Put your hands in the air and step away from the computer. Before you start playing with graphics and loading content, just give some thought to whether there’s a theme that could help you frame the project in a more useful or interesting way.

This month, let’s take a “Nuts & Bolts” look at the importance of concept in eLearning design, specifically the use of themes and how they can support—or harm—learning. When approaching content for an eLearning course, there are myriad reasons for going with a theme.

For the learner, a good theme can make or break an eLearning course: It can offer familiarity, support engagement, hold learner attention, and build atmosphere. It can invite interaction and offer learning support by providing material in a memorable way, linking topics and shoring up retention.

For the designer? It’s our struggle to find some way to cast content—often dry, compliance-y stuff—in a way that makes it more palatable. Finding a theme can make the content more interesting to work with and can help you make your work more visual; it can be a great idea-jolter and can make the work of basic layout and visual design easier going. A carefully chosen theme can be a great teaching tool and can provide a designer with an interesting, engaging framework.

For instance, Kevin Thorn’s “Mission: Turfgrass” (Figure 1) invites the learner to assume the role of a soldier out to save the American lawn from weeds and grasses. The theme suggests color, graphics, tone of writing and voice-over, and content outline, all supported by a narrative thread that encourages forward motion.