5 Ways To Use Graphics In eLearning Scenarios

People learn through experience and one of the best ways to transmit experience is through stories.

Once you’ve been sold on the value of stories and scenarios for learning, you need to consider the best ways to visualize these stories. How can the images draw people in and make the story more meaningful?

Most stories and scenarios feature characters in varied situations. Fortunately, people find pictures of other people compelling, particularly faces.

When using character images in an eLearning scenario or story, try to display a new picture for every new action in the storyline. This keeps things moving along.

Here are some approaches I like to use. Please share your favorite approaches at the end.

Photo Album Effect

A well-loved approach to building eLearning scenarios is the photo album effect. All the photos have a white border and the images are placed in a slightly rotated position. A diagonal orientation makes an image dynamic. And it gives the sense that the photos were placed somewhat randomly. This also works for simulating a bulletin board.

When using this effect, you can progressively build up the photos, overlapping two or three on the screen as the story continues (see the captions example below).

White Border: Younger readers may not remember that at one time, photos developed from film always had a quarter inch white border around them. This graphical convention is still with us today.

In terms of visual language, placing a white border around a photo helps to communicate it is an element of an album or story. The white border usually is also a good way to highlight the photo.

I like to use a 6 to 10-pixel border, depending on the size of the image. Add the border in PowerPoint or a graphics editor. Also, place the photos on a neutral colored background (tan or gray) with a light texture, such as simulated fabric or paper. You can find textured backgrounds at many stock photo sites.

Using Custom Photos. The example above is from a story-based course on patient safety that required a photo shoot. Custom photos, as opposed to stock photos, are necessary when your topic is very specific and you require a unique environment or setting. I recommend using a model with acting experience. See eLearning Photography for tips.

Captions at Bottom

In a narrated course, you can take the album effect one step further and enhance the story through photo captions. In the screen shot below, the narrator carried the story, but the brief caption gave a bit more information. Since this course was based in PowerPoint, I inserted a rectangle shape and grouped it with each photo to make the wide border.

Make it Richer with Speech Bubbles

Speech bubbles are tricky, because they can give a course a comic book effect when you don’t want one. On the other hand, they have the potential to add depth to a character.

After some experimentation with this patient-centered care course, I decided that speech bubbles would help me express the character’s inner life. It made the story richer.

The trick was to display the speech bubble with minimal text after the narration ended. Then there wouldn’t be too much  information coming at learners all at once.

Here’s a link to one of the many sites that have free speech bubbles. You can also find them as shapes in PowerPoint.

The conventional way to display thinking is through thought bubbles (with three bubbles pointing to the thinker). In the course above, thought bubbles connoted that comic book look I didn’t want. That’s why I settled on the rectangular speech bubble. It seemed more serious.

People Cutouts

Another approach is to use stock people cutouts that were made for eLearning courses (see below). You can find these at eLearning Art, where they also have background packs for office, medical, and industrial environments. You can also find people cutouts at the eLearning Brothers.

People cutouts made specifically for eLearning are superior to typical stock photos because they provide multiple shots of the same model in different poses. This makes it much easier to tell a story in visuals by matching the character’s actions to the storyline. See below.

As mentioned by Lee in the comments, these would look better with shadows to add depth and realism.

Illustrated Stories

Illustrated characters give stories and scenarios a unique appeal. For a comic book effect, create one or more panels on each screen and place your characters within them. Use introductory text to set the scene. Then use speech bubbles for to create the storyline.

If you take this route, first identify whether cartoon characters or serious illustrations are most appropriate for your content and audience. There are many conventions in comic books. For example, the typeface in the graphic below is a comic book font that I bought from Blambot.

Here are some options for finding illustrated characters:

For more visual design tips, see my book Visual Design Solutions: Principles and Creative Inspiration for Learning Professionals!

Schank, Roger. Tell Me A Story: Narrative and Intelligence.

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  1. Michael says

    There are some great points here! Using effects such as bubbles and borders to enhance images and character scenarios are a great way to help keep the learner engaged in the content.

    One of the greatest resources I’ve bookmarked for building such interactive presentations is eLearningstock.com. I can quickly browse by character, scenario, or purpose, and all images and animations are royalty-free. One of my favorites are the ‘knockout people’, where dozens of characters are available in over 150 different poses, communicating a range of emotions and situations.

    On top of convenience, a weekly freebie is available from their collection on the site’s blog. I would highly suggest taking the time to check it all out!

  2. Lee says

    Hi Connie,
    I often use people cutouts, so I want to share a great way to add realism. I copy my character onto a PowerPoint slide where I add a drop shadow and then save it as a .bmp picture. Then I open the image in a graphics editor and cut out the character, leaving only the drop shadow pixels. I trim the canvas and save it as a .png file. Then when I’m building my scene, I add the drop shadow in a layer between the background and my cutout character. This method adds a lot of flexibility if you ever have to re-size or reposition the character. The main thing is that the shadow adds depth to avoid the “floating in air” appearance. ~Lee

  3. Connie Malamed says

    Hi Lee,
    I’m not sure how I missed this comment from over a year ago, but thank you for adding the shadows tip. You are absolutely correct that without a shadow, the cutouts look a bit as though they are floating. You can add the shadow in PowerPoint, as you mentioned, or in Photoshop or another graphics tool. Excellent suggestion.


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