Visual Design Tip: 3 Ways to Use Emphasis in Your Online Training

Emphasis is an important element in graphic design because it’s the way you direct your audience’s attention. Designers know that well-placed emphasis is a powerful tool for making their message sticky, so it only makes sense that we should use emphasis in training design to make our online training sticky.

Unfortunately most online training uses emphasis in very expected ways – with text effects (color, bold, italics, font type, font size, etc.) or with depth through the use of drop-shadows. Overuse of these treatments erodes their impact and puts you AND the trainee into a slide coma. So what can you do to revive your trainee and keep their attention? With a little PowerPoint know-how and some design inspiration it’s actually easier than you might think to add artful emphasis - and visual flair to your next training.

Use Color & Contrast

Color and contrast are probably the way most of us are comfortable adding emphasis to our training. But have you tried any of these tricks?

  • Accent key words in your text with color.
  • Check out a technique I use to bring subtle emphasis to otherwise boring bulleted text using color and an animated fade in PowerPoint.

  • De-emphasize the background image to highlight a character in the foreground.
    When the character in the foreground is the focus, it’s easier to make an emotional connection to the message. For step-by-step instructions on how to do this technique in PowerPoint, watch this quick demo from

Experiment with Scale & Proportion

Close your eyes for a moment and try to visualize the Uncle Sam poster below. What were the first things that came to mind? Probably the in-your-face Uncle Sam image pointing right at you, and beneath him, the word “YOU,” right? Sometimes you need to get in your audience’s face with your message. That’s where scale and proportion come in handy.

  • Use scale and proportion to drive home key points.
    Forget all the graphic design rules and formulas! Scale and proportion are two areas where it’s best to experiment and go with your instincts. A few guidelines to keep in mind:
  • Emphasize the right thing.
  • Notice the scale differences between Option A & Option B. Option A focuses more on the words on the screen – particularly the word “You” and it feels a little more directive. But, if I wanted my trainees to focus on the emotional impact of my message, I might choose Option B because the larger scale of the subject’s face relative to the text draws my attention to his expression and provokes an emotional response. A motivates with words and B motivates with image.

  • Avoid visual conflict. When it comes to scale and proportion, try to strike a balance between all of the elements on the page. After all, you DON’T want to end up with Option C - yikes!

Perspective & Dimension

People don’t live in 2-D so why do we expect them to fully engage in a 2-D training experience? Okay, so we’re limited by the fact that our online training medium is 2-D (at least until we get that holographic projector up and running…) but that doesn’t mean we can’t use perspective.

  • Use image layering. Create a backdrop representative of the trainee’s work environment – an office setting, retail setting, hospital, etc.. Or, for another variation on this theme, try layering images to create a desktop, and then link the objects on the desktop to the trainee’s options to help put them in charge of their training experience. For another hands-on tutorial on using image layering, check out this great demo from David Andersen of Articulate.
  • Use shading to add dimension. Yes, a drop shadow effect looks cool but what if you could make a photo or a post-it note look like it was actually sitting on the trainee’s computer screen? Try out this super-easy page-curl drop-shadow effect in your next online training. (Hint: I used this technique on the post-it note pictured above).

Looking for some more visual inspiration for your next training design? Check out the great blog post from with examples of how web designers are pushing boundaries and using emphasis.

I’ve given you 3 ideas to try, but do you have your own cool tricks for artfully adding emphasis to your training? If so, please share them with me and the community by clicking on the comments link.

Trina Rimmer is a learning and communications consultant with twelve years experience designing, developing, and delivering smart, engaging training solutions. When her training skills aren't being tested by her children, you'll find her helping others to develop their own design muscles. Contact Trina at

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