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3 things to consider when designing digital learning experiences

Editor’s note: This story on digital learning originally appeared on CoSN’s blog and is reposted here with permission.

Key points:

Teachers, principals, and district administrators are creating digital content every day for a variety of audiences. From classroom lessons and professional learning resources, to staff guides and announcement graphics, more and more information is being delivered in a visual way. Research shows that we process information presented in visual form more quickly than that presented in writing. However, if digital content is created without consideration of accessibility, visual processing, and basic design principles, the message we are trying to communicate can get lost, or worse, misinterpreted. 

Small changes in the design process when creating digital content can make a huge impact on how audiences access and process, and ultimately learn, information. Here are three things to consider when designing digital learning experiences for students and why:

Consider cognitive load

Cognitive load refers to the amount of working memory being used by the brain, similar to the RAM in your computer. When a computer has multiple programs running and is processing a lot of information, it starts to slow down because the memory usage is high. The same thing happens to the brain when learning. When the brain becomes overloaded with information — a high cognitive load — learning slows down and becomes less efficient, because less information makes it to the permanent memory.

What does this mean for us as designers?

Avoid information overload. Outline all of the information you are providing, and consider breaking large ideas down into smaller parts. Present these smaller parts in an order that is easy to follow, with time to process the information. This method of “chunking and sequencing” content makes information easier to process.

Visual hierarchy

In a world full of visual content, understanding how to control what our audience sees first is crucial. We’ve all seen slides with lines and lines of text, or digital flyers overloaded with images, colors, and fonts. In these moments, our brains are unsure where to look, and our ability to understand and process the information slows down. Visual hierarchy is the art of arranging elements in a design — a slide, poster, webpage, etc. — to guide the audience’s attention and convey information efficiently. 

What does this mean for us as designers?

Creating visual hierarchy starts with identifying what is most important, the information you want your audience to understand and remember. This might be an image, a word or phrase, a date or time, etc. This main element is placed first, so that it remains the focal point. Larger elements draw more attention, so prioritize the important content by making it the largest element in the design. Additional elements like titles, small lines of text, or images and icons should be added in order of their place in the visual hierarchy, being mindful of keeping the focus on the main element.

Less is more. The fewer elements in a design, the easier it is to process the information. Instead of one slide with five lines of text, try breaking that into multiple slides with larger text. Multiple images can be distracting. Try choosing one powerful image with carefully aligned text of different sizes or colors.

Design with accessibility in mind

When creating digital content, a significant amount of time is often spent painstakingly choosing the perfect fonts and colors. In reality, visual design best practices say that fonts and colors should be kept simple and at a minimum to keep designs accessible and lessen cognitive load.

Using loud, decorative fonts or mixing too many fonts together can be highly distracting, and break down visual hierarchy in the design. Script and handwriting fonts have gained popularity recently, but can be difficult to read and should be avoided when creating designs for large audiences. 

Similar to fonts, color can be used to create visual interest and draw attention. Using a few high-contrast colors that work well together supports visual hierarchy while making the content accessible for those with visual impairments or color blindness.

What does this mean for us as designers?

Keep it simple. Choose easy to read fonts as the foundation of the design. Lexend was created with this in mind — to decrease visual stress and increase processing efficiency. Decorative fonts can always be added for visual interest and to draw attention.

Use online tools. Generators from Adobe and Canva make it easy to build color palettes, and the built in accessibility tools ensure color selections are high contrast.

Be consistent. Whether it’s a slidedeck, website, or series of social media graphics, be consistent in your designs. Consistency in layout, fonts, and colors helps audiences anticipate the content and process it more quickly.


de Jong, T. (2010). Cognitive load theory, educational research, and instructional design: Some food for thought. Instructional Science, 38(2), 105–134.

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