Using Visuals

The human brain can comprehend visual content much faster than text-based content, so choosing visual elements to illustrate a concept is just as important as using high-quality words to explain it. Vivid imagery has the power to spark the interest of learners, motivating them to pay attention and increasing their ability to retain information.


Unfortunately, in the world of learning and development, the value of visual communication is often overlooked. Instructional designers with tight deadlines, strict budgets, and limited graphic design skills often prioritize words over pictures without realizing the cost of doing so. Adopting a few best practices of visual communication will help you create a visual narrative that leaves a lasting impression on your audience.

Enhance rather than distract.

Visual design is most effective when it is hardly noticed at all. Graphical elements should never be the “star of the show” but should instead work quietly to reinforce the training message and give context for the concepts. When you use background patterns and supporting images to fill the space without considering how they support the learning objectives, you may divert the learner’s focus from the content itself. Instead, embrace a content-first design approach that prioritizes the delivery of valuable information, which, in turn, influences the visual design decisions.

Simplify and declutter.

E-learning screens cluttered with tiny text boxes and a jumble of graphics only serve to confuse learners, exhausting them before they even attempt to learn something meaningful. As instructional designers, we are trained to chunk text into smaller sections to improve readability and make the content feel more manageable. Apply the same strategy as you selectively choose the best images and leave sufficient white space. Remember, white space does not have to be white; any empty space free of elements offers the mind a moment to breathe.

Point it out.

Learners naturally perceive the importance of concepts based on the order in which they see them. When every piece of content on the screen is treated identically, each element demands the same amount of attention, and the learner has no idea what to tackle first. Bolded text, increased size, significant white space, and contrasting colors can be employed to channel the learner toward the “must know” information. You can also utilize the page layout to define a visual hierarchy that directs the learner’s focus—first to the key concepts, and then to other essential information. Take advantage of the fact that learners’ eyes naturally scan the screen from top to bottom and left to right by placing the hierarchy of content in the same pattern.

Tell a story.

Images have the power to evoke emotions and engage the senses. Pairing images with words creates a visual narrative that connects the learner with the subject matter and drives a deeper engagement with the content. Might you choose images that make the learner laugh? Feel empathy? Recall childhood memories? Crave a sweet treat? Learners quickly interpret and form their own opinions about what they see, so it is imperative that you choose visuals that accurately reflect the brand identity and training message. Experiment with filters and cropping within basic photo-editing software to communicate certain emotions and to establish uniformity throughout a course.

Know your audience.

Learners want to know that the learning experience will be relevant and helpful to them. When you choose images that feel familiar and create personas with characteristics like theirs (age, industry, culture, etc.), they can see themselves reflected in the course. For example, if your audience is comprised of medical professionals, the images should reflect hospital environments, medical scrubs, and patient care, rather than typical corporate scenes or industrial work.

Pay attention to details.

Just as a small grammatical error can distract a learner as they read, a pixelated photo or an off-kilter column can also direct attention away from the key message and undermine your credibility. Starting your design with a template or a style guide provides a foundation upon which you can ensure a visual sophistication that inspires confidence in your learning and development program. To create a cohesive learning experience, check for proper alignment, consistent shadow styles, and predefined color schemes. However, keep in mind that sometimes there are good reasons to make an exception to the rules.