Earlier this month, I gave a presentation on Creating Custom Themes at our local Adobe Captivate User Group. As I was going through the step-by-step process of creating a theme, I found myself reflecting on my experience over the years – what worked, what didn’t work, and how to save time. In this article, I will share some of those lessons learned – as opposed to the step-by-step technique of creating a theme.
This article is aimed at intermediate Adobe Captivate users who have already created a few projects and are now ready to create a theme that reflects their client’s or company’s brand and/or ensures visual consistency across related e-learning modules.
Preparation is Key
Begin with the end in mind.
~ 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey
I find that careful planning and a little research before starting to create a custom theme saves a lot of development time.
According to Adobe's online Help (helpx.adobe.com/captivate/using/themes.html), a theme consists of the following components: Master slides, object styles, Skin and TOC (table of contents) settings, and recording defaults. Planning helps to determine which of these components will need to be customized in the theme, as well as how they should be customized.
For example, there is no need to customize the skin and TOC if they are never going to be used.
So, how do we know what to include in a theme?
How to Determine What to Include
Determining the look and feel of the theme is easier if the client has is a Style Guide or similar document which defines their company’s brand as this becomes the definitive guide for visual elements.
However, there have been many occasions when I have had the pleasure of creating the visual style from scratch. If this is the case, and there is a graphic designer or UI designer on the team, I use them as a resource.
Frequently though, the budget does not include such a wonderful resource. In these situations, my primary concern is to start from a cohesive color palette that will help project a professional, polished finish. To accomplish this, I either:
- Use a color generating/matching tool. Or...
- Take advantage of resources that supply cohesive color palettes. Or...
- Consider paying for images in order to get access to additional configurations and assets.
Using a Color-Matching Tool
My favorite tool is Color Explorer.
Using the color picker, I can start from a color I like and the tool will generate complimentary colors. I can also upload an image, and it will extract a color palette from that.
Any color palettes generated can be exported as an Adobe Swatch Exchange (ASE) file that can be exported into Captivate using the Swatch Manager.
Illustrated in the image below, Adobe Color CC (color.adobe.com/create/color-wheel/) has similar functionality and provides greater control over the colors generated from imported images. However, I find it less intuitive.
Utilizing Color Palette Resources
A resource I like to use for inspirational color palettes is veerle.duoh.com/inspiration. Veerle (whom I do not know personally), generates color palettes from images people share with her, and makes these available to download in ASE format --for free!
When my budget allows, I find that purchasing non-exclusive royalty rights to the images that inspire me often provides access to the PSD, AI or other vector image source files. In this way I can go beyond just using the colors, and – also extract elements of the image to use as buttons and other key elements to maintain the cohesive theme. This is often quite inexpensive. I usually spend between $35 - $80 on an image and reuse its assets over and over again -- guilt-free!.
Identifying which functional elements are necessary for a theme and which are not, can be a great timesaver – both when creating the theme, and down the road as the theme will not need to undergo constant updates in order to provide Objects and functionality that are needed in the courses.
For example, in an Accessible course, the Matching Question type will not be used in a quiz, so there is no need to spend time customizing it or similar Quiz Master slides.
Another common example the use of custom navigation buttons. Although buttons cannot be defined in Master slides, Smart Shapes can. So, in this case I would add Smart Shapes as buttons to the appropriate Master slides when creating or customizing any standard layouts.
Another example would be simulations. If no simulations will be recorded, time can be saved by not customizing the Recording Defaults.
Depending on how my team is structured, and my specific role within the team, I use one of the following methods to identify key functional elements:
- Create or obtain an approved wireframe, or storyboard of a course that will be typical within the series;
- Build the first course and use the functionality within the course as the template for the theme;
- Build a rough prototype of the course (in PowerPoint or Keynote) and use it to get buy-in from stakeholders around the key functionality.
1. Choose the Base Theme Carefully
In order to create a theme, we have to start somewhere. The documentation recommends starting from the theme that is closest to the look and feel we want to achieve and customize it.
However, I’ve that starting with a theme that has very little formatting such Pearl or White and adding the styling needed can save time and effort. In my experience it can take a lot more time to locate and undo changes I don’t need, and if I am going to share the theme with other team members, I don’t want any hidden surprises.
2. Start with the Theme Colors
The theme colors are used throughout the theme in myriad locations – text, backgrounds, slide colors, and so on. I’ve learned to customize the theme colors (using the desired color palette) as early as possible to ensure consistency across all elements within the project.
3. Next, Create the Master Slides
3.1 Customize Layouts and Add Graphical Elements
Obviously, we need to customize the Master slide layouts to reflect the layouts being used in the course and add any commonly used “buttons” as smart shapes. Here, I’ve learned to:
- Start building from the background up.
Applying background elements before adding those that will be in the foreground helps to create visual anchors that can be used to determine where to situate the elements that are added later.
- Test incrementally.
As new elements are added, creating test slides using the new Master slides helps to get a good idea of how the Master slide will function in practice and tweaks can be made, if necessary.
- Remember to add non-static elements as placeholders.
Placeholders can only be added while in the Master Slide View. Insert them by selecting the appropriate option from the Insert > Placeholder Objects sub-menu.
- Take advantage of Smart Shapes to add custom buttons.
- Store commonly-used graphic elements for easy access.
In my opinion, the Master slides are a good place to put any graphic elements that will be used consistently throughout the course.
For example, if I have six approved images of people that can be used to represent clients within scenarios. I might add these images to one or more of the Master slides so that they are immediately available to anyone who applies the theme.
I believe this is a smart way to add a base set of images to the library to ensure consistency, but I’m not certain that it's conventional.
3.2 Begin Customizing Text and Object Styles
I’ve learned that there are a couple of advantages to starting the customization of Object Styles from within the Master Slide view:
- I can see the effect of any changes as I make them and make any necessary adjustments.
- I can save time by applying the same change to multiple styles using the Properties > Style Name submenu (see image below).
The down side to this is that changes to multiple styles seems to be hit and miss. Sometimes the effect sticks, sometimes it doesn’t. But when it does work, it’s great!
3.3 Double-Check and Finish Customizing Text and Object Styles
After making the preliminary changes to text and object styles in the Master Slides view, I use the Object Style Manager to ensure that all the changes I have already defined view have been applied. I also customize any object styles I may have missed, or I think might be useful later at a later date.
The Object Style Manager includes functionality to Export and Import Object styles, so after making modifications, it is possible to save those changes in an external file which can be imported into other themes down the road – or so I have heard. I haven’t had the opportunity to do this in practice.
Don’t forget to customize the Skin and TOC settings as well as the Recording Defaults if your projects require them. And then save the theme!
Save the Theme
Themes can be saved in any desired location. Wherever you save them, they will still become immediately available within the Themes palette so be sure to pick a location you can easily find if you need to share copies of the theme with other team members.