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Better Visual Design: Advice from Connie Malamed

Connie Malamed on visual design for elearning

If you’re anything like me, you feel pretty good about your instructional design and presentation skills. As for those PowerPoint slides or elearning slides… meh, I figure good instructional design will make up for my stick figures and default fonts, right?

Connie Malamed, Chief Mentor at Mastering Instructional Design and publisher of The Elearning Coach website (who has also written two books on this topic) suggests that we can be doing better when it comes to visual design. Visual design impacts both the learner’s experience and their confidence in the training program you’ve put together.

Transcript of the Conversation with Connie Malamed

Brian Washburn: Welcome, everyone, to another episode of Train Like You Listen, a weekly podcast about all things learning and development in bite-sized chunks. I’m Brian Washburn with Endurance Learning and I’m joined today by Connie Malamed, who is the Chief Mentor at Mastering Instructional Design. She’s also the publisher of The E-learning Coach website. Connie, thank you so much for joining us today. 

Connie Malamed:  Thank you for asking me, Brian. I’m happy to be here. 

Brian Washburn: I’m really excited to have this conversation. I met you very briefly in the speaker lounge area of an ATD conference a few years ago. We also stood in line without knowing each other at a Starbucks that was across the street from the hotel. 

6-Word Introduction

Brian Washburn: But this is the first time that we actually have a chance to talk and what we do when we start out these podcasts is we always want our guests to introduce themselves using exactly six words. I hear you’re cheating today with your six word biography, but our topic today is visual design and learning. So, when I think of my own career in six words, I would think “I can draw stick figures well”. How about you? What, when it comes to visual design, how would you, kind of, craft your biography around that using a few words? 

Connie Malamed: Well, my biography is more global and I was thinking in terms of “I help instructional designers improve their skills”. 

Brian Washburn: That’s definitely the global way to look at it. One of the things that you specialize in and you’ve written books about is the visual design and that is a skillset I think that is not easy to come upon. I’d love to hear a little bit more on your perspective in terms of what impact do you think that visual design has on learning experiences?

What Impact Does Visual Design Have On Learning Experiences? 

Connie Malamed: Oh boy, I think it has a very big impact and here’s why. When the visual design is poor, when there’s a lot of extraneous information, when things aren’t aligned, when it’s sloppy, it detracts from the learning. It makes it harder for people to visually process the screen or the slide in terms of e-learning and in terms of job aids or manuals, books, it’s the same story.

The other thing is a good visual design gives a course or a facilitator credibility because when things look professional, people tend to believe them. And there’s some research that shows that that’s true. So, people tend to think that learning is easier and that the speaker, or the person sponsoring it, is more credible when the design looks good. 

Brian Washburn: And that all makes sense. I don’t think that anybody would argue with that. So, when you are attending someone’s conference presentation, or when you’re looking at an e-learning that other people have created, what are some of the common design mistakes that you see? 

What Are Some Common Design Mistakes That You See In the Field of Learning & Development?

Connie Malamed: I think one common mistake is not thinking about the white space, so making slides too crowded. And I know people have told me in visual design workshops that their supervisors or clients will say, “Wait, you’re not filling up the slide. You’re not filling up the screen”. And the thing is, they’re all free, it doesn’t cost any more to create a new slide, so you might as well spread things out.

So, I think there’s that. And there’s the aspect of cognitive load from the visual perspective, which is that people can’t process more than a few, maybe three to four bits of information at one time. So when slides are crowded– then I’m also thinking about e-learning, when things are very crowded people will have trouble processing them. So that’s one of the biggest mistakes. 

Another is not having a focal point. You want to make your focal point – or the thing that people notice first – to be the most important element on the screen. So, if you’re trying to teach Point A, don’t have a visual for Point B, Point C, and Point D at that moment. You might be able to build a slide and add it, but keep a good focal point on exactly what the learning objective is.

Using Progressive Reveal (or Progressive Disclosure) In Visual Design

Brian Washburn: I want to just, kind of, point out something that you just mentioned, and it may get lost in some other things that you said. Is the importance of being able to, if it’s going to be a slide or even if it’s e-learning, to use animations so that you’re building the information as opposed to giving everything. That’s what I thought I heard you just say, because when you do– when you broadcast all the information, the whole slide at once. I know that for me as a learner, my eyes look – reading through the whole thing, trying to look at what I should be paying attention to, not necessarily even listening to the presenter at that point.

Connie Malamed: Yeah, you’re right. I mean, I hadn’t really thought of it as an animation; it is. You’re right, in PowerPoint and other tools it is an animation. So, that’s called a progressive reveal. So you want to highlight the – if it is all on one screen or one slide. And you have to stop and think about: “Is that even good?” And many times it is important because people need to make comparisons. So then just highlight one thing at a time and perhaps make the others a little bit more muted or more faded. 

