Style or substance? YES

Content is king we are told. But is it? When creating eLearning experiences for your students, is your primary focus on substance (content) or style (design)? Patricia Turner says we need both, lots of both.

When it comes to choosing style over substance in eLearning, I won’t do it. I’ll have both, please. There doesn’t have to be a balance. The more you have of either, the better your work will become.

What I’m suggesting doesn’t include stuffing five pounds of flour in a one-pound bag. Nor does it mean designing your eLearning with fancy fonts or glitzy graphics.

Visual pleasure plays a part in nearly every aspect of our lives. One example: we arrange our homes in ways that reflect what we appreciate, while allowing us to walk freely between pieces of furniture. We even arrange that flow to suit what works best for our lifestyles. In most homes and offices there are clear paths to move between rooms or areas. We appreciate more direct routes and find it inconvenient and unnatural to move one way before having the ability to move in the opposite direction. For the most part, we use good style.

We do all this moving around among furniture and objects that we’ve picked for ourselves. The art and photographs we hang on the walls—what purpose do they serve? The art with which we choose to surround ourselves provides visual stimulation. The photographs (of people or places) serve to arouse positive memories. We don’t display ugly art in our spaces unless it came from a person of importance in our lives, in which case, that art arouses pleasurable memories of that person.

Good teaching uses much the same technique. Learners should be able to move directly to the information they want when they want it.

Keep in mind that good style includes usability as well as user experience; filling all available space with information or graphics is not conducive to learning. Information should be chunked but that doesn’t necessarily mean keeping material in silos. White space on the screen indicates separation without the need for boxes or other kinds of dividers, and lets the learner scan for the type of lessons needed at that moment. It’s up to us, the designers and developers, to let the learners know when certain pieces of content should be viewed in a particular order for maximum effectiveness.

Learners need engagement. Even well-organized information can get dull. Relevant photos or illustrations not only break up the information but also pull the learner in, and reinforce the learning with a visual “brain stamp.” It is important to note that your graphic style should remain the same throughout your lesson. Using black and white photographs of people performing demonstrations? Wonderful. Just don’t switch to color clip art midway through.

And choose your fonts wisely. No more than two font families per article or module. For instance, you may wish to use Univers bold for your headlines, and Helvetica for your body text. Subheads? You can easily use Helvetica Bold Italic for those without violating the two-font rule. Many fonts have variations that can be used for emphasis or to separate the type of information being presented.

Adding interactivity only adds to the engagement. Making it fun to discover information holds the interest and increases retention. This can be achieved in so many ways that it goes well beyond the scope of this article.

None of what I’ve said should be understood to diminish the importance of content. Content is why the learner is viewing your eLearning. What is a shiny, sleek sports car without an engine? It may be pretty to look at, but not good for much else. Well-written, well-organized, and comprehensive content is the substance contained within the attractive exterior.

I’ve heard it said that content is key. I respectfully disagree. Content is the treasure. An aesthetically pleasing and engaging learning experience is the key to accessing and holding on to that treasure.


Patricia TurnerPatricia Turner is an eLearning Experience and Development Manager. She has extensive design and art direction experience and continues education in eLearning, user experience, usability, and social media in learning. She can be contacted via @patriciaturner or

Leave a Reply