To successfully help learners acquire knowledge, content is always the key. But to help them learn, first you have to engage them. To do so, you should be aware of basic graphic design principles, that graphic designers use to draw the attention and the interest of their clients. What are those principles and how to select the correct visual representations for your eLearning courses or online activities?

The sudden massive influx of teachers transitioning to the field of Instructional Design as well as the needs of teachers who just want to develop online activities for their students has led to the creation of sometimes below average results. Most of the times this not because of their content but because of other factors, most notably the lack of interactivity and poor visuals. Since interactivity has been covered in a previous article, this particular one will focus on the principles that you should keep in mind to help you pick the right visual representations for your eLearning courses or activities.

Types of graphics for eLearning

There are seven types of graphics that you can use while developing your eLearning courses and online activities (Clark & Lyons, 2011).

Interpretative graphics are the visuals used to represent abstract theories or principles, such as diagrams or simulations. An example of such a graphic would be the operation of a machinery or an apparatus.

Transformational graphics are used to show how objects or ideas changed in time. These types of visuals are particularly good for showing the steps of a process or procedure. For instance, such graphics can be used to show the assembly process in manufacturing a product.

Relational graphics present blocks of text with figures and percentages to the learners. Such graphics show relationships between variables and come in the form of pie charts, line and bar graphs.

Organisational. Organisational graphics help the learner establish qualitative relationships among the key concepts of the course. These graphics show relationships that cannot be expressed as a number. Organisational graphics show the summary of the content you would like to present, helping the students familiarize themselves with the learning material. Venn diagrams and flow charts are examples of such graphics.

Representational graphics are Instructional Designers’ favourites. These graphics are used for presenting things learners will encounter when transferring their learning to actual tasks. In other words, learners should be able to understand what the text is about just by looking at the graphics. Photographs of people undertaking tasks, photos of equipment and screen captures are just some examples of representational graphics.

A mnemonic is a learning technique that uses a device such as a pattern of letters, ideas, or associations that helps you remember something. With mnemonic graphics, the meaning of complex concepts and facts are encapsulated as another concept that’s similar and easy to remember.  Mnemonic graphics can be used to help learners retrieve facts from memory by looking at images that represent these facts. 

These graphics are used only for decorative purposes and do not add any instructional value to the course. They can occasionally be used at the beginning of your course or activity to provide some small sense of motivation, since they are alethically appealing. Otherwise, you should avoid them since they are mostly a distraction for students.

Visual Representations. Relevance is key

Visuals are beneficial for various things, most notably understanding, analyzing, and processing information. They are also engaging since they are used in between pages of text and honestly, who wants to read endless pages of just text? However, by simply inserting images to activities or course, learners won’t be engaged. Thus, it is important that the graphic representations used in are relevant to the topic.


The rule of thumb is that when it comes to images and animations, be sure that they are meaningful and not just decorative. They should help clarify the content, not make the learner guess their purpose and relevance.

What colours to choose?

Colours greatly affect people’s emotions. Take for example red. Red triggers a sense of urgency. Yellow makes us feel cheerful, while green calms us and creates a sense of relaxation. Therefore, colour selection plays an important role in eLearning and activity design as well. Carefully consider of what behaviors or emotions you’re trying to evoke, and then determine which color suits with it (Pappas, 2017).

Your colours should be in contrast with one another. Put thought on deciding on the color of both background and font, since it is important to establish good contrast between those two. For instance, people have no problem reading black text on a white background. However, if for example you decide to use pink text on an orange background, it would be extremely hard for the text to be read.

Use a single colour palette 

To maintain cohesion, you need to have in mind that you should stick to a specific set of colours for your course. This colour set, should only consist of 3-4 individual colours at most and you should stick to it in order to ensure consistency within the course. For instance, let’s suppose that you’ve picked blue for links. If out of the sudden, you decide to change your links’ colour to violet, I can guarantee you that none of the students will realise that this object is a link. So, be consistent with your colour palette. To help me choose colours that match and stand out, I use this website to find inspiration regarding colour combinations. Check it out, it may be helpful for you too.


When I started my career as an Instructional Designer, I had no clue about the correct usage of graphics. I certainly didn’t know the principles of using the appropriate visual representations for my eLearning courses. Since then, I no longer use random decorative images and I always consult online guides for picking the right colour combinations for my projects.

I really hope that you found this information as enlighten as I did when I initially did my research regarding visual representations in eLearning.  


Clark, R. C., & Lyons, C. C. (2011). Graphics for learning: Proven guidelines for planning, designing, and evaluating visuals in training materials. San Francisco, CA: Pfeiffer.

Pappas, C. (2017.) Graphics In eLearning: From A to Z. Retrieved February 10, 2021 from