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Aug 2009

Tear down the visual wallpaper

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Shaping the future of learning

It's time to tear down the e-learning wallpaper and take heed of some top tips on using graphics for instructional purpose.

Graphic descriptions you may be familiar with:

  • 'Two people shaking hands'
  • 'Business person on the phone in generic office'
  • 'Image of learners, asleep in front of their computers'

Get the picture? Graphics and visuals are everywhere in our lives and are vital for communicating messages, helping us sift and categorise a bombardment of information, and remembering concepts and ideas. Think of the advertising world. When was the last time you saw an advert on TV that was pure text? Or a poster on a billboard that just showed a slightly irrelevant image and a bulleted list? OK, so this may be an extreme example, but e-learning and instructional design is sometimes accused of lacking that real visual flair and thinking that sits behind the world of effective advertising and comms. The thing is, we don’t just want to grab learners’ attention like adverts do – we want them to remember the key points.

So if you’ve ever put up e-learning wallpaper, it’s time to tear it down and take heed of some top tips on using instructional graphics.

1. Think about the purpose

When designing your e-learning, think about the purpose of the graphics, as well as the purpose of your whole screen.

For example, is the aim of your visuals to grab attention? Or perhaps you want to use the visuals to tip a common idea on its head, by using a recognisable image and altering it in some way or using it out of context?

Perhaps you want to use the visuals to tell a story, with text or without:

A picture split into three frames, one of a man in formal attire, one of a destroyed house, and another of a traffic jam.


Telling a story with visuals (taken from Kineo’s Climate Change project).

Or it might be that your visuals are the main way to convey the learning point on that screen – for example, exploring the effects of a bad diet or no exercise on the body.

A screenshot of an E-Learning course on the effects of not excercising, depicting health problems such as high/low blood pressure.

Exploratory graphics from Kineo’s Great Ormond Street Charity Project.Teenage learners can see the effects of not exercising on different aspects of the body over time.

Ask yourself: 'Where’s the first place the learner’s eye should fall on screen?" What’s the priority of the content? Should the learner explore the visuals in a certain order, or freely?' All of these should help keep your graphics brief and ensure that they support your objectives.

2. Keep it relevant

Screen estate is precious and you should use it wisely. Using visuals (or text, for that matter) that are irrelevant or surplus to meeting an objective can actually do more harm than good when it comes to learning. All that information will be fighting for a place in the learner’s memory, and the brain has to try to make sense of it all. Be nice to brain cells – keep it relevant and to the point and there’ll be more chance of it being remembered.

3. Work with the text

People often think of text and graphics as two separate entities, yet text is also a visual asset. Aim to design your screens so that the text and graphics communicate the messages together. We don’t mean that they need to replicate each other’s messages – that would be overload – but, rather than having a block of text on one side and the image on the other, join them up visually to help learners make the connections without having to look back and forth across the screen. Think magazines – don’t be scared to break your text into chunks and put the relevant parts with images or areas of an image, using headlines to bring out the key points. Equally, if you’re using interactive graphics, have the text appear as near to the clickable area as possible.

4. Remember ‘Pictures say a thousand words’

If you had to read the emergency evacuation procedure on a plane, do you think you would? Probably not, but the information graphics used get the points across much more effectively to an international audience – something to bear in mind if you’ve got translation issues.

Sometimes visuals are the best way to explain an idea or concept, particularly a complicated one, and they can communicate it much more efficiently than text. For example, how else would you effectively show the workings of a volcano, the inside of a car engine, correct working posture or the locations of UK Government offices around the world? Visuals are also great for statistical and diagrammatical information, but don’t feel you have to use a ‘standard’ bar or pie chart. The Guardian makes great use of scale to show relevant percentages or figures with different-sized circles.

A cross-section of a digital camera.

Inside a camera – an interactive graphic from a Kineo Nikon project.

5. Be unreal

Depending on the overall style of your course, thinking beyond the bounds of visual realism can help communicate ideas. To aid learning, can you simplify the complicated by using line drawings to show the inside of a machine or the structure of a building? Why not consider using scale (even if it’s unrealistic) to emphasise key points and draw the eye to the most important parts of a screen? Unrealistic and exaggerated images can burn into the memory better than any wallpaper could.

Can you use visual metaphors to communicate a complex or sensitive point, or to grab attention?

A cartoon elephant undernath of a mountain range, stood on top of a plate.

Animated visual metaphor for overcoming huge challenges – ‘How do you eat an elephant? One bit at a time…’ (taken from Kineo’s designs for Childcare NVQ, for learndirect).

6. Create aide-mémoires

Finally, help learners to recognise, categorise and recall information by using visual memory aids. These could be colour schemes, icons or key images used in a consistent way – perhaps to top and tail a chunk of learning.

Keep these points in mind as you develop graphics for your e-learning and you’ll be able to make sure they’re part of the learning experience, not a distraction from it.

For more on using audio with visuals, check out Tip 21.



Shaping the future of learning

Kineo helps the world’s leading businesses improve performance through learning and technology. We’re proud of our reputation for being flexible and innovative, and of our award-winning work with clients across the world.