Graphic Design for Instructional Design: A TLDC Event Recap

rainbow-colored ribbon across a light aqua background, with the title, Graphic Design for Instructional Design
This post recaps the one-day conference, Graphic Design for Instructional Design, hosted by The Training, Learning, and Development Community.

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If you’ve been reading my blog very long, you know I’m a huge fan of The Training, Learning, and Development Community. It’s an incredibly supportive community, and the founder, Luis Malbas, is clearly passionate about helping people learn and giving back to the entire field of L&D. That’s why I often write recaps of the amazing events that TLDC hosts.

Last Friday’s event focused on graphic design for instructional design, and TLDC knocked it out of the park again. The day’s sessions included:

  • Upgrading Your Design Skills, with Nick Floro
  • Aesthetics and Composition—Heuristics Can Be Beautiful Through Applying Design Principles, with Rick Jacobs
  • How to Visually Design Text for Better Readability, with Joseph Suarez
  • Affordable & Accessible Graphic Design with Canva, with Bela Gaytan
  • Make Your Course Look Like a Million Bucks Without Breaking the Bank, with Kayleen Holt
  • The Language of Visual Communication, with Kevin Thorn

This post summarizes my main takeaways from the day. I don’t always create custom graphics for my blog posts, but given the subject of this one, I’ve sprinkled in some images to practice what I’m preaching.

If you registered for the event, you can watch the replays by logging in using the link emailed to you and selecting the schedule. If you missed it, watch the TLDC website for links to the recordings. (You might have to be a member to see this one—but membership is only $10 a month or $75 a year!)

UPDATE: Recordings have been posted!

Words + Visual Presentation of Text = Meaning

As instructional designers, we spend a lot of time writing content, but how we present that content may be just as important to the learning experience as the words we use.

Things like poor spacing or illegible fonts can seriously interfere with reading comprehension. Text formatting, such as the use of headings, affects the user’s ability to interpret that text as intended. And failure to use correct heading styles can interfere with accessibility as well.

Joseph Suarez discussed how to format text effectively to enhance readability through effective use of spacing and contrast. Joe worked directly in PowerPoint while sharing his screen, demonstrating how to adjust line spacing, fonts, and other text formatting. Many people shared in the chat that it was enlightening to see him work through those decisions.

When discussing spacing, Joe recommended becoming familiar with the Box Model used in web design, which consists of margins, borders, padding, and content. (Thanks to Cara North for sharing the link.)

Illustration of the Box Model depicting four concentric rectangles. The space between the outer box and next smaller box is labeled "margin." The space between the second and third boxes is labeled "border." The space between the third and fourth boxes is labeled "padding," and the last box is labeled "content."

A common mistake is the tendency to over-emphasize text, such as bold or italics. But as Joe pointed out, “if you bold everything, nothing is emphasized.” Sometimes, less is more.

Joe summed up his presentation with the following three tips to enhance readability:

  • Chunk the content
  • Format the text
  • Space it out.

Good Visual Design Works Hand-in-Hand with Good Instructional Design

It’s not that we can’t learn if a course isn’t visually appealing (or if we can’t see), but good design sure makes the learning process easier when interpreting visual information. Effective visual design practices remove barriers to learning. 

For example, breaking up a wall of text with paragraph returns can cause learners to slow down to read—and understand—those paragraphs. Likewise, illustrating numbers with charts and graphs can lead to better understanding of those numbers.

As Kevin Thorn discussed, in Robert E. Horn’s book, Visual Language, one study showed that visual language enhanced problem solving and retention among high school students. 

Another study showed that visual presentations in business settings led to a 64% increase in immediate decision-making, as well as a 21% increase in consensus in groups. If you can’t get your hands on the book, you can read more about Horn’s study here.

A teal bar graph labeled "21% increase in decision making." The first bar is labeled "Without Visuals" and shows a value of 58%. The second, taller bar is labeled "With Visuals" and shows a value of 79%. A purple arrow over the bars highlights the upward trend.

Rick Jacobs explained how applying design principles helps create heuristics. (The term “heuristics” is what my mom would call a “high-dollar word” that means enabling someone to discover or learn something for themselves.) For example, the placement of a line or block of text can draw the eye where we want it to go.

Using contrast, such as a difference in size, color, or shape, can help the learner make sense of your content. For example, the variation in the color and placement of the last graphic in the below image illustrates that one in five people is different, reinforcing the text.

Illustration of five people's heads over a rainbow-colored infinity symbol. Four of them are dark purple and facing to the right. The fifth one is teal and facing to the right. The text reads, "About 20% of the world's population is neurodivergent."

But what if the last image contrasted in a different way? Notice by changing the profile image to a woman or girl—possibly Black from the hairstyle—we may confuse the user, who may misinterpret the data. Using contrast poorly can lead to unintentional messages.

Style Guides Are Always in Style

As Rick Jacobs pointed out, you wouldn’t pay $300,000 for a new home and then allow everyone to come through and paint on the walls. But that’s essentially what companies do when they don’t have branding guides. As he put it, “companies don’t realize that the logo is property. It’s an asset.” That asset should be protected through branding guides. Consistency with branding helps build trust among the customer base.  

