E-learning is all about sharing information with learners in hopes of teaching them new knowledge and skills. This information can be shared through many media: photos, audio clips, videos, and, of course, text. We often use a lot of words in our e-learning and end up with text-heavy courses. One way to minimize the use of text is to use icons instead.

Icons are a small picture or pictorial presentation of a thing, an object, an idea, or a process. They are all around us and are used as a main form of human communication. Here are a few common icons we see all the time and know well:

In e-learning, icons are used in a few different ways. Sometimes they’re clickable; you might click on one to choose an option or make a selection. For example, an icon in the shape of a house might be clicked to return to a home page or menu. Other times they are used simply for visual purposes, to convey an idea or a message. Let’s take a closer look at why you would use icons in e-learning, as well as a few best practices to ensure your design looks great. 

Why use icons in e-learning?

Replace text

Icons are a great way to provide your learners with succinct information without having to use text. In the example below, icons are used to represent each of the three types of communications covered in the training. 

Add visual interest

Icons can also add decoration or visual flair to your design. In the example below, the icons add a visual representation of each category of spending.

Save space

Using icons can sometimes be a space saver, since a sentence or even just a few words can take up more space than an icon. Looking to use circular icons? Instead of fitting the word “Resources” onto a small round button, you might more easily fit an icon of a book, like in the example below. 

Minimal translation required

One nice thing about icons is that they tend to be universal and generally don’t need to be translated. That being said, it is possible that an icon or symbol might have a meaning to one culture that is different or nonexistent in another—keep that in mind if you’re creating content for a variety of cultures.

Best practices for using icons in e-learning

Choose a style

When it comes to icons, there are a wide variety of styles available: filled, outlined, curvy, square, or even hand drawn.

Be consistent

Once you find an icon look or style that you like, be consistent by using the same style for all your icons. For example, in the image below the icons all have a thin outline, so they all work together. 

Be clear

What might seem an obvious symbol to you could mean something completely different to someone else. Keep in mind that cultural differences and type of audience could affect how your icons are perceived. It never hurts to do some quality assurance testing and get a second opinion on your icons to make sure everyone is clear on their meaning. 

These are a few simple tips you can follow to make the best use of icons in your next e-learning design. Do you like to use icons in your courses? Let me know how and why you use icons in e-learning in the comments below. 

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Quentin Dickey
Nicole Legault