Graphic design in eLearning – Why does it matter?

There are a lot of different views in the eLearning community about how much graphic design really matters when creating online interactive learning experiences. Some of the arguments against the need for good, well thought out graphic design include ‘I’m not a Graphic Designer, I’m an Instructional Designer’ and ‘As long as the user learns and processes the information, why does it matter what it looks like?’ I’m going to argue in this blog post that graphic design really does matter.  A lot. Far more than many eLearning developers think it does.

For me, a professional eLearning developer can’t be successful without a good, up to date knowledge of graphic design. It is an integral part of the process of designing and developing an online learning experience.

You might be a developer who is part of a large team of designers, front-end and back-end web developers, copy writers, and editors, and so every part of the development of online learning content is delegated amongst many people. However, for most eLearning developers, you’ll be working in a much smaller team, if not alone. Even if you work in a large team, having no knowledge or appreciation for graphic design is a dangerous world to live in.

How do you define ‘knowledge of graphic design’ anyway?

We’ve all seen poor graphic design, but how do we know it’s poor?



Sadly not all ‘poor’ graphic design is this obvious. Plus this image just looks very dated (verging on retro?) But you can at least read the text. And the message is clear.

Bad design in eLearning is often far more subtle than this.  Compare these two images of eLearning interfaces:



Which is better graphic design? Let’s examine this using a variety of themes.


This is key when it comes to designing your eLearning. What looks visually appealing will go in phases. Just as you think you’ve got a grip on what’s ‘fashionable’ when it comes to graphics, it will gradually change, leaving your work looking dated. Keeping up with design trends is something that eLearning developers must do. An easy example of this is ‘flat’ design which has become increasingly popular. Getting rid of gradients, shadows and unnecessary detail in graphics is now giving eLearning a cleaner, simpler look. The bottom image shows off this trend perfectly. Block colour shapes and a simpler appearance gives the user a better overview of the information. The top image gives the user all of the information in a small font on about a third of the screen.

User processing

The user processes information depending on how it is laid out. The frightful ‘wall of text’ shown in the first image, which is the easy way to present information to the user, is not going to give the user any understanding of which information is important, and which information follows on from this. It also makes the information difficult to learn, as the user is not presented with any visual representation of the information. The second image gives the user a visual representation. They can get the same information, but it is presented in a way which enables them to create a visual memory. Visually remembering information is thought to be a far stronger way of processing than simply reading words on a screen (reference). This is why infographs have recently become so popular – they allow the person reading them to prioritise the information and visualise it in their own minds.


Oh no, not gamification again. You may be as sick as the rest of us of this buzz word, but the reality is that people become addicted to games because they activate something in our minds which motivates us. ELearning has the reputation of being on the dull side at the best of times, so making the user want to participate is one of our biggest challenges. Even that dull health and safety module which everyone needs to complete can be turned into a game. What’s this got to do with graphic design? Everything, actually. Of those two images above, which one looks more like a fun game? The second, of course. In fact it even looks a bit like a board game. Either way, it looks as if the user needs to engage with it to get information. Design plays a key role in this.

In summary, we all know what looks like really great, inspiring eLearning, and what looks a bit old and dull. Perhaps putting our finger on why has more to do with graphic design than we initially thought.

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