• Mark Gash

5 steps to successful creative design in your online courses

In previous blogs, we’ve talked about how to structure courses with clear learning aims and outcomes. We’ve looked at ways to deliver and host your courses, whether that be on a dedicated LMS or other platforms. However, one significant part of creating an online course that often gets overlooked or rushed is creative design.



If you’re a Subject Matter Expert in theoretical time travel, it’s understandable that you aren’t also a graphic designer - if I had the knowledge to travel back to 1955 and see my parents, I probably wouldn’t bother learning how to use Photoshop and InDesign either. The problem is, no matter how technically structured I make my course on Flux Capacitors, it’s all for nought if my students/trainees/Marty McFly fall asleep after trudging through the first wall of text they come across.


On the flip-side, you might be completely in touch with your creative side and fill your courses with all manner of WordArt, ClipArt, drop shadow and pastel pink backgrounds, topped off with some choice fonts in the form of Papyrus, Comic Sans and Jokerman.


If either of the above personas sounds like you, please read on for some top tips in creative design that won’t send your audience running for the hills (or Hill Valley).


1) Layout

We’re going to start with layout because before your students start to focus on the fonts or images, they’re going to be hit with the overall look of the screen. Imagine your bedroom with no drawers or wardrobes. You’d have to dump all of your clothes on the floor, like a student in shared accommodation. Nobody would want to set foot in your room and you wouldn’t be able to find important things like your phone or clean underpants. Similarly, if you just dump all of your course information on a page, it’s going to look messy and nobody will be able to find the important points that are buried there. You need drawers and wardrobes in a bedroom, just as you need logical “storage” for the info in your course layout.


Plan out your page or screen. Think clean thoughts and don’t overcrowd - clutter is bad. Use your course structure and draw out headings and key points. Let text breathe with lots of space and don’t be afraid to run onto multiple screens - this is digital and you aren’t wasting paper.


My personal preference when coming up with a layout is for white backgrounds and to let the other design elements inform the style; choice fonts and colours with strong imagery that relates to your subject matter.

2) Images

So you’ve created a clean, well-spaced layout for your text and left spaces to drop in some images - what images are you going to use?


There are 2 types of images when thinking about your course - specific and generic. Specific images show something that relates directly to the content of your course. If your text is talking about a time-travelling DeLorean, then a specific image will show a DeLorean decked out with a flux-capacitor and a Mr Fusion.

If you don’t have this image, then you might instead use a generic photo of something that could represent time travel. Stock photo websites allow you to download royalty free images from photographers and illustrators - there’s usually a subscription fee to pay or you may need to credit the copyright holder wherever you use the image.


Illustration v photography

Leading on from the above, you could consider illustration in lieu of photography. Illustrations almost always fit into the generic category of images, as an illustrative style is only ever an interpretive representation of a real object or scenario. If you want your audience to concentrate on the lesson and not get too hung up on the details of your image, then illustration may be the way to go.


For example, if I say that Marty McFly wore a Hazmat suit and I showed a generic photo of a hazmat suit, people might raise the point that the one in my image isn’t the same as the one in the film. If however, I use an illustration of a hazmat suit, people are more forgiving as they understand that illustrations aren’t an exact match for reality.


Image size and quality

Finally, consider the size and quality of any images you use. This is in terms of physical size - you don’t want an image to take over your whole page or screen - as well as file size - you don’t want somebody using a mobile data connection to waste their monthly allowance downloading 15 giant 28MB images of Back to the Future.


Remember that the smaller you make your file size, the more this affects the quality of the image due to data compression. Therefore, use small to medium size images, saved out at a medium file size. If you can keep each supporting image to under 1000px and 300kb, you’ll be fine. Header images will probably run to a larger size, as they typically fit to the width of the page.


3) Colours

Your colour palette might be determined by your brand guidelines. If this is the case, then you should follow whatever rules are set by your employers. However, if you’ve been given free rein over your colours, take a few deep breaths before you start throwing out every shade of the rainbow.


Try to restrict yourself to 2 main colours - one for headings and one for body copy. Your headings are usually a larger or bolder typeface, so you can afford for it to be a bit brighter. Body copy on a white background needs to be a darker tone. If you’ve ignored my advice above and gone for a dark page background, then white body text is your friend.


Don’t restrict the use of colour to your text - use the same colours for boxes, break lines and any graphical flourishes you might want to incorporate.


There may be parts of your course that need a little extra highlighting - you can do this with an accent colour. Use this for buttons or call-outs.

In the example below we have a cyan header, a navy body copy and a bright yellow accent colour.

4) Fonts

….or typefaces? There is a difference, which I won’t go into here but these guys do if you’re interested. Rightly or wrongly, the digital world seems to have settled on the term font, so don’t worry if you mix them up. We mentioned the use of fonts in the section above and I’m going to suggest roughly the same guidelines as we do for colour - pick 2. If you wish, you can use a decorative typeface for your headings but don’t go too wild so that it detracts from the content of your text or becomes illegible. Always choose a clean, easy-to-read typeface for your body copy so that you aren’t hurting anyone’s eyes as they read. Unless I had a real urge for a decorative heading, I would choose the same typeface family for both but alter the heading weight to bold and up the point size.

Again, fonts are usually something dictated in an organisation’s brand guidelines, so your hands may be tied on the matter.

Consistency

This final point is more of a check to ensure that you’ve followed all of the points above. If you’ve spaced out your page, added a good mix of images, stuck to a limited colour palette and only used a couple of fonts, then your page or screen should have a consistent look and feel from the header to the footer. The trick is to replicate this across all screens of your course so that all the parts come together to make an aesthetically pleasing whole.


If your course currently looks a complete mess, go back and check through the points above. Alternatively, get in touch with adaptiVLE and we will be happy to sort you out.

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