified designers and developers to take care of.

Personally I have come the other way to instructional design, with a graphic/motion design background. I have had much to learn about adult learning theory and drawing out just the most relevant information from SMEs who tend to have more knowledge than an eLearning course can handle.
For the benefit of the many instructional designers with no formal visual design training, I’ve put together this list of 10 design tips for instructional designers.

  • Colour

    Colour is a wonderful thing, but a classic mistake is to use too many different ones without implementing rules about when to use which. Less is more with colour. Too much variety will look messy and confusing. Decide on a colour pallet, using a maximum of four colours, with one dominant colour. Often this will be pre-determined by the corporate style guide for your company or the client you are working with. Stick with it through the whole course and be consistent. Try to use the colours to help the learner categorize and make mental links between items.

Colour Use in Design

  • Text

    Same as with colours, there is a temptation to go nuts with fonts because of the variety available.
    Restrict yourself to one or two and don’t mix serif with sans serif as a rule. This will keep the page looking tidy and avoid adding to the user’s cognitive load. Consistency with font sizes is also important, try to stick to the same font size for the same type of text. For example, decide on the size for the main heading, sub heading and paragraph text. If you have a series of popup windows on the same page, make sure the text is always aligned in the same way. Any differences alert the attention of the user and distract their focus from the message you are trying to convey.

Font Use in Design


  • Repetition

    Repeating elements is a handy trick to create a nice quick layout. As with a musical motif, each repetition reinforces the last, making it more deliberate and familiar.

Repetition in Design

  • Alignment

    Try to visualise your page as a grid and keep top layer assets (text, pictures or video in boxes) within the gridlines. This doesn’t apply to background or large images and shapes, you can be creative with those. If you are aligning several different shaped or sized objects, decide how they are going to relate to each other and treat them all the same: either centrally aligned, or aligned to their collective outside or inside edges.
    Alignment is not just important within a slide, but from slide to slide too. Make sure the title and first paragraph always appear in the same place. Popup windows and close buttons should always have the same size and position. Sticking to this rule ensures the user does waste their concentration on trying to navigate, or be distracted by uneven lines or things appearing to jump around as they move through the course.

Alignment in Design

  • Use the whole available space

    Go right to the edges with blocks of colour or larger images in the background. This will anchor the floating layout items like text boxes and smaller images and make the page feel more solid.
    Make images as big as possible within the restraints of your layout. If you can’t see it properly there is no point in having it.

Use all available design space

  • Consider the physicality of objects on the page.

    Larger, darker items we associate in the physical world with more weight and so ‘feel’ better at the base of the layout.
    Similarly, lighter smaller items rise to the top. Since we read from left to right, you can apply the same principle horizontally – ‘heavier’ items to the right.

Physicality in Design

  • Consider the motion and focus of the viewer’s gaze.

    Typically, the viewer reads left to right, top to bottom, but you can play with this to emphasise important messages. Most obviously, if you have a character on the slide looking or pointing at something it will direct attention that way. Same applies with arrows, or chevrons. More detail in one area will make the eye linger in that spot for longer. A single bright, high contrast object on an otherwise bland page will have a similar attention drawing effect.
    Of course with eLearning authoring tools you also have time to utilize. When you put the slide together, start from the final layout and remove items working backwards from there. Allow the design to build up through animation in a logical progression. This will subvert the usual reading order of the page and you can really focus the viewer’s attention on specific points as the visuals appear.Motion in Design

  • Proportions

    Certain mathematical proportions, such as the golden section or one over the square root of two, are pleasing to us because they occur frequently in nature. Taking these as a starting point can be a quick way to layout a grid on a blank page to base a new design on.Proportions in Design

  • Break out of the box

    Cut out photos or illustrations placed in different shapes or over a background image will break the monotony of pictures in boxes and add interest to the out of the box

  • De-clutter your page

    Minimise onscreen text to just the essential points. To free up space on the page, consider breaking down the information to bite-sized chunks that appear only on click of an associated element. Think about the message the slide is trying to convey and remove anything that is not relevant to it. By doing this you will remove some of the cognitive load of sorting through extraneous information and ensure the message is clear.De-clutter your Design

The availability of graphic design and authoring tools makes visual design and eLearning creation more and more accessible. Choose a smaller number of tools and following the guidelines in this article, become an expert using them.

Subscribe to our eLearning Newsletter!

Join the over 5,000 eLearning professionals who read our newsletter every month.