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Communications Design Industry Discussion, Inspiration, & Tutorials

Dec 6, 2016

Decrease Cognitive Load in Online Courses (simply)

On what do you want students to focus?

Whether in Graphic Design, Corporate Marketing, or Instructional Design…my focus is always design for ease of understanding, readability, and visual cleanness. It’s my design background, it permeates everything I do. Basic graphic design principles are the cornerstone of effective communications. TMy first rule of instructional design is “Less is More.”

This is also the basis of the Cognitive Load Theory of learning. Plainly, the theory states that the more disparate, combatting elements on a page, the less likely a learner is to grasp the full meaning of the content. Whereas, the more simplified design, the more uniform the presentation, the easier content is to grasp.

Here’s an example that I use in many of the faculty training courses I’ve recently developed (this is peppered into courses that cover online accessibility, educational video, and of course building e-learning). I’m deadly serious about reducing the cognitive load for students.

In this example, the instructor wanted to call out various parts of the text content to ensure students did not ignore them. However, the multiple colors, text sizes and weights work to confuse learners. Is it immediately obvious what the important content is on the left-side example?

On the right, I used built-in formatting to organize the type cleanly and succinctly...headings, body text, and lists dictate hierarchy.

Guidelines to simplify course content and increase readability of online courses

Text Contrast

The most readable text is simple black text on a white background. It offers the greatest accessibility for learners using assistive technologies. It is the MOST readable color combination, and it works.
Resist the urge to add more colors to your course, if you must select another dark color that offers a high contrast to the white background. Sticking to these guidelines you’ll find there is no need ever to use the color Red, extra-bold, 20pt fonts, and exclamation points to catch your students’ attention.

Font Sizes and Decoration

Hierarchy dictates importance in the written word. Use it to your advantage!

Stick to one size/style for body text, headings, subheadings, and lists. Don’t rely on ever=increasing sizes of text to add emphasis.

Fortunately, the Learner Management System (we use Blackboard) already includes distinctive preset styles for these various hierarchical text elements. There is little or no need to then introduce extraneous colors sizes and weights to the text.Using the existing styles, and then breaking up your text content will increase readability across the entire course.


Large blocks of text are difficult to read. So are long lines of text that span from the far left to far right of the screen.

Simply stated, text is easiest to read when you deliver it in short paragraphs – ideally, no more than a few sentences each. Relevant images add interest and break up visually dense columns of text. Use images sparingly, and be sure that they are properly placed---not distracting. We've all seen sites where text and images are butted up against one another (that decreases readability and your credibility as an educator, sorry too say).

White Space

If your eLearning design consists of wall-to-wall text, I guarantee no one is going to read through it. Use margins around your text blocks, and try two line breaks between paragraphs, instead of one—to distinguish paragraphs more clearly

Ideal Alignment

  • Left-Aligned type is the easiest for us to read (in American culture)
  • Centered and Right-Aligned text is more difficult to read.
  • Justified text is also more difficult to read on screens–because the algorithms that allow for that spacing can move letters extremely close together or uncomfortably far apart, to keep the line widths consistent; resulting in uneven gutters of white space.