How visual design informs instructional design

by | May 30, 2022 | Instructional Design

When I was in my early 20’s I worked for a boutique training consulting firm in Toronto. I worked with Brett Lamb, a graphic designer, who makes concepts and processes come to life through illustration on the page. Among many things, Brett taught me the basics and the importance of visual design. It’s still a skill that I still struggle with – I know enough to recognize when something looks bad, but I’m often at a loss as to how I can make it look better. 

For this newsletter, I invited an expert to weigh in on why visual design is important when designing training programs and what we can learn from this field to apply to our work. I interviewed Brett. Here’s a summary of our conversation.  

Interview with a graphic designer 

Visual design principles 

Brett shared an acronym with me over 20 years ago – C.R.A.P. – as a way of remembering visual design principles. If you want a gentler or more politically correct term, you could say C.A.R.P.. I’m going to stick with C.R.A.P. because that’s what I learned initially and have remembered all these years. When I talked with Brett, I learned a new aspect of C.R.A.P. 

“What C.R.A.P. principles do is create reminders for how to mimic the real-world in our materials.” 

Brett talked about how we experience the world visually. On a sunny day, we see the distinction between the ground, trees buildings and the sky. It feels familiar and logical. On a foggy day, however, there is no contrast between the sky and the ground. It’s hard to see trees and other people. We have to work harder to make sense of our surroundings and we may feel unsettled. I know I find it stressful driving in foggy conditions. Our visual experience of the world is familiar and logical and is, therefore, easier to process. The C.R.A.P. design principles help us apply real-world experience to our training materials.  

Let’s take a look at what each letter means. 

C – Contrast 

Contrast is important because it mimics a sunny day instead of a foggy day. Our eyes and brains naturally like contrast because it allows us to distinguish different objects. When designing materials, having contrast allows you to create an interesting design while also allowing the viewer to instantly recognize the organization and structure of the information. You may have heard about having ‘white space’ on a page – margins, not too much text, etc. This is an example of contrast. Allow room for text and visuals and room for nothing. Contrast allows us to:  

  • Communicate differences (e.g., having a series of steps in black font and then one step in red font).  
  • Orient the viewer (e.g., large font for headings and smaller font for body text). 
  • Highlight important points on a page (e.g., an angled arrow pointing to a part of an image). 

You can create contract by changing different properties. 

R – Repetition 

Repetition is when we repeat an element throughout the design. A real-world example is the repeating lines on a road. When the lines are dashed, it communicates that it’s safe to cross. When the repetition ends and it’s a solid line, it communicates don’t pass. With training materials, repetition can communicate:  

  • Hierarchy (e.g., chapter headings all have the same font, colour, size and weight).  
  • Security and reduce confusion (e.g., same footer at the bottom of every page tells reader what page they’re on). 
  • A sense of consistency or belonging (e.g., all of the tip icons in a book look the same). 

A – Alignment  

 Make learning engaging by making it challenging. Don’t give all the answers – allow participants to discover critical information. Clive Shepherd talks about a guided discovery approach in his book More Than Blended Learning: Designing world-class learning i

Poor alignment is one of my pet peeves. My eye seems to zero in on the one bullet or icon that is shifted slightly to the left of the rest. In the real world, we see alignment everywhere. It’s in the streetlights on a boulevard. It’s in fields of corn where the stalks are straight and tall.

Alignment communicates:  

  • Order and therefore comfort (e.g., our eyes and brain detect the smallest visual anomalies, which can distract us from the message being communicated. Even if we don’t know why something doesn’t look right, we know something is awkward and it’s unsettling). 
  • Relationships (e.g., items that share the same alignment are recognized as having something in common.  
  • Unity (e.g., all the elements in the design are related to each other in some way or another). 

There are two types of alignment:  

  • Edge Alignment – Elements are placed so their edges line up vertically or horizontally. 
    This is the preferred type of alignment.  
  • Area Alignment – Elements are placed so their centres line up vertically or horizontally. 

P – Proximity  

With proximity, I think of the Sesame Street song, “One of these things is not like the other.” This design principle is about grouping elements to show how they’re related. In the real world, we may notice that cars are parked together in a parking lot. It communicates, “This is where cars go when not in use.” The parking lot might be beside an office building, which communicates, “This is the parking for this building.” Proximity:   

  • Reduces complexity (e.g., identifies items that belong together).  
  • Reinforces relationships (e.g., items close together are similar; whereas items far apart of dissimilar). 
  • Directs the viewer’s eye to create points of interest (e.g., one object is located away from others). 

Good visual design invites the learner into the material you are presenting. It makes it easier for them to connect ideas and process new information. On the other hand, poor visual design creates a barrier. The learner needs to work extra hard to make sense of visual clutter – too many colours, too many fonts. At a minimum it takes so much effort, it makes it harder to learn. At most, they disengage completely. 

In case you missed it

I’ve shared some additional posts online. Here they are in case you missed them.  

  • Impact of pace of change on L&D – (link
  • Employee stress and impact on learning and development – (link
  • Facilitate in Digital Age participant’s feedback – (link
  • New work arrangements impact learning and development – (link
  • Future skills L&D needs to help develop – (link