Make It Beautiful: Keys to Good Aesthetics and Graphics that Can Boost Engagement in Your eLearning Course

Planet eLearn Spring 2015 / by David Bush, Phil Jackson, and Anne Woods

Studies show that when it comes to online learning, appropriate, attractive visuals can boost engagement and results. It takes a learner less than 10 seconds to judge the look of a product and make a judgment on the value of the content based upon the look and feel [1].

But creating eLearning courses and trainings that visually engage audiences in ways that improve learning can be difficult. In this article, Phil Jackson and Anne Woods from Monarch Media’s design team share their thoughts on what visual design techniques make eLearning courses more effective.

Keep It Simple

One way to improve the appeal of eLearning content is to keep its look and functionality simple and clean. For example, limiting a screen to two to three fonts and assuring text is aligned correctly goes a long way in making content readable and usable.

“I like to incorporate a visual hierarchy, to help keep things simple,” says Jackson. “This includes using depth and perspective techniques to have important elements jump to the foreground while less important elements recede into the background. This helps learners know what they need to do.”

The screenshot below taken from the State of Iowa Program for Alcohol Compliance Training show how color and focus are used to create depth and cause the main subjects to stand out:

Starting with warm colors and progressing towards cool colors creates depth. The warmer colors appear closer to the viewer and the cooler colors recede to the background.
Items with different focus give depth to an image. In this example, the couple sitting at the table is in sharp focus and appears closer to the viewer, while the background is blurry, creating the illusion of focal depth.

Make It Unique

One important element in designing eLearning content is ensuring it’s relevant to the audience. A close partnership between the instructional designer and the graphic or media designer is crucial to making the visuals appropriate for the audience. The designer also needs to understand what’s unique about the audience demographics.

“On one recent project I knew that the audience was young,” reflected Jackson. “So, we went with a superhero theme and a comic book look for the design.”

Screenshot of app with comic book theme

Other strategies for making your eLearning look unique is avoiding overused stock images or characters from the course authoring software.

Shake It Up

Too many educational materials come across as predictable and obvious. To shake users out of complacency and engage them more, include design elements that are out of the ordinary.

Elements of surprise can help keep learners engaged in eLearning. “You don’t always have to make each screen look exactly the same,” says Anne Woods. “As long as you keep some level of consistency, playing with different colors or layouts can add a bit of surprise, keeping the learner engaged.” Another element of surprise could be using text and visuals that aren’t expected. For example, using scissors to cut out superfluous words and having them fall to the bottom of the screen.

Picture 1 of 2 of a project's slide with a specific format but different colors and unique graphics (lady dancing)Picture 2 of 2 of a project's slide with a specific format but different colors and unique graphics (scissors cutting words)

Adding appropriate motion into your course can also help grab the learner’s attention. One way to do this is by including parallax motion, in which still objects in the foreground move at a different rate than those in the background. For example, if you’re looking out the window of a moving train, the objects closer to the train will pass by quickly, whereas the background scenery will move by more slowly. Using parallax can introduce a sense of motion and help the learner to focus on important parts of the visual. Using parallax by animating parts of a still photo can help focus the learner on important parts of the visual.

It can take more effort to make good design a central part of your eLearning offerings. But the payback in learner engagement, loyalty, and use make it a worthwhile investment.


[1] David, Alicia & Glore, Peyton (2010) Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, University of West Georgia. Retrieved from