Instructional Design

Illustration and Animation: The Icing and the Cake

Illustration and animation, in our industry, 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 aren’t the icing on the cake—they’re the essential ingredients in the cake and in the icing.

Animations and illustrations, backed by learning pedagogy and neuroscience principles, are powerful tools for teaching complex concepts in deceptively simple ways. When these elements are thrown in a learning experience haphazardly, the learning experience becomes a sticky, confused mess. 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.


Four Levels of Illustration in a Learning Experience Design

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, with 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” perspective, level one is budget friendly. But it’s also useful for eliminating bias with non-gender or 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-three 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 They are expressive and timeless enough to replace video trainings with human actors, whose style quickly looks outdated.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 trainings meant to really impress the audience). They reflect the unique style of the artist.

Four Levels of Animation in a Learning Experience Design

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-one 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 example, for a learning experience aiming for inclusivity, we can use a level-one bathroom figure, but really make it come to life with level-three animation.

Or, if someone wants to convey emotions but branding isn’t as important, they can scale back on the level of illustration but use sophisticated animation.

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.

Animation and illustration are excellent tools for engagement and learning, but only when used intentionally. 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.