In recent years, emerging technologies that enable instructional designers to integrate previously unheard of elements into training, such as augmented reality and certain game components, are causing a shift in the industry from a more rapid development paradigm to a new focus on interactivity and engagement for learners. However, this new model means that developers need to have a much deeper understanding of the principles of visual design.

As instructional designers go, I am relatively new to the field. However, my background is in animation and game design, and I find that my experience with visual design is invaluable in my current work. I create online courses for students, using as much interactivity and customization as possible. I have found that a solid understanding of art and design principles is essential whether you are creating a high-budget simulation or simply adding an image to a PowerPoint slide.

Adding images to learning is vital. Images in addition to text or audio allow learners to absorb content using more than one cognitive channel. The idea is to give them more tools for learning important information that does not overwhelm them the way that dense text pages tend to do. I have seen many instructional designers become frustrated, saying that they are not artists by any means. But I believe that you do not have to be an artist to employ artistic design principles. Just keep it simple, and don’t be afraid to give it a try!

Here are some tips for using visual elements:

Don’t just add images to your modules to make them “more interesting.” Use instructional strategies when creating imagery. Visual elements can be very powerful tools for the learner. Create navigational structures that lead the student around the screen, letting them know what is important and what is supplementary. Different fonts and typeface can be used to separate textual elements when a lot of dense content is necessary. Sizing graphics appropriately can lead the eye around the screen. Color can also be utilized to indicate positive and negative elements, or to draw the eye to a certain place.

Be careful not to create graphics that are overwhelming for the learners. There are some common mistakes that training developers can easily to fall prey to. It is easy to fall into the trap of creating “exciting” training with many animations, transitions, bold fonts, and intense graphics. However, because these items can be more commanding than other elements on the screen, they can quickly become overwhelming for the students. Remember that subtlety should be key: the learner should not be thinking about the graphics, but about how the graphics relate to the topic of instruction. White space is usually just as important as content.

Make sure every image is relevant to the content in some way, or it will be confusing and detract from the lesson. Everything you create should be important to the training in some way. It is never “just” a button, banner, or so on. I have used button designs to lead the students’ eyes around the navigational structure of the page and help to chunk content. Every word and every visual should combine together to guide the student through the content.

Read a book or some articles on artistic design principles. You will be amazed at how relevant they are to the field of training and development. Basic artistic principles such as perspective will help you with situations in which you are placing an avatar on a background. Color theory will help you choose which colors to place together for different effects. The rule of thirds will help you to place content on the screen, whether it is a slide in Articulate or a set of characters in a video. And you don’t have to learn these strategies all at once—take it one thing at a time. The more you experiment with these principles, the more effective your training will become.

As you move forward into a world of training that uses gamification, augmented reality, m-learning, and other emerging technologies, don’t forget that all of these things are tied together by principles of design. The medium used for learning may change. But on a basic level, the visual and instructional strategies are the same. Without this core foundation, training will not be as effective, and may in fact detract from the content of the course.

Many instructional designers that I have spoken with about visual design were amazed at the simplicity of its core concepts—and how easily they can relate visual design to instructional strategies. It is my hope that more developers will continue striving to apply visual strategies to their learning solutions.