Advertising as Inspiration for Your Next Course Design

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Look at packaging on products and ads on buses, benches, and billboards, and in magazines and on TV as you seek inspiration for fonts, color schemes, text, quiz layouts, etc., for your e-learning.

Instructional designers are always searching for new ways to drive performance and make sure their learners stay interested and engaged with their content. It begs the question: How do you make subjects such as HR policies, health and safety measures, or performance management skills something your learner swill be excited about and happily engage with?

E-learning course design is important for keeping things fresh, but if we’re being honest, it’s hard to keep the ideas ever-flowing. We need inspiration on the right colors or fonts to use from time to time. Before heading down the design path, it’s important to keep in mind who your learner is, what type of transformation you hope to bring about, and what learning delivery method you plan on using.

For the help you need with graphics, fonts, colors, themes, layouts, etc., here are some sources you should be borrowing design tips from:

1. Look to marketing for compelling use of text.

Lots of insights are readily available if you look to the world of marketing. When I was in marketing leadership roles at Procter & Gamble (P&G), I paid the world’s top agencies to create effective advertising. Given the substantial investment, I was rewarded with compelling advertisements that clearly communicated my message.

So why not use these creative executions for your own design ideation? A marketer likely has spent a long time focusing on the right placement of words and choice of font and style to convey their ideas. For example, you may want to seek inspiration from a billboard and reapply how it uses concise text, word placement, punctuation, and font to your microlearning. Besides billboards, look at packaging on products and ads on the sides of buses, benches, magazines, and television as you seek inspiration for fonts, color schemes, text, quiz layouts, course covers, etc.

I recently was inspired by the large text and use of a period when I saw a McDonald’s billboard that simply had the word, “Juicy.” The fact that it was center-aligned in white Arial bold font over a burger with the intentional punctuation and single title case word triggered my intrigue. I reapplied this same idea to sub-title pages in a course with “Safety.” and “Report it.” juxtaposed over related imagery. Learners understood the message. Period.

2. Look through Websites for design ideas.

Marketers also invest a lot of resources in Websites to capture interest and convey information. Websites have thoughtful layouts that are deliberately designed to grab, hold, and reward your attention. Scour page layouts on the Internet to get inspiration for ideal e-learning layouts. Notice elements such as how the buttons are outlined, how Website navigation is intuitively conveyed, and what icons support the user experience. These same approaches can be used in your next e-learning course.

For example, I borrowed the button layouts from popular Websites for the “Submit” button in my e-learning. I copied the white rectangle with a semi-transparent background and white text in capitals, and it gave my course a modern look. I found something else to borrow after searching for a modern, fresh design and being awestruck by this beautiful Website: I used it as the source for an interactive PDF I created, which evoked the fresh look I sought.

If you don’t want to spend hours researching, there are specialized visual content Websites out there with a large inventory of perfectly curated user interface designs, themes, templates, and downloadables you can draw creative inspiration from. Here are a few to get you started:

3. Look through magazines for layout ideas.

Besides Websites, magazines also offer no shortage of inspiration and they often convey a lot of information, like our courses do. For example, when creating performance support tools, I often use the layout of a magazine article with its key visuals, columns, arresting titles, and deliberate placement of images and words.

Also, I tap into how key concepts are visualized in magazines. In a Diversity & Inclusion course, I leveraged the idea from Strategy Magazine that aptly visually depicted the blurring of gender identity via a blue icon Man and pink Woman icon getting erased. Magazines do a great job of visualizing complex concepts.

Overall, it’s important to remember the motivation for your course design in the first place. It’s about being able to tell a story with your training that your learners can relate to and engage with. That involves dedication to impacting knowledge and visually stimulating them. The way your chosen colors, fonts, text, images, and layouts tie in together is pertinent to ensuring the course structure maintains a proper level of engagement. Marketers have been able to hone this skill and are the perfect mentors to look to when designing our own courses.

Danielle Wallace is the chief learning strategist at Beyond the Sky, a provider of custom learning solutions. Previously, as a marketing executive with Procter & Gamble and PepsiCo, she learned strategic marketing principles, which she applies to learning and development to create learning that sticks. Wallace is also a certified training and development professional (CTDP), and her thought leadership, free checklists, and monthly infographics can be found at