Visual Design: A Crash Course

Posted by Katelind Hays on Jul 19, 2016 12:59:31 PM
Katelind Hays
Visual Instructional Design Approach

BYTE Session Recap 

Science has shown that we are visual creatures, and when it comes to learning, the most effective lessons take advantage of that preference. Recently, InSync Training’s friend, Connie Malamed, creator of The eLearning Coach, joined our BYTE session roster and shared a crash course in visual design. Connie drew the subject matter from her book, Visual Design Solutions: Principles and Creative Inspiration for Learning Professionals.   

This blog post will provide background into the concept of visual design, and seven key points about how to use it in your next instructional design. To review Connie’s full presentation, including insight into the necessity and importance of visual graphics in eLearning, manuals, job aids, and advertising, click here.

What Is Visual Design and Why Use It?

Connie defined visual design as, “the arrangement of visuals and text in a graphic space.” As learning professionals, we should keep this approach in mind whenever we are creating learning for our audience. Why? Connie explained that “our brain’s cortex devotes 50% to the processing of visual information,  more than any other sense…research says that visuals capture our attention, aid recall, and improve understanding.” The picture superiority effect further explains the idea that we have a better memory for pictures than for words.

Connie expounded on the importance of visual design by comparing how our brains process text, as opposed to pictures, with the following example:

“We read text serially, one word after the other. For example, if we read a description about the different parts of a diamond, we are reading the description one word after the other (one piece at a time). If we show a visual of the parts of the diamond, you see the image of the diamond and then the separate parts pointed out.”

Basically, the visual representation helps us process more information at once, and allows our brains to recall it more easily.

Seven Key Points of Visual Design

Including visual design elements in your learning modules doesn’t require a degree in graphic design. Instead, we can follow Connie’s seven key points to make our designs more aesthetically pleasing.

Point 1: Align your design.

Take your audience, content, and the flavor of your organization into consideration when thinking about your design. The design needs to be appropriate for each of these areas of consideration. Connie’s article, How to Write a Visual Style Guide for eLearning, provides direction on how to create a visual theme for your design.

Point 2: Organize your graphic space.

When working with graphics and text, leave sufficient space in your designs that is not occupied by visuals or text.  Connie says to think of it like an office, “a messy office is unappealing, while a clean, organized office is easier to work in.” The same applies to visual learning. Make it crisp, uncluttered, and balanced.

Point 3: Consider all of your image options.

We have so many options when it comes to the images we include in our visual design: full color, black and white, line drawings, silhouettes, etc. You can hire a freelance illustrator, or manipulate images yourself.  If you’re feeling overwhelmed, websites like and can guide you in this process.

Point 4: Simplify your fonts.

When designing with words and letters, keep in mind that fonts have personalities.  People have an intuitive sense of the level of formality associated with a typeface. The key is to align your font with the purpose of your design. Connie recommends finding a single typeface with multiple styles. It will allow you to stick with one typeface while still selecting the style most appropriate to your current lesson.

Point 5: Use harmonious color.  

Color evokes more emotion than any other design element. However, color is really tricky. Everyone sees colors differently, and they display differently on every monitor.  Consider using a color wheel that includes all the available tints and shades. Connie shared that she uses a color wheel to pick one or two base colors, a couple of accent colors, and a few neutral colors to act as the palate she uses for a project.  

Point 6: Create a visual hierarchy.

When someone sees a slide they can be looking all over the place, you as the designer have the power to show them what to look at first, second, third.  You can establish a visual hierarchy through image position, size, color, visual cue, and numbers.

Point 7: Transform bullet points to visuals.

Bulleted lists are essentially okay to use, but screen after screen of bulleted lists gets dull quickly.  Connie provided a number of ways to transform your lists, including placing text inside shapes, or creating a panel view with key points.

Additional Resources

In addition to watching her full BYTE presentation, Connie suggested the following resources to help you build your visual design skills:

Websites for illustrator resources:

Sites that allow you to manipulate images and graphics:

Topics: Virtual Classroom - Instructional Design, Virtually There