November 4, 2020 |

Using Graphics in Learning Material

The main job of an instructional designer is to create instructionally sound courses and there should be no expectation that learning specialists are also professional graphic artists. However, to make our courses more visually appealing to learners we need to be aware of basic graphic design principles.  Ruth Clark and Chopeta Lyons (2010) have identified 7 types of graphics specifically in relation to *eLearning, but I think these principles can just as easily be utilised for training material which is delivered in other formats such face or face or when creating course handouts.

The 7 types of graphics are defined as Decorative, Mnemonic, Representational, Organizational, Relational, Transformational, and Interpretative.

  • Decorative graphics: their purpose is aesthetic, and while they can look appealing, they are not intended to add any specific instructional value so are typically used on book or course material covers as opposed to within the body of learning material.
  • Mnemonic graphics: used to represent factual information. By looking at images which represent relevant facts, learners are helped to retrieve facts from memory.

Mnemonic graphic

  • Representational graphics: these are used to represent text. The idea is that learners should be able to understand what the text is about just by looking at the graphic, so that might be a screen capture or a photo of a specific piece of equipment.
  • Organizational graphics: their purpose is to help orient learners to the structure and sequence of lesson content. An organizational graphic shows the qualitative relationships among the main ideas in a lesson, e.g. this might be course map or geometric visuals to show the sequence and content so the learner has an overview of what the learning is intended to provide.
  • Relational graphics: these show the quantitative relationship of variables, so charts and graphs are the best examples as they organise data and information in ways that should make it easy to compare and contrast information and allow learners to visualise the relationship between the numbers presented in the content.
  • Transformational graphics: used to show changes over time, so these would include timelines, before and after images, or a video to show a process.
  • Interpretative graphics: these illustrate abstract theories or principles and might include things such as a schematic diagram, simulations or animated images to mimic how something works.

Tip: Once your graphic has been chosen, the next step is to select an appropriate size and format. If the course material will be online it is worth remembering that while high-resolution graphics looks nice and crisp, they can take a considerable amount of space. As well, high-resolution graphics may take a long time to load and that can cause annoyance and frustration for learners, so you risk alienating them to the actual course content. Probably the best approach is to start with a high-resolution graphic and then resize and squeeze it down as much as possible.  This doesn’t work as well with scaling small images up as the graphic may appear pixilated, so best to start with the bigger, better resolution and downsize it.

*I have chosen to use the term eLearning, however depending on personal preference and the organization you work for, it might also be termed e-learning, e-Learning or elearning (just as we have dropped the dash in e-mail to the more common email, I think the hyphen in e-learning will soon be redundant).

For more on this topic see: Clark, R.C. and Lyons, C. (2010). Graphics for Learning: Proven Guidelines for Planning, Designing, and Evaluating Visuals in Training Materials. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Pfeiffer.


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