Using Custom Graphics to Build Beautiful eLearning Without Breaking the Budget

One of the biggest challenges when creating a course is finding relevant, high quality graphics. We've all spent hours in front of eLearning or PowerPoint presentations filled with dodgy clipart or stock photos. But there is an easier way to improve the look and feel. In this article we'll explore an alternative that won't blow your budget.

I was recently working with a large client on a series of eLearning modules which were going to be delivered to tens of thousands of subcontractors within their supply chain.

Despite the large number of people expected to engage with this content, we didn't have a huge budget for creating custom graphics and imagery.

I don't know about you... but I am sick and tired of seeing eLearning courses that use irrelevant stock photography - it's no wonder that we repeatedly hear learners saying "eLearning is so boring and ugly". (I actually met with a prospective client last year, who upon hearing the name of my business, actually said that sentence out loud!)

But who can blame them? We see the same old images going round and round, with courses being designed by anyone who gets their hands on a copy of Storyline.


I am sick of seeing irrelevant stock photography - it’s no wonder that we repeatedly hear learners saying “eLearning is so boring and ugly”

So we needed to propose a solution that allowed us to keep a professional look and feel throughout the course, but that also gave us the flexibility to create a variety of images that complimented the learning material.

And therefore it was my job to come up with a solution that was going to delight our client and not eat into our margin... Easier said than done!

Getting started with outsourcing

When I started eLearning Architect I knew that I would need support from other professionals who could complement my work with their skills. 

One of the real challenges in starting a business is in identifying your weaknesses and rather than trying to be an expert at everything, recognise when you need to let go and ask for help. (Tough when you're as stubborn and proud as I am!)

I subsequently started using Upwork, which is an online freelancer marketplace. Upwork is a bit like eBay - but rather than auctioning off your old junk, you're auctioning your project.

You start by posting a brief with an estimate as to how much you expect to pay for the work (don't worry if you don't know exactly how much this work will cost, you can provide a rough estimate and then be guided by the responses). 

Freelancers will bid on the project - and then you can read each applicant's proposal, view portfolios and start a conversation with those freelancers that look like the closest match.

(Turns out this initial conversation is also a great way to test their communication skills and check for attitude, punctuality and attention to detail etc.)

One of the real challenges in starting a business is to identify your weaknesses and recognise when you need to let go and ask for help.

Successful outsourcing

Artwork sourced through Upwork used in my e-learning course

Within the past 12 months, I have outsourced over 50 small projects via Upwork. With each project I become more and more skilful in confidently delegating projects to guarantee the type of results I'm expecting.

Projects have included building interactive PDF storyboards, complex adjustments to our Squarespace website, proofreading training courses and articles, working through bookkeeping issues on our cloud-based accounting software and designing marketing templates for downloadable bonus material.

More often than not, we have been extremely satisfied with the quality of work that has been delivered - but there is a simple formula to follow to ensure the work is what you expect.

The key to a successful project

Going through the process of outsourcing these small projects has taught me an excellent lesson in using a website like Upwork and managing projects in general. And I'm sure this is something that is going to stand me in good stead for the rest of my journey as a business owner – the importance of writing a solid brief.

With the first project that we had delivered via Upwork, our brief was quite flimsy. I was actually naively hoping that the freelancer would take on the responsibility of understanding what I wanted simply from our conversation and then surpass my expectations.

Erm... I can safely say that this didn't happen. The freelancer went off on a tangent and I couldn't use his work.

But because it was only a small project, the amount of time and effort it took to resolve was small. I was able to redirect the same freelancer back in the right direction; although this cost us extra money and wasted time, it taught us a crucial lesson - to write a watertight brief covering all variables. This will ensure that all parties are fully aware of their expectations before beginning the project.

The hours you spend on a watertight brief will save you days of adjustments later on...

Custom eLearning illustrations 

So it was through successfully using Upwork on several small projects that we came up with the idea of searching for an artist who could illustrate a series of images that we could use throughout our eLearning course.

We wrote a detailed brief for each image, which included as much information as possible.

We also included some images found online, which had a very similar look and feel to what we had discussed with our client.

Next we received several applications for the work and left the budget quite loose to see what responses came back. We immediately found several illustrators whose portfolios blew us away.

Our only issue was whether our explanation for each drawing was going to be good enough for the artist to successfully create the drawings (were they going to be able to conceptualise what we were thinking?).

But I trusted my brief-writing skills, and agreed with the artist to mock up one drawing in black and white to make sure we could work together and that the result would be similar to our concept. 

We agreed to pay for this sample, because I wouldn't expect anyone to work for nothing - although you will find some freelancers on Upwork that will provide free samples depending on their eagerness to win the contract.

(We even had one person create a small project before we had started reviewing applicants! It was a risky tactic to ensure we hired him, but we were impressed with the sample they provided - so it paid off!)

The end result

As you can see from these images, the quality of illustrations was excellent and most importantly - the client was delighted.

This helped us to build one of the most professional and stylish e-learning courses that we have showcased in our portfolio to date.

The illustrations were delivered in both wireframe (black-and-white) and full-colour, which meant we were able to use the images in different ways throughout the course.

We also asked the artist to deliver each of the different images on an individual layer, which means we could separate out the images but also use them grouped together.

As you can see from some of the pictures shown within this article, we were able to reuse some of the images throughout the course which meant we could reduce the number of illustrations we had to commission, which reduced the overall cost of the course.

(We asked the artist to send both the black and white and colour versions of the artwork which didn't increase their workload but gave us double the amount of images to use).

If you're interested in seeing the final course, you can see one of the modules here.

Final thoughts

What do you think of the illustrations? Have you used online marketplaces to commission graphics for your eLearning course? Or do you have another clever way of sourcing well-designed graphics for your courses?

If you enjoyed this article don't miss my free, 5-day email crash course - 5 Common Mistakes to Avoid When Starting an eLearning Project.

Ant Pugh

108A Tooting Bec Road, 108A Tooting Bec Road