Postproduction: How to Make Effective Graphics for Online Courses

Graphical excellence is that which gives to the viewer the greatest number of ideas in the shortest time with the least ink in the smallest space.” Edward R. Tufte

movingvan  I am driving across country with all my household goods in a 26-foot moving van. I don’t want to sightsee. I just want the quickest route from Virginia to California.

Likewise, when you are trying to learn something from an online course, you want the fastest route to comprehension. Sometimes that means that the teacher needs to include graphics, and those graphics must be clean, focused, and clear.

Since I am writing this in the cab while bouncing along I-40, I will keep this article short and to the point, just as I recommend you manage your graphics.

What Are Online Course Graphics and When Do You Need Them?

Online course graphics include anything you are explaining through the use of imagery, with or without additional text. I’ll treat animations in a separate issue, but the rules for clear labeling are essentially the same.

When do you need graphics in your online course? That’s easy: any time you can’t fully explain something without showing it or when visuals will aid comprehension. Most graphics include some text in the form of labels. Here’s a sample list:

  • Maps
  • Diagrams
  • Charts
  • Figures
  • Cutaways (i.e., showing the interior of an object)
  • Modeling (e.g., brain, nervous system, schematics)

The Guiding Principles to Teaching with Graphics

In all these cases, supply only enough information to “grok” it, to borrow Robert Heinlein’s word for understanding something thoroughly.

One of the first projects I worked on for The Teaching Company was a challenging science course. The professor provided PowerPoint slides that were so dense with detail we couldn’t tell where to start reading them—let alone learn anything from them.

We divided them into multiple images, eliminated the “noise”—every detail that didn’t relate to the immediate point—and developed style rules so that you could immediately tell where to look and how details related to one another.

When you create your images, your task is to unpack concepts and then to layer information so we build our understanding one piece at a time. This work must be done whether you are showing a single image or actual layers.

Ask yourself these questions from the student’s perspective. What must we see first? What did we need to know before we can absorb another visual and conceptual layer? These questions guide your design.

Great graphics require an analytical as well as an aesthetic approach.

Typical Problems with Online Course Graphics

The problems as you learn how to craft effective graphics are easy to identify and to fix. They include:

  • Illegible text:
    • Font too small
    • Blurry font
    • Fancy font that is hard to read quickly
    • Text too crowded; too many words as well as words too close together
  • Too much information to process in the time we have to view it.
  • Hierarchy of information not clear:
    • Where should we look first?
    • How is information related?
    • What is most important and what is least important?
  • Irrelevant information.
  • Visuals don’t actually aid comprehension.
  • Inconsistent style so it takes longer to “read” or is misleading.
  • Red/green color combination that can’t be seen by anyone colorblind.
  • Colors are random or garish and therefore distracting.

Avoiding and Fixing Mistakes in Online Course Graphics

The fixes are easy. Basically, you can use the above list as a checklist for what not to do. Put in the affirmative, here’s how to avoid those mistakes:

  • Create a style guide early on and modify it as you go.
  • Leave plenty of white space.
  • Test font size, sharpness, and style by looking at it on multiple platforms by people with different eyesight.
  • Create capitalization rules that will help us see labels.
  • Create punctuation rules to help us see and group textual information (such as using a period at the end of phrases or sentences in a bullet list).
  • Break up big blocks of text into bullet lists; use the same kind of bullet throughout (e.g., black dots for all first tier items, open circles for all second tier items).
  • Create color rules that will make it easy to find and distinguish information (e.g., bars on a graph might alternate colors or shades).
  • Reveal complex information one component at a time through what is called a “build”—information that is shown piece by piece.
    • Have you ever seen a picture in a book that has plastic screens on top of a basic image so you can see it in different stages?
    • I’ve seen ancient Rome, the human body, and multi-step equations layered this way so that you only see what you need, as you need it.
  • Avoid information overload by matching your script to what you are describing. If you don’t have time to explain everything on your image, you need to trim something from it.
  • Let us know where to look.
    • You can point an arrow at the spot, highlight the text, make it glow—there are plenty of visual options.
    • Remember to keep it simple and to use the same approach for all your graphics.

When I was studying art as an undergraduate, one of my professors taught me the KISS rule: Keep It Simple, Stupid. Enlist the KISS rule during both design and revision phases. Remember that your goal is to teach as simply, clearly, and directly as possible. Just get across the country, as it were.

If you aren’t familiar with graphic design, check out Edward Tufte’s book The Visual Display of Quantitative Information for examples of both excellent and failed design, in addition to guiding principles.

White Space Is Not Your Enemy: A Beginner’s Guide to Communicating Visually through Graphic, Web, and Multimedia Design, by Kim Golombisky and Rebecca Hagen, is also a valuable primer to the novice.

I hope you found this blog helpful. Please send me your questions for future issues, and tune in next Friday for Issue #22 of “Everything You Need to Know to Create Outstanding Online Courses.” We’ll look at the pros and cons of using greenscreen.

Want to learn how to make great online courses? To get your free copy of “12 Steps to Killer Course Content,” and weekly tips, click here.

Marcy McDonald is an Online Course Producer. She helps Subject Matter Experts and Professors create online courses with better content, delivery, and production, for better teaching. She’s developed ~450 online courses for lifelong learners, worked in video and audio studios, and filmed in the field (literally).

Contact Marcy for help crafting your online course:

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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