Explaining with Graphics

Students learn better when the right kind of graphics are added to text. This page presents information on technical and instructional design issues involved in representing course content in a visual way.

Graphics are Useful

What kinds of visuals work well in instructional materials?

We all know that one of the major "value added" aspects of doing things digitally is the opportunity to include visuals with our materials, whether it be an online learning module or a powerpoint presentation. Tools abound.

If you've ever been on a website design committee, or tried to develop a powerpoint presentation that wasn't all bullet points and clipart, you're familiar with the challenge: We want to appeal to our audience in a visual way, break up or replace all the text, yet simply decorating the page or slide with decorative clipart doesn't help communicate what we want.

Turns out there are principles and best practices for developing graphics to support learning and communication. I've included a short list of my favorite books and resources below.

Tips for Using Graphics in Instructional Materials

  • limit your use of "decorative" graphics. Decorative graphics can actually impede learning. (Mayer 2001)
  • place graphic adjacent to text that refers to graphic (Mayer 2001)
  • text captions near graphics are often helpful

In cases where you're talking about concrete objects, by all means include a picture of that object. But so often our course materials deal with more abstract ideas. My advice is: don't work too hard at trying to find a graphic to represent the idea. It will be hard to do, and will not be that effective for your learners.

For example, say you are putting together materials on e-learning. You might be tempted to try to represent the idea of e-learning -- maybe a picture of someone reading a computer screen, or a graphic showing computer-mediated communications, or the like. It will be hard, and it won't be immediately clear to learners, so it won't carry much of the "explanatory load" of your presentation. Understand that you're essentially working on a decorative graphic. :-)

Required Skills & Competencies

An instructor wishing to use explanatory graphics needs to know...

* how to obtain graphics
o from a web page
o as a "screenshot" of their computer screen
o from a clipart site

* how to manipulate graphics
o by resizing pictures
o by drawing arrows and boxes on graphics

* how to use graphics in their presentation environment, be it Powerpoint, a web page, or a handout.


  • http://gimp.org The GIMP: a free graphics program for windows, linux, and macintosh. GIMP for windows is at http://gimp.org/windows/.
  • http://www.flickr.com Flickr: online service for organizing and sharing pictures. Free basic accounts, additional features available for pay accounts.
  • http://picasa.google.com/ Picasa: free photo library software for Windows. From the fine folks at Google.
  • http://www.apple.com/ilife/iphoto/ iPhoto: photo library software for Macintosh, from Apple. Part of the iLife suite of programs that typically come bundled with Macs.
  • http://plasq.com/ Comic Life: Excellent software for adding thought bubbles, speech bubbles, and comic-like photo layouts. Macintosh only.