A small thing can pass by unnoticed. But many small things can become the equivalent of a really large one. You may not notice — or give too much credit to — a typo that got its way into your written text. You may not care about where exactly you insert an image, as long as it’s on the right page. Your students may not notice or care about that either; except for those that always do.

But when your course is riddled with misspellings and ill-placed imagery, all your students will lose their focus from your message, and run to other more beautiful things.

Beauty lies in the smallest of details. A great course design will support your message in many subtle ways. It most certainly won’t hinder the learning process.

After clarifying a few things regarding colors (how to choose a great color theme and how to get the right color codes) and fonts (how to identify and marry them), it’s time for the third and last part of this series on how to create beautiful online courses.

This post offers a few tips on how the layout of a lesson/page should look like, for maximum engagement on the part of your students.

Creating beautiful online courses by mastering layout

Remember those cartoons with the Roadrunner bird and the unlucky Wale E. Coyote? Imagine you’re the Coyote and your students’ attention span is the Roadrunner: one second it’s right next to you, the next second is miles away; you have to be a really smart coyote in order to catch it and keep it in one place.

Your average student’s brain scans a lesson and identifies the informative parts, the nice parts, the must-remember-for-test parts, and the less important parts of it. And it does this in the blink of an eye. I know you think there are no “less important” parts in your lessons, but bare with me.

So, what can you do to structure all your information so that your students spend enough time on each of your course pages? Well, there are quite a few things… This post will only deal with the layout of an online page of a lesson or course, and I assume you use a school LMS.

Design with the Z layout in mind

According to the Z layout, people scan a page starting from the upper left corner, going to the upper right corner, then all the way down diagonally to the lower left corner, and finishing at the lower right corner. I’ll leave aside the right-to-left languages, for which the Z is horizontally swapped.

If you place all your important educational information along the lines of this Z, you increase the chances that your students will better retain that information. For example:

  • The upper left corner could have the school logo, or the official title of your course.
  • Along the horizontal line to the right corner your students should find the title of the specific lesson.
  • The main body, with subtitles, paragraphs, lists, and maybe one or more images should be on the long diagonal line of the Z.
  • The conclusion subtitle or another relevant image should be approximately placed in the lower right corner.
  • The last paragraph(s), or a link to more educational resources usually form the lower horizontal line.
  • At the end of this line — at the end of the Z — could be a link to an online assessment of the lesson, or a button for the next one.

Other lesson elements, like a navigation menu for the entire course, along with other easily accessible files, like how the final grade is going to be calculated, or the personal dashboards of each student, should remain outside of your educational Z. A great place for these would be a vertical bar, on the right or on the left of it. These elements may be less important for the instructional side of your lesson, but they work together to provide a great user experience to your students.

Pay attention to the smallest of details

Like I said, beauty lies in all things small. Train your eyes enough, and you’ll spot these details easily. This way, you’ll get to create beautiful online courses without even thinking about it.

What details am I referring to, exactly? Here are just a few:

  • When you make a comparison about something and put it in two columns on the same page, avoid any lines of text that have only one or two words. Change the font size, the font type, or the dimensions of the columns in order to avoid these.
  • Stick to one element of emphasis: change the color of the word or phrase you want to stand out, make it bold, or italic, but never mix these elements of emphasis.
  • Avoid using CAPS LOCK in the middle of a sentence, as your students will think you SHOUT at them for no reason.
  • Also, avoid underlining words, as anyone who ever used the internet expects those words to link to somewhere new.
  • If you have to use more than one image on a lesson page, resize all of them to the same dimensions.
  • Try your hand at creating symmetry on a page. Your best bet is structure, but you could use any other design elements. Maybe you noticed that both the Z theory and the details subtitles are followed by two paragraphs, a six-items list, and a closing paragraph. See what I did here?

All these subtle details contribute to the beauty and harmony of a page or a lesson, which contributes to the beauty and harmony of your entire course. Your students may not realize what you did, but they’ll sure enjoy reading your teaching materials and learn better.

And so we arrive at the end of this wonderful series on creating beautiful online courses, with tips on how to use >colors, fonts, and layout. What did I miss? What other design tricks you use that make your teaching life easier? Share it and I’ll include it as well!

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Author: Livia M

Livia is the lead online voice of NEO by CYPHER LEARNING. She writes about education technology for K-12 and higher ed, gamification, BYOD, as well as other ed-tech subjects.