Brian Washburn: Absolutely. Now, there are a ton of people in the training field, and I include myself in this bucket, who feel that they’re effective instructional designers, they’re effective presenters, they put together e-learning pretty effectively, but slide design or screen design just isn’t a place where we know how to improve; right? We just, kind of, are like, “We’ll just make it a good experience and we’ll make up for that bad visual experience with our charisma or whatever it might be”. What are some simple things that folks like us can do to tighten up our visual design? 

What Are Simple Ways To Improve Visual Design?

Connie Malamed: Well, you know, first of all, I have complete empathy for everyone who feels challenged at visual design. Almost no one in our field, you know, maybe 5% of our field has actually been trained in it. So, how would you know how to do it if you haven’t been trained? 

There are many visual design books out there that you can read about. And I think that some of the key ways to get started are, number one, from a learning perspective, think about what’s most important and then make that your focal point. Make sure you don’t have extraneous visual cues or extraneous visual information on the screen. Choose a pleasing palette that won’t — where people don’t need to wear sunglasses when they’re looking at your slides. That’s just some of the ways.

Brian Washburn: (CHUCKLING) It’s always fun to be looking at a bright pink slide, kind of, trying to figure that out. So, let’s say that we have some people who might be kind of on the next level, right? They’re decent, they have decent visual design instincts. They’re doing a lot of these beginner steps. They’re choosing the right palette. They’re not using, you know, 15 different fonts. They’re kind of allowing there to be white space and not feeling like that’s wasted space. What can folks like that do to take their visual design to the next level?

What Can People With Some Visual Design Skills Do To Take Their Design to the Next Level?

Connie Malamed: Hmm, that’s a great question. And I love this idea of becoming extremely conscious, and everyone really can do this, of the visual design in your environment. And then when you see something that you like, note it. If it’s online, you can take a screen capture of it and put it into a folder of ideas. Get some visual design books, so that you can flip through them when you need inspiration. 

And after COVID, when everyone is out and about, traveling, you will find posters and billboards and even your junk mail. Every single thing you see has been visually designed. So stop, look at it, analyze it and think: what was the designers intent? What was the designer trying to get across? What was the message? How did they interpret it to be able to visually create the message? Does it work or does it not work? And anything that works, write it down, keep a screen capture of it and use it. That’s a great way to get going. 

Brian Washburn: I love that inspiration from everywhere. And just to kind of get in the habit of looking around and not feeling that we always need to be original in it, but you know, what lessons can we draw from other people?

Connie Malamed, thank you so much for these answers. But before we go, I have a few speed round questions if you have a few minutes to stick around, so that our learners can get to know– or our listeners can get to know just a little bit more about you. Are you ready for these speed round questions? 

Get To Know Connie Malamed

Connie Malamed: I’m going to take a deep breath, and go!

Brian Washburn: What is your go-to food or snack right before you give a presentation?

Connie Malamed: Nothing. I prefer to present on an empty stomach. 

Brian Washburn: Fascinating. How about a piece of training tech that you can’t live without?

Connie Malamed: My Wacom tablet and pen. My digital tablet and pen. 

Brian Washburn: Is there anything that people should be reading or listening to, especially you mentioned to get some design books or things like that. Is there anything that people should be listening to or reading around this topic? 

Connie Malamed: One thing you can do is listen to design podcasts and I love listening to them. I prefer them over my own podcast because, well, it’s something different, it’s another field. So user experience podcasts and design podcasts, graphic design podcasts are really interesting to find out what’s going on in the field with the latest ideas and perceptions are. Those kinds of things. 

Brian Washburn: Perfect, and then before we leave, do you have any shameless plugs for us? 

Connie Malamed: Well, I have had an online community called Mastering Instructional Design for about a year and a half, and we’ve got a few hundred members. And people say that they’re really learning a lot. We have live classes, self-paced classes, discussions. It’s really been fun and a fulfilling adventure. 

Brian Washburn: How do people sign up and take part in that community?

Connie Malamed: They go to It’s a membership community, so, yep. 

Brian Washburn: Perfect. Well, Connie Malamed, thank you so much for joining us today. This has been a great talk. I’m glad that we had a chance to talk a lot more than we talked in line at Starbucks. (CHUCKLING)

And, for everybody else who’s listening, thank you so much for listening to another episode of Train Like You Listen, which you can find on Spotify, on Apple, on HeartRadio, or wherever you get your podcasts. If you happen to like what you heard, give us a like, and that’s how other people will find us as well. Until next time, happy training everyone!

This week’s podcast is sponsored by Soapbox.  Sign up today for a free demo at

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