One of the big complaints about eLearning is the poor ratio of visuals to text. This is partially due to the fact that the content often involves abstract concepts—ideas about things we can’t see or touch from subjects as diverse as finance, soft skills, science, medicine, technology and more.
Although this type of content can often be represented by using abstract or nonrepresentational graphics, most instructional designers have not been taught how to conceive these types of visuals. If you need help in this area, here are some guidelines for transforming abstractions into a visual format. I hope you find these useful.
Are you explaining a system or entity?
If your content involves describing components of a system, organization or entity, use a diagram or chart to depict an overview of it. Adult learners like to understand the big picture, which provides a framework for constructing future knowledge. In the diagram, include all the components of the system and use connecting lines to indicate relationships.
Using illustrations or small icons enhances a diagram and makes it more memorable than just using boxes to represent elements. Although the one above was done by professional illustrator, Colin Hayes, you can still enhance your diagrams and charts by using the simple icons you can get at a stock photo site, as in the graphic below. You can also find icons at many free icon sites, such as iconfinder.net.
Are you explaining a process or procedure?
If you’re explaining the steps of a procedure or process, show all the system components, but use arrows for connecting lines like in the two examples below. Arrows will help viewers understand the process because they indicate the direction of flow.
You can clarify a procedure that has multiple steps by emphasizing the order or sequence. Do this by adding numbers to each step, as shown here.
Are you presenting numerical facts?
Forget the boring approach to presenting numbers as text. Try to find the story behind the numbers, such as how much things have changed or by making comparisons. In the example below, percentages suddenly seem interesting through the simple approach of coloring in the appropriate number of circles.
Another approach is to use pictographs (iconic depictions of objects) to represent a specific amount of data. Add a legend if each pictograph is equal to more than one unit.
Are you making comparisons?
If you’re comparing quantitative information, use a bar chart with the bars grouped closely together, to indicate they belong to the same group. Making the bars the same color encourages viewers to make comparisons.
Are you pointing out specific values?
Tables are ideal for organizing quantitative data or words into categories. When an audience needs to see specific values or when there are many data points, it’s easier to spot specific information in a table rather than a graph. If you’d like more information on table design, see my article, Guidelines for Designing Tables.
This article covers some of the more well-known types of abstract graphics, but there are so many more. Look for future articles with more guidelines!
What are your tips for conceiving visuals? Please share them below.