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Why Visuals Matter in Course Design

Updated: Feb 12, 2022

The importance of visuals in course design cannot be overstated. Most instructional designers and educators don't have a background in art and design. So, it can be easy for those teaching and designing courses to overlook the importance of visual design, often to the class's detriment. People look to visuals as their first impression of legitimacy. Graphic designers know this better than anyone. There is a reason why companies pay a premium to these visual pros to communicate trust and reliability to their customers through product and brand design. Learning is no different. Not only can a course with poor visual design communicate a lack of validity to the learner, but in e-learning, it can also make a class challenging to navigate, as visuals signal how we are intended to move through the content.

I realize that as an artist and designer myself, I am thoroughly biased on this topic. For this reason, I will organize this post around critical statistics about how humans perceive visual information and offer some guidance on how to get the visuals right, even if you have no training in art and design.

90 percent of information transmitted to the brain is visual.

This is significant, and if educators and instructional designers aren't leveraging this fact, they are missing a huge opportunity to engage their learners.

Visuals are committed to long-term memory.

Words are only processed in our short-term memory. So, to ensure that learners store information in their long-term memory, we need to pair concepts with meaningful images.

Visuals are processed 60,000X faster in the brain than text.

Time is a limited resource in the classroom, and there never seems to be enough of it. Using visuals can help us ensure that our students are grasping concepts more quickly and more firmly.

65 percent of the population are visual learners.

Given this statistic, it is likely that many learners in any given course are visual learners. By meaningfully incorporating visuals, educators and instructional designers are directly reaching this large demographic, in addition to reaping all of the benefits of the statistics mentioned above.

Clearly, visual design is essential, but how can those teaching and designing courses with no background in art and design ensure they incorporate good visual design? Here are some tips:


Good visual design utilizes an economy of imagery to get the message across clearly and efficiently. Don't overdo it with too many colors, fonts, images, or animations. Choose images that use visual shorthand for straightforward and efficient communication.

Be consistent

One of the cardinal sins of visual design is inconsistency. Not only does it look bad, but it creates visual confusion. Before you start producing your design, choose one to two fonts and an appropriate color palette and use them consistently. When choosing illustrations or photos, try to choose images with a similar style that aligns with the tone you have set with your color and font choices.


We can use images to great effect to clarify complex information. Our brains are pre-wired to interpret relationships between objects. We can leverage this fact to create visuals that uncomplicate that which sounds complicated in words.


Direct the learner's gaze to essential information through visual emphasis. Emphasis can be achieved using scale where the largest visual is perceived as most important, creating a visual path that leads to what is most essential or contrasting the most critical information from all other information through a color change.

It is important to remember that since visuals are so powerful in the learning process, they can negatively impact learning if we don't implement them in a meaningful way. Choosing poor-quality images or simply adding visuals for the sake of adding visuals is always a bad idea. Students subconsciously try to determine the message and purpose of the image, and they lose trust if they find none. Visual design is essential for effective and engaging courses. I guarantee that any time invested in building this skill is time well spent for educators.

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