Why pictures always win – and what it means for learning design

By Richenda Sabine April 17, 2016

Photograph of a baby's face‘If one wants to reach younger people at an earlier age to shape their minds in a critical way, you really need to know how ideas and emotions are expressed visually’
(Martin Scorsese)

Be honest. What was the first thing you looked at on this page? The headline? That interesting quote from film-maker Martin Scorsese?

Or the baby?

We are visual creatures. It is hard-wired in us. A large percentage of the human brain is dedicated to visual processing: images grab our attention more readily than the written word – even when those images don’t have the emotional content of a baby photograph. It’s very probable that you looked at the infographic below this block of text before you read these words. This doesn’t mean you are a superficial person, or too easily distractible: the truth is, we are all the same. It is the way our brains are made.

Chart illustrating how our brains interpret visual information

Our brains are pre-wired to automatically interpret relationships between objects with minimal effort.

This fact of life is hugely important for how we design learning, and as a learning designer I am conscious of it every day. In a world where more and more of our learning and information is received in digital form, we need to understand this dynamic better in order to engage and motivate our learners through excellent learning design.

That was then

In the past, pupils sat at desks whilst the teacher talked at them. Pupils listened and recited prose, poetry, facts and numbers that had been committed to memory. The curriculum of the three R’s (Readin’, ’Ritin’, and ’Rithmetic) was designed to prepare children to enter the world of work as adults. Teachers taught sequentially and their pupils learned sequentially.

This is now

Fast forward to the new millennium. The three R’s served us well as we evolved from a primarily oral tradition to a written one, but they’re not enough to succeed in the new age. We’re now in the middle of an enormous cultural transformation that began with movies, followed by TV, then computers and multimedia. The computer is to the Age of Information what the printing press was to the Age of Literacy.

And this isn’t just a cultural transformation. It is a cognitive one too.

Arguments have raged in learning over whether the intense lateralisation of the brain’s two hemispheres proposed by psychologist Robert Ornstein and others has validity (the right-brain vs left brain controversy). It would be too simplistic, and against the prevailing current of academic thought, to say that words belong to the left hemisphere and images to the right. But it is clear that the two call on very different types of processing from the brain. Images give us ‘the big picture’, and are perceived instantaneously. Language is sequential, and allows understanding to unfold over time.

Using digital media for learning brings these two elements together in a new configuration, different from anything we might have seen seen within traditional instructional models – meaning that we have to think hard about how imagery functions in this new, intensely visual online world, and how it can best be used to work positively on behalf of learning.

There are countless studies that have confirmed the power of visual imagery in learning. For example, one study asked students to remember many groups of three words each, such as ‘dog’, ‘bike’, and ‘street’. Students who tried to remember the words by repeating them over and over again did poorly on recall. In comparison, students who made visual associations with the three words, such as imagining a dog riding a bike down the street, had significantly better recall.

The stats

We process images at an alarming speed. When we see a picture, we analyse it within a very short space of time, knowing what it means and understanding the context immediately. The human brain is able to recognise a familiar object within 100 milliseconds, and we can recognise familiar faces within 380 milliseconds!

A Stanford University research study of more than 2,500 people revealed that nearly 50% put a website’s design at the top of the list when deciding on the credibility of a company. This goes beyond images and shows the importance of visuals like layout, typography and colour schemes.

Picture power

Based on research outcomes, the effective use of visuals can decrease learning time, improve comprehension, enhance retrieval, and increase retention. Visuals cause a faster and stronger reaction than words. In e-learning they help users engage with the content, as emotional reactions influence information retention (the visual memory is encoded in the medial temporal lobe of the brain which is where emotions are processed). The brain is set up in a way that visual stimuli and emotional response are linked together in the memory. Negative visual depictions are particularly useful for leaving a strong emotional impression.

Diagram showing how images help and hinder learning design

Carefully selected images can improve understanding and insight when strategically placed within a course. Unlike text, pictures have the power to enrich communication and stimulate emotional response by:

  • Representing actual objects, people or places
  • Simplifying complex or abstract ideas
  • Bridging already learned content with the unfamiliar

Design, not decoration

On the other hand, graphics can also negatively impact learning if they are used inappropriately. ‘Eye candy’ (images used for purely decorative purposes) can put learners off the content as they try and work out the message behind the image. Examples of images to avoid in e-learning include:

  • Obvious stock images (ones you see over and over again in different places)
  • ‘Generic’ graphics that show a lack of imagination
  • Poor quality images (e.g. pixelated, low res, over-compressed, wrong size)

Make the right impression

The skill in using graphics in online learning gets better with practice. We need to resist the temptation to include decorative ones just because they look nice! The trick is to think about the learning experience, make the visuals relevant and turn our online course into an emotionally-connected, relevant and entertaining learning experience.

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