Graphic designer drawing on graphics tablet at workplace
ATD Blog

Using Principles of Design to Captivate Learners

Monday, August 8, 2022

Da Vinci’s The Last Supper. Van Gogh’s The Starry Night. Monet’s Water Lilies. These well-known works of art use visual design principles that contribute to the viewer’s deep feelings, sense of cohesion, and understanding of the dynamics depicted. Learning and development professionals, too, can use such principles to help learners remember key points, empathize, and stay engaged with the training. In “Bring Design Mastery to L&D,” Brittany Harris connects the work of master artists, their use of visual design principles, and examples of L&D deliverables that use those same principles.

It’s by Design

There are several visual design principles that make something “just work.” “By applying them, you can create high-impact visuals that engage your audience,” writes Harris. Consider six of them:

1. Balance refers to how elements in the learning deliverable are spread across one or more axes.
2. Pattern, as it sounds, has to do with how elements repeat to stress consistency. Think circular elements.
3. Rhythm, closely related to pattern in the repeating components, “also actively guides viewers’ eyes along a specific path by creating a sense of flow.”
4. Emphasis can be used when one or more items within the larger painting or deliverable are relatively more important than others.
5. Contrast uses opposing features to illustrate how they are different. Think dark and light aspects of a portrait.
6. Unity is about seeing a picture as one. It’s about wholeness or harmony.

Putting the Concepts Into Action

How do L&D professionals use these principles in their deliverables? Think about creating a PowerPoint slide or an e-learning asset with all the text on one side of the sheet. It feels lopsided. Instead, use balance to evenly list, for instance, bulleted items, so that there are an even number of items in two columns. Ta-da: balance in action.
Or take an example of four small pictures with captions on a slide. Might you outline each with the same-sized rectangle in a row for consistency’s sake? You’ve used pattern.


Think about a deliverable that shows a process. You want learners to understand that they must progress from step one to step two to step three rather than doing the steps in random order. Create a sheet or slide that captures a sense of flow from steps one through three as a process. This is a sample of rhythm.

But We’re L&D Professionals, Not Artists

While many L&D professionals do (rightfully) see themselves as creatives, others will balk at the idea of using art principles in their learning deliverables. If not from a talent aspect, then from a time perspective: After a needs analysis, taking into consideration all stakeholder “wants and needs” and learning objectives, it can be off-putting to add one more item to the process of creating learning deliverables. But it matters.


You need to keep learners interested and engaged if they’re going to buy what you have to sell. And that means creating visually attractive learning deliverables.

Ideas for Inspiration

Don’t know exactly where to start? Harris suggests spending some time around art. If you have physical access to museums, great, visit them. If you don’t, there are plenty of resources online or books at the nearby library to explore. These artwork collections will give you insight into how artists use these principles in their work. And how you can as well.

About the Author

Patty Gaul is a senior writer/editor for the Association for Talent Development (ATD).

1 Comment
Sign In to Post a Comment
Highly insightful write-up. Thanks for putting this up beautifully.
Sorry! Something went wrong on our end. Please try again later.
Sorry! Something went wrong on our end. Please try again later.