Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Visuals: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

ISD Theory Basis: Communications Theory

Media, Modes, and Methods in Training

No matter what type of training you are developing you need to decide: which delivery media you will use, how to communicate the message (mode) and which instructional methods will aid the learner. 

Media is the way to deliver your mode.  There are three modes: visuals, text, and audio. Contained within the mode are the instructional methods that support the core learning process. The process will depend on your selection of learning theory and associated instructional design model.

I share these concepts to create a learning “scaffold” for future topics as well as the focus of this post; visuals.

What are Visuals?

For the purposes of this post, visuals are a mode of communication through the sense of sight via an image. An image can be static or animated.  The types of information that can be communicated via a visual are (but not limited to): data, charts, objects, pictures, photographs, sketches, drawings, animations, and video. 

A Good Idea Gone Bad

The general axiom about visuals is: Visuals aid learning. In our field, it has become an expectation that any displayed content will contain some sort of graphic; be it a background template, logo, or a picture of some kind. Recall any PowerPoint presentation you have experienced recently as proof.  The axiom is based on the cognitive “multimedia principle” which states, “People learn better from words and pictures than from words alone.” (1)

Well axiom is true and the principle sound, but the operant descriptor missing for the term visuals is relevant.  The multimedia principle must be tempered by the “coherence principle” of multimedia which states, “People learn better when extraneous words, pictures, and sounds are excluded rather than included.”(1)  It is the communication of the message within the visual that matters.

A Language for Visuals
What kinds of messages are transmitted by visuals? Ruth Colvin-Clark (2) offers a taxonomy that can be used to choose and evaluate the use of visuals.  Think of it as the equivalent of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning Domains for visuals. Please take a minute and review the Table 1 below and focus on the various uses.  For the ardent instructional designer, I would commit it to memory and the first-class practitioner would apply it when choosing a visual when developing content.

The Challenge – Remove the Extraneous
Select one of your courses and choose a part that contains a visual.  Review the content and determine the intent of message using the “A graphic used to Column” in Table 1 above.  Evaluate the visual by answering the following:
 1.   Does the content lend itself to a visual?  Yes/No. 
 2.   Based on the content (the main point), what should be the function of the visual?
 3.   Evaluate the visual base on the following scale: 
·    The Good:  The visual directly supports the message.  Note: In general, decorative visuals serve no real instructional purpose.
·     The Bad:  It has something to do with the content but is a stretch to associate it with the context; consider replacing it.
·     The Ugly:  It is unrelated to the message and could depress learning; replace or delete it.

An Example
The following is a screen shot from a well know and much loved (not) computer based course:
Yes, the content lends itself to a visual representation.

The function: A “organizational” visual would be appropriate based on the content since the content is describing how three groups are working toward a common goal.

Assessment: The ugly.  Just some people working.

Suggested Replacement: 

Your Turn
Your comments, candid and kind, will be appreciated and the next blog posting might depend on the answer to the poll question.  Please take time to answer it.
Best regards,


1.   Mayer Richard, E. (2003). Multimedia Learning. New York, NY: Cambridge Press.
2.   Colvin Clark, R. More Than Just Eye Candy: Graphics for e-learning. The e-Learning Developer’s Journal. August, 2003.
3.  Answer to Poll Question:  Organizational. Shows relationships between content.