Are style guides killing your creativity?

Killing CreativityeLearning has seen so many changes in the style and methodology of what we create and how we create it over the years.

But as the technology advances is our creativity as instructional designers being stifled by the need for internal branding within online courses?

eLearning advancement – My story

I remember on one project in my early eLearning days being introduced to an eLearning program where we wrote scenarios around customer service content and then developed those scenarios into simulations for online learning. I was wearing two hats on this project – instructional designer and subject matter expert. Mind you, that’s not unusual in this business, I’m sure you’ll agree!

These days creating system simulations is a pretty straightforward task with the tools we have available, but back then it was not so easy because:

  • the software package we were using included libraries, cascading style sheets, java scripting, and lots of other gadgets and widgets and
  • just because we could process customer claims did not mean everyone was capable of using this sort of software.

I spent some time getting to know the package and coached the team so that we could forge ahead together.

All we needed to create at that stage of the project was an introductory page, description of the scenario, sample forms, and a simulation.

However, to develop the simulation with the functionality we needed to teach involved putting “blocks” over every individual space in every field for the user to enter data, and making it easy to update each year as the values changed.

It was both labour and time intensive.

But at any rate, this was my first exposure to eLearning and it held my attention.

As my eLearning career took off, I remained involved with that same project for some time.

Eventually, I started to branch out and took more notice of what was happening in the industry by:

  • Attending conferences to keep abreast of advancements in both the software and the styles of training that were being developed
  • Investing in some rapid development software for my own use. This was a good move because in no time, I was using avatars, scenarios, simulations, and testing components in the training materials I was developing.

I implemented the “tell me, show me, let me try, then test me” approach which got good feedback from stakeholders and learners alike.

I also tried out various rapid development tools. And, as time marched on, became very proficient in two of the most popular authoring tools – Captivate and Storyline.

But believe me, I tried many others as well in between.


Hazards to creativity

Along with the changes in software, being easier to use, and having so much functionality already built in, there were also changes brewing in the style of online learning.

It was no longer enough to work with simple scenarios and system simulations. Now we had avatars, audio narration, embedded videos, gamification – and the list goes on! Pretty much anything you could imagine could be built and made available on any device. It’s quite mind-blowing really!

It’s great if you are working with an open-minded organisation who embraces creativity and technology, but some organisations (for whatever reason) are reluctant to open themselves up to all the possibilities of eLearning and have deferred to their marketing departments to create style guides for eLearning. Or worse, just insist that the standard branding guidelines are to be used.

These standard marketing, branding and style guides were not written for this type of product and so the restrictions now placed on some designers is exceptionally stifling.

Yes, we can’t discount the value of some brand guidelines such as font, corporate colours, and preferred terms (if this sort of thing is available).

However, insisting on things such as full bleed photography, editorial style, people not posed or looking at the camera, and no focus on technology, pointing at content, or clichés starts making it difficult to find imagery that is suitable, especially if you have no budget for custom imagery.

Reviving the creative eLearning pro

Don’t be put off by rigid style guidelines in your designs – sometimes you just have to push the boundaries.

If it is too much and the client doesn’t like it, you can always pull it back.

Because, sometimes, they just need to see what can be done.

So tell me, do you think style guides inhibit good designs and creativity for eLearning?  I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

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Author Bio

Photo of blogger Leisa BulowLeisa Bulow is a Learning & Development specialist with over 25 years’ experience in customer service, sales, L&D, eLearning design & development, leadership and management roles.

She has worked in a diverse range of industries, including retail, banking and finance, government departments and government projects (both state and national), and various corporate private enterprises.

These days, Lisa mainly consults to businesses on L&D and instructional design. She also uses her extensive knowledge on technical systems training, leadership, customer service, sales, effective communication, teambuilding and time management to create bespoke online and face-to-face learning solutions for her clients.

Find out more about Leisa on LinkedIn



  1. Paul Shaw 14/12/2015 at 7:06 pm

    Dear Leisa
    I have been working as a journalist, editor and content provider for more than 45 years.
    I have worked on a wide range of print publications and web publications.
    At the moment I am working on elearning resources for teams based in London and New York and various Australian print and web publications.
    During my entire career, I have found that well constructed style guides are essential tools. This is particularly so when working with three different versions of English (US, UK and Australian) and texts poorly translated from a wide range of other languages.
    I find style guides aid my creativity and I would find it difficult to work to the standard required without them.

    • Leisa Bulow 15/12/2015 at 2:55 am

      Hi Paul,

      I agree that “well constructed style guides” are fantastic! It is one of the first things I look for when taking on a new role. However many of these guides have been put together by marketing departments or similar, many years ago, and not revised since to move with the times and keep up with technology.

      There is definitely a strong argument for fonts, corporate colours, preferred terms and the like, but it is difficult to describe and sum up how learning should be presented, for best effect. For example, one static grey background with one single character built in, in the same pose, with two or three different text boxes to choose from, with the voiceover saying the same as the multitude of text on the screen, in a basic “tick and flick” format, just because they were “approved”, does not excite me to read about a new product or system.

      I’m all for the parts of branding and style guides that protect the brand identity, but just as PowerPoint presentations evolved (oh no, death by PowerPoint…), I think this is a growing space where guidance is great as long as it is not a stranglehold.

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