Let’s talk about tone in eLearning: how to find the right tone and how to be creative with the look and feel of a course.
First, what is tone? Why is this important?
ELearning, like almost any form of communication, is not simply just about WHAT you say, but HOW you say it. Visual design, the look and feel of a course, will have a big impact on how the content is perceived and processed by the learner.
But I don’t care how the learner feels about my course—I just want them to learn the content!
Research shows a distinct and significant correlation between learner desire and retention. If the head and heart aren’t engaged the hands won’t follow. In other words, if you want a learner to retain new information, the learner needs to feel the relevance of that content but also needs to feel comfort and confidence that the course will escort them comfortably through the learning experience. Good design matters.
If the head and the heart aren't engaged, the hands won't follow.
Making decisions about look-and-feel is an art, not a science. Keep in mind, there may not be one right answer, but you should be able to observe the content and graphical elements working together. Just as music needs to have a variety of instruments playing together in the same key, so does digital composition need to have its script and graphical elements flowing together in a natural and pleasing way.
It's been my observation that the eLearning industry (compared to web design or graphic design) seems to be more eager to focus on the content. In my opinion, focused too acutely on the WHAT and not enough on the HOW. So be playful and purposeful during that prototype/experimentation phase. Don't just recycle last year's template. Try something new. Stay in tune with the brand requirements, but don't be afraid to create something fresh.
With that in mind, here is a list of different categories or approaches when it comes to visual tone:
1. The "Apple"
It’s light. Super minimal. Tons of white space with a voice of calm confidence. White!
2. Bold Background
Using a solid color background can be good start in creating a visually distinctive course.
3. Business Bold
Mostly a combination of minimal layouts with business-themed stock photos. Design effectiveness is dependent on finding strong (and not overly cliche) photos.
A textured tone seems to fit well for food and agriculture-related content, or when presenting historical information.
Working on a course for a brand like Skippy peanut butter requires unapologetic visual resplendency.
6. Office Context
The key to these scenario-based layouts is to find cut-out character images that can be placed on a variety of custom, full-width backgrounds. You could even take photos of your own office to create a very relevant context.
Sometimes it's a better fit to structure your visual theme around icons (as opposed to stock photography). I highly recommend thenounproject.com for an endless bounty of affordable and well-designed iconography.
Tone in Illustration
When we’re discussing our options for scenario-based courses we first determine whether it’s best to go with video/photography or custom illustration. Even within the style of illustration there can be a variety of tones:
This style of illustration can add a ton of personality to an e-learning course. The trick is being able to find an illustrator that can pull it off.
2. 3D Video Game/Comic Book Look
Has the ability to convey a more serious tone for more serious subject matters.
A Word on Storyline Built-in Characters
Advantages: A lot cheaper than custom illustration
Disadvantages: You have a very limited option for actions and emotions for the characters
This, of course, is not an exhaustive list, but hopefully you came away with at least some piece of inspiration for an upcoming project. Find a tone that works best for your purpose and remains true to the objectives of the project—just don’t be afraid to experiment and try something new. You might be surprised at the response.
Most of these screenshots are from Dashe & Thomson created courses. To view more of our work click here.