eLearning Design and Development

Illustration and Animation: The Icing and the Cake

In our industry, illustration and animation are often thought of as icing on the cake—they make a dry learning experience go down a little easier but aren’t essential. At ELM, we argue that illustration and animation are actually the essential ingredients in  both the cake and icing. Both are necessary components to any good eLearning recipe. 

Animations and illustrations—backed by learning pedagogy and neuroscience principles—are powerful tools for teaching complex concepts in deceptively simple ways. We know they’re essential ingredients, but they need to be used in the right measure.

When these elements are thrown in a learning experience haphazardly, the learning experience becomes a sticky, confused mess—too much of a good thing. If used too sparingly, the dry course crumbles apart and nothing sticks with the learner. That’s why we’re intentional about the levels of illustration and animation we put in our digital learning experiences.

Take a peek into the process we use when deciding when and where we bring illustrations and animations to eLearning projects. 

Why use illustrations and animation in eLearning?

Getting graphic with your eLearning has some distinct benefits that make the process easier and the content more retainable. That’s because brains love to track movement, see pictures, and follow stories: it’s how it was designed. Text on a page may be able to convey information but it’s hard to engage with and even more difficult to remember. Simply put, we use animation and illustration because it works. 

Consider some of the benefits of visual storytelling over more traditional training: 

Direct attention

Let’s face it—not every piece of information is need-to-know data. Using graphics can tell your learners where and when to pay attention so they’re getting the information they can use most. Even something as simple as an image transition in or animated text tells the learner: look here. 

Create connection

The best learning happens when users feel connected to the content. It’s hard to create an emotional connection with static words on a page—learners skim through it or lack the engagement to feel any emotion at all. We can use illustration and animation to inject humor into a story, encourage interaction, introduce diverse characters, and create a positive learning environment from the first frame. When learners feel connected to stories and characters, they’re primed to remember the experience. 

Set the tone 

We love using animation and illustration to set the tone and reinforce branding for our clients. It’s easy to think that animation is best suited to lighter topics, but we can adjust the style, color palette, movement, and audio of an eLearning so that it suits just about any type of training. 

Increase digestibility

The best animated eLearning is done in bite-sized portions, a conscious choice made to increase learner engagement and retention. Shorter videos and modules mean holding user attention for the entire time while making the information super-digestible and easy to access. We can also make use of metaphors when illustrating, and visual storytelling is simply one of the best ways for learners to experience new information. 

Four levels of illustration in a learning experience design

Not all illustrations are created equally, and we work with each client to create a specific style, emotion, and outcome. Typically, we have four levels of illustration that we can play with to meet those goals. We start with our clients’ audience, goals, and budget and then decide upon the right levels to use in each particular learning experience.

Level 1:

We use very simple shapes (little or no facial expressions) to represent figures. We call these one-dimensional figures “bathroom characters,” as they look like the icons on restroom doors. From an “icing on the cake” perspective, Level 1 is budget friendly while still being useful if your training goals include eliminating bias with non-gender or non-race-specific characters.

Level 2:

We can create one or two specific traits for certain scenarios (e.g., if a character needs to wear a required uniform or safety equipment), but the unsophisticated characters are easy to duplicate. They have generic facial features, and we use clean shapes for the body and clothing. They’re simple but engaging enough to tell a story.

Level 3:

Level 3 characters are for a very personal, customized vision. They have diverse facial expressions and features, head sizes, and clothing for each character. They are expressive and timeless enough to be an alternative to using human models or stock photography (whose style often quickly looks outdated).

Level 4:

These illustrations are hand-drawn, hand-painted, and highly customized. We use them for upscale branding (e.g., in teaser training meant to really impress the audience and capture hearts and minds). They reflect the unique style of the artist and a unique point of view for the brand.

Four levels of animation in a learning experience design

When our illustrations are on the move, they become animations. Like illustration, we use four distinct levels to create programs that work with each client’s needs, goals, and budget. 

Level 1:

With this level, we usually use text and icons—there’s little to no character animation. The action is minimal, and the motion is uncomplicated. Figures pop in and out (or can fade in and out). Level 1 animation is useful for showing how to get from point A to point B.

Level 2:

Animated characters in this level enter the scene in an interesting way—for example, with a little bounce. The characters also move a little (blinking, head nods, arm waves). This works well with storytelling as we can animate the character’s reactions to a part of a scenario, and we can animate the background.

Level 3:

This level is more fluid, as every asset that should move on the screen does move, but not in random ways. It’s very detailed and dynamic and therefore more realistic for engaging storytelling.

Level 4:

This level is a lot more organic than the others, as it’s very slick and commercial-looking. It has a high level of detail with very specific, fluid movements and no sharp cuts. The backgrounds are fully textured and animated, like what you’d see in an advertisement.

Combining illustration and animation for maximum impact

We can use any of the levels in combination for any reason in a learning experience, whether budgetary, goal-oriented, or audience-specific. For a learning experience aiming for inclusivity, for example, we can use a Level 1 “bathroom figure,” but really make it come to life with Level 3 animation.

Or, let’s say a client is needing splashy, visually appealing training for their new software but is limited on budget, we might opt for an illustrated product tour with subtle animations to guide employees through the features and functions of the new software.

For some clients, it’s important to have the illustrations offer a lot of detail for branding purposes with a little animation sprinkled in to create more of an experience.  It’s all about using the right combination of animation, illustration, and content to create the perfect recipe for eLearning. 

Animated eLearning dos and dont’s 

Don’t make the mistake of dumping a lot of animated elements into an eLearning program and hoping it’ll turn out. Using illustration and animation with the right touch makes all the difference in the end product. 

  • Do keep it short and sweet. Animation is highly engaging, but in large doses, it can also be overstimulating. Keep animated modules short. There’s a sweet spot of 1.5 to 2 minutes before learners lose interest or feel overwhelmed. 
  • Don’t forget the audio. While animations are engaging and interesting, they still require some direction. Added audio in narration offers two distinct benefits. First, it can help tell the story and offer necessary context. Second, it improves accessibility for learners that may be sight impaired. Don’t expect the animation to tell the whole story, and plan for some type of audio narration, background music, or dialogue. 
  • Do encourage interaction. Animated eLearning shouldn’t be played like a movie—it should be an interactive process that asks the learner to engage regularly. Animation is the ideal way to encourage learners to interact in tactile ways to engage their senses and get them more involved in the process. They could choose their avatar from a preselected group or click on objects to see the cause and effect of their choices. Even something like the ability to stop, slow down, or replay a module is a built-in interaction and something that gets users involved in their own learning. 
  • Don’t add too much: Just like the cake and icing, animation and illustration can be too much of a good thing. Overstimulating learners with excessive movement, colors, music, sound effects, and characters can contribute to learners feeling overwhelmed and disengaged. If you choose to use animation in eLearning, keep it simple. Recognizable shapes, consistent branding, and the right background music can help you convey emotions and keep the story going without asking your learners to process everything all at once. 

Combining Illustration and Animation for Maximum Impact

Animation and illustration are excellent tools for engagement and learning, but only when used intentionally. We think the cake and the icing are necessary components to a sweet learner experience, but it’s important to use them in the right way. By combining different levels of each to personalize a learning experience, we can tell stories, engage an audience, and help the learners retain the information.