Visuals have the potential to add so much to a learning experience. The human brain devotes more resources to processing visual information than any other sense, for those who are sighted. Yet it is often difficult to conceive of the appropriate visuals when the content 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.
This type of content may be best represented by using abstract or nonrepresentational graphics. 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 schematic diagram to depict an overview of it. Many learners benefit from seeing the big picture view. It 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 relevant illustrations or icons provides greater meaning (and perhaps increased retention) than do generic rectangles.
Does the system or entity have a clear hierarchy?
If the system has superordinate and subordinate components, then use a hierarchical diagram or chart. Think of organizational charts and biological taxonomies. Replacing the icons with photographs is another approach.
Don’t limit your options though. This chart below visualizes biological classification in a unique way.
(This illustration did not have copyright information attached.)
Does the system or concept have a layered structure?
Use a layer diagram to show a high-level view of a system comprised of structures, tiers, or components that are conceptually overlaid on each other. This example from the US Government Accountability Office depicts the software architecture of a Geographical Information System. In one view and from one angle, the diagram coveys the structure, making it easier to understand than words alone.
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 or numbers (or both). See the example for how to put out a fire below. Arrows and numbers help viewers understand the process because they indicate the correct sequence.
Are you presenting statistics?
Forget the boring approach to presenting numbers as text. Try to find other approaches, such as making the numbers concrete. In the example below, percentages are more interesting through the simple approach of coloring in the appropriate number of circles. This is easy to make with any graphic editor, including PowerPoint. Or you can show differences in the data by making comparisons, as in the next section.
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.
Or Try a Pictograph
Another approach is to use a pictogram or pictograph (no final consensus on the definition) to represent statistical information. These are similar to horizontal bar charts but the data is represented with an icon. Pictographs need a key or legend because each icon represents a quantity. Although pictographs may make data visualization more attractive than bar charts, they may be more difficult to interpret quickly. To overcome this, add the numeric equivalent at the start or end of each row. It is more difficult precisely visualize data with a pictograph, so I recommend using them for non-critical data.
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 ancient article, Guidelines for Designing Tables.
There are an infinite number of ways to make information and statistics visually pleasing and compelling. These are just some of the ways to approach data.
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