Using Graphics To Improve Learning

Although no one can say that visuals are always superior to words, the principle known as the picture superiority effect should convince you that using effective visuals will improve learning. The principle states that people generally have a better memory for pictures than for corresponding words.

Research in many areas of learning, such as recognition, recall, comprehension and problem-solving point to the fact that visuals enhance learning in many situations. Considering how pictures are widely used in advertising and marketing communications, this shouldn’t be shocking news. As designers and developers, we need to focus more on the superiority of visuals and use them strategically. Here are some ways you can use pictures to facilitate learning.


When you’re using a storyline to relate a scenario, use still photos to add emotional depth and to ensure the audience gets the message. Surprisingly, a voice over can work well with still photos if you don’t have the budget for video. Ideally, you can pan the photo (move horizontally across it) or zoom in or out of the photo to add a sense of action.

Abstract Concepts

Diagrams and graphs can help learners comprehend abstract concepts using visual language to depict meaning. For example, in diagrams the connecting lines between elements help learners understand relationships. Bar graphs make it easy to compare data; line graphs help learners understand trends. So, concretize abstract information with a corresponding visual when possible.

Parts and Components

Use labeled illustrations when learners need to understand specific parts of something. This is particularly useful when there are many components or when the parts are microscopic, hidden or invisible.

Motion and Paths

Visuals are a potent way to show the movement of one or more entities. You can depict motion along a line, as in this graphic that shows the path of Hurricane Katrina. You can also depict motion with arrows, such as showing the moving parts of a machine.

Geography and Statistical Data

Maps are ideal for helping learners understand location and geography, but they can be used for more than these purposes. Statistical maps represent variations in quantity of a particular factor, such as population, crime rates, cell phone use or political affiliations. Learners quickly perceive and understand map information because it is a commonly used visual format.

Concrete Ideas

Perhaps the most obvious use of visuals is to show a concrete and familiar object. When learners are familiar with the items in a photograph or illustration, it may not facilitate learning, but pictures provide an aesthetic appeal that can serve to motivate them. Be cognizant of the fact that if “eye candy” is extravagant, it could detract from the learning event.


Instructional designers like to use metaphors to explain something unfamiliar by comparing it with a familiar object or idea. Metaphors offer an excellent opportunity for using visuals, because they work well as mnemonic devices—helping learners to remember new information.

If you’re interested in how people understand graphics, check out my book, Visual Language For Designers.

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  1. John says

    I didn’t know these techniques. It seems interesting. I have always used mnemonic devices to learn and remember things, but not in this way. I have used them since I was a child. They are good advices.

    John creator of Mnemonic Devices – The Revision Guy, the blog to learn using mnemonic devices.

  2. Gambo Santali says

    I’m working on use of graphics to improve learning, a m.ed instryctional technology student. Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Nigeria. i’m in need of few theories as relate to instructional graphics and design to incooparate in a literature review in the project report.
    Thank you.

  3. Connie Malamed says

    What you’re in need of is a little vague to me, but it you look through all the graphics articles on this site, you might find something. Processing fluency and picture superiority come to mind. Good luck!

  4. Dr. Harry Krane says

    Using a great deal of research work I wish too bring to your notice that Graphic communication is also a means of comprehending thought. It has yet been the case that thought is that protected domain of what we describe as Mind and cannot be unrevealed as such. My work with secondary and tertiary students has indicated that when a visibility is induced in two levels of thinking either through graphical means or a model we can obtain some comfort that its reveals the two levels of thought. My system is called Psychartechnology. Regards.


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