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PowerPoint as a Graphics Editor
Simplified visual design for eLearning

By Kevin Thorn / February 2013

TYPE: EMERGING TECHNOLOGIES
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Editor's Note: In the coming weeks Kevin Thorn will be presenting at the Training 2013 Conference & Expo. This article will serve as an introduction to his session on visual design, which will delve into how our brains work and perceive visual signals.

As an instructional designer for eLearning, one of the single most challenging aspects of the job is predicting what our masterfully designed instruction is going to look like in the end. There are so many things to consider—from themes, textures, colors, photo selections, and other graphic elements—that it can be quite daunting. Visual design for eLearning doesn't have to be that challenging when you have a few fundamental principles as the foundation.

Most of you reading this article are somehow connected to the training industry and may be deeply embedded in the design and development of eLearning. As easy as it comes to those who have a visual design background for putting together a balanced look and feel for eLearning courses, it can be a frustrating time and not come easy to many others. Just like learning the fundamental principles in instructional design, there are fundamental principles in visual design and it's simply a matter of learning them.

One of the first things to realize is we as humans see and perceive things differently, however we all share a visual cortex. The visual cortex is a little space in the back of the brain the controls what we see, how we see it, and is the keeper of long-term memory when it comes to recalling visuals. Without getting too deep into the neuroscience of the brain, the visual cortex is broken up into several parts that do different things and those parts split off into the left and right hemisphere of the brain.

During my Training 2013 session, we will briefly talk about the primary visual cortex and how it transmits signals to two different pathways known as the dorsal stream and the ventral stream. At a high level we'll look at these two areas and discuss how we react to what the signals these two paths send:

  • Dorsal stream is about the "where" or "how" and is associated with the location of objects and control of our eyes and arms to guide us reaching for an object.
  • Ventral stream is about the 'what' and is associated with form recognition, object representation, and associated with long-term memory.

Breaking down what this important part of the brain does and how it works, will aid in visually designing elements by tapping into what your learners already know.

Another tremendous resource to eLearning visual design is our own experiences. We can translate stories of experiences into simple graphic elements to tell a story or to communicate an important message. We'll build on what we just learned about the visual cortex and look at how to create simple graphics using PowerPoint that help relate learners to those experiences and tell those stories.

PowerPoint in of itself gets a bad rap for not being a qualified tool to design eLearning. I agree but I will also argue it has nothing to do with the authoring environment you choose and everything to do with your design "before" you develop. With many of the rapid authoring tools today such as Articulate, Captivate, Lectora, iSpring, and others, they all support the import of PowerPoint files. Each of the above mentioned authoring tools allow for the addition of visual and interactive elements and are development tools, not design tools. This isn't about what authoring environment you use, yet each lack advanced graphics editing capabilities.

PowerPoint has come a long way in the last few versions. PowerPoint 2010 added (among other things) one of my favorite features with the ability to combine, intersect, union, and subtract two or more shapes to create new custom shapes. Shapes in PowerPoint are also vector with the ability to edit the points to create complex designs. The best thing about PowerPoint as a graphics editor is you already know how to use PowerPoint and don't have to learn a more advanced tool such as an Adobe product. PowerPoint is more than suitable to produce quality graphics.

Finally, we'll look at basic visual principles to aide in directional actions, subtle reminders, navigational habits, and how graphics support your instructional design and not hinder it. By the end of our time together you'll have a better understanding of how we all perceive things we see especially on a computer screen, how to build high quality graphics using PowerPoint, and have a few new techniques about visual design principles.

Visual design is typically not taught or included in traditional instructional design degrees. Should it be? Perhaps, but with a little understanding of basic principles anyone can learn a new skill, right?

If you are planning on attending Training 2013 and you're looking for some simple tips and techniques to dress up your eLearning courses, stop by my session, "PowerPoint as a Graphics Editor: Simplified Visual Design for Elearning" on Wednesday, Feb 20th from 12:15-3:15 PM. I'll guarantee you'll learn something new you didn't know before about visual design!

About the Author

Kevin Thorn is a self-taught, award-winning e-learning designer and developer with a passion for the art of visual communications. After retiring from the Army, Kevin embarked on a 15-year career in the corporate workforce. He earned a B.S. in Information Technology Management from Christian Brothers University.

His current role is owner and Chief NuggetHead of NuggetHead Studioz, a design, development, and consulting business including e-learning design and development, illustration and graphic design, and training and consulting. Thorn approaches every project with the creative awareness and knowledge to take a project from conception to completion, and he can be found around learning communities on Twitter as @LearnNuggets, or at LearnNuggets.com where he writes opinions, reviews, and tutorials.

Copyright is held by the author. ACM 1535-394X/13/02 $15.00

DOI: 10.1145/2436245.2440099



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