Along the same lines, consistency within a course design helps create a cohesive learning experience. If the organization doesn’t already have style guides, it can be helpful to create one at the beginning of a project. Sometimes, the “style guide” may just be a template in which you establish the colors, fonts, and styles to be used within the course (or other product).

Creating templates can also be helpful for accessibility, but that’s a subject for another post. In fact, I’ve written about creating PowerPoint templates before. I plan to make some demonstration videos for future posts. If you have specific questions about creating templates, let me know in the comments.

Sometimes the Best Tool for the Job Is the One You Have—and Know How to Use

Instructional designers sometimes wear a lot of hats, including the graphic designer hat. But we don’t always have the fancy graphic design tools—or the training to use those tools.

Bela Gaytan and I both talked about budget-friendly graphic design tools that are easy to use. Bela’s presentation focused on Canva, and she shared her screen while demonstrating how to create various types of designs in Canva. From creating icons, to easily removing backgrounds from photos, to creating presentations, Canva is a versatile tool that simplifies design.

I followed Bela’s presentation by sharing free and low-cost graphic design tools that are (mostly) easy to learn and easy on the budget. I used screenshots from my latest scenario-based course to explain how I used my favorite tools, including Affinity Photo and the Procreate app to customize the graphics. 

Learning Graphic Design Is Like Learning a Language

Kevin Thorn’s presentation focused on the language of visual communication. He demonstrated how images are made up of a visual alphabet consisting of things like dots, lines, curves, and other shapes.

Three illustrations of a dog with its front paws on a table. The first one is labeled "Doggo." The second one is captioned, "doggo with some of the component shapes highlighted." The image is faded and has red triangles outlining the shape of the ears, an oval over one paw, circles, over the eyes, and half circles outlining the body shape and another paw. The third illustration is labeled "doggo with a burger" with the abbreviation for "if you know, you know" in parenthesis. The illustration is the same as the first, but a burger is on the table in front of the dog.

Similarly, Nick Floro discussed the building blocks of design, a thread that other presenters also picked up on throughout the day.

Infographic labeled "Design Elements, presented by Nick Floro" with 10 icons over a purple background, representing lines, shape, form, balance, type, texture, color, size, harmony, and space.

Understanding these fundamentals will help instructional designers create visually appealing designs. As Rick Jacobs said, “You can’t break the rules effectively if you don’t know the rules.”

So, how do we become better graphic designers? The same way anyone gets better at anything: lots and lots of practice.

Kevin reminded us to take “I can’t draw” out of our vocabulary. Drawing (whether when pencil and paper or using software) is a matter of recognizing the shapes that make up an object and recreating those shapes. Visual design is a language, and we’re all capable of learning new languages.

Inspiration Is All Around You

Nick Floro advised taking pictures of good and bad design, both as inspiration and as reminders of what not to do.

Nick also suggested creating a mood board to collect ideas, particularly for a specific project. A mood board is basically a collage of images that can help you visualize your design. You can create one using software like Canva, PowerPoint, or Miro, or create a physical mood board on a bulletin board, whiteboard, or wall.

When asked where he goes for, Joseph Suarez shared that he likes the site, which highlights (as described on the site) “design, creativity, and innovation on the internet.”

When you find designs that inspire you, take notes about what you like and don’t like about them. You can return to your inspiration files again and again for new ideas.


TLDC consistently delivers excellent professional development events, and Friday’s conference was no exception. (I wish my presentation had been better, but the other five were amazing!)

To wrap up, here are my key take-aways:

  • Words + Visual Presentation = Meaning
  • Good Visual Design Works Hand-in-Hand with Good Instructional Design
  • Style Guides Are Always in Style
  • Sometimes the Best Tool for the Job Is the One You Have—and Know How to Use
  • Learning Graphic Design Is Like Learning a Language
  • Inspiration Is All Around You


Below is a list of resources that were shared throughout the day.

Be sure to check out the first link, because Nick Floro put together a HUGE (and well-organized) list of resources—and his presentation slides are there too.

Speakers' Websites

So Random

On a side note, if you follow me on LinkedIn, you may have noticed my ongoing struggle with trying to disable GIFs and animations. (Onscreen movement causes problems for me due to a brain injury resulting in vestibular and other issues.) I have been testing several different Chrome extensions that are supposed to disable GIFs and videos from autoplaying. 

Unfortunately, the extensions haven’t worked out well. They let ads and animations play, but they turn the screen to black during webinars and virtual conferences—which happened at the beginning of Friday’s conference. Disabling the extensions didn’t fix the problem, so I ended up reverting back to Chrome’s initial settings. Now, I’m back to the drawing board.

If you have found extensions or other settings that work well for you to disable autoplaying GIFs, videos, and animations online, I’d love to hear about them. Drop a comment here or connect with me on LinkedIn.

Together, eventually, we’ll build a more inclusive world!

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