Chopeta C. Lyons
Picture Perfect: Selecting Graphics for Instruction

question mark -- Chopeta Lyons What makes a graphic effective for instruction? That question triggered Dr. Ruth Clark’s and my writing
the book Graphics for Learning. When we began, we found a surfeit of conventional, albeit contradictory,

Just a few of the conflicting rules of thumb we heard are:

Use graphics to engage the interest of otherwise under-motivated learners
Don’t use graphics because they distract under-motivated learners

Use red for cueing audience attention because red stands out
Don’t use red for cueing because red carries unwanted connotations
  and, besides, it bleeds

• For instruction involving motion, use dynamic media such as video
   or animation
• For instruction involving motion, use a series of stills so they can be

• Accompany instructional graphics with full text explanations
• Make instructional graphics self-contained, requiring no additional
  text explanations

• Use photographs of objects because they are exact representations
• Use line art rather than photographs because they filter out
   extraneous “noise”

• Put all graphics on the right-hand side of the display
• Put all graphics on the left-hand side of the display

The truth is that you can probably cite an experience where every one of these contradictory statements is valid. That’s because the selection of graphics to support learning content is, as we in the training biz say, a principle-based task, requiring judgement based on expertise and relying on guidelines.

The Good News

As technical writers, our very training prepares us for this task. We are already trained to analyze the audience, the purpose (or what we want them to do with the information we present), and of course, the content itself.

We determine the best style, organization, tone, voice or persona to get our points across. Our writer’s tool kit includes sentence length and type, paragraph length, organizational structure, word choices, rhetorical devices and techniques of persuasion – such as testimonials or appeals to emotion, ethics or reason. It is the same for designing and selecting graphics. But instead of words, punctuation marks, sentences and arrangement of ideas, the artist’s tool kit includes graphic design principles of proximity (relationship), alignment, repetition and contrast with colors, shapes and media. Several books written for the non-designer such as Robin Williams’s The Non-Designers Design Book and Linda Lohr’s Creating Graphics for Learning and Performance provide good practical discussions of these elements.

But how does our experience analyzing audience, purpose and content help us?


As writers, we already assess our users in terms of their reading levels and background. When designing or selecting graphics for instructional materials, we just need to expand that assessment. Here are some suggestions on how to do so.

Look at their expertise level.
Are they novice or experienced? If novices, they need complex visuals broken out into smaller, easily comprehensible chunks. For example, if they are completely new to a software system that has packed screens, use an advanced organizer graphic that simplifies the screen’s structure for them, as in Figure 1, so that when they see the “real” display, it is not so overwhelming.
Figure 1

If they are familiar with the system but perhaps not the individual screen, use the screen itself with some cueing techniques, as in Figure 2. And if they are experts, you can eliminate simplifying graphics completely because they add needless cognitive load for these advanced learners.

Figure 2

Look also at the audience’s interest in the subject matter.
Do they have high “cognitive interest,” such as engineers tabulating data about the effect of temperature on o-rings? Such learners do not need any additional visual motivation to dive into a schematic. But does the audience have low cognitive interest? Then use graphics that help them see the content’s relevance to their work. In his book Visual Explanations, Edward establishes the importance of matching the visual to the audience. His discussion of the tragic Challenger explosion demonstrates that although the Thiokol engineers could easily “see” the problem in their charts of data, the decision makers who didn’t have the same high cognitive interest in engineering details could not.

Analyze the age group, gender, demographics and education of your audience.
Doing so can help you identify any potential problems learners may have perceiving or understanding the graphics selected. The classic example is an audience composed of older, adult males, who statistically have a higher percentage of color blindness than other population segments. This audience often sees reds and greens as variations of muddy greys. Consider a course that cues correct answers by green text feedback and incorrect answers with red text. If no other cueing technique is used (such as accompanying labels, shapes, or color intensity), the colorblind male may have difficulty discerning the correct/incorrect cueing.

Identify the cultural background of your learner.
Colors and symbols can inadvertently add connotations that you might not intend. Red in some Asian cultures is associated with prosperity and good luck. Yet, in many western cultures, red is used for alarms, alerts and danger warnings. Luck or Danger? So instead of helping your audience understand a key instruction, some colors can actually confuse, especially if used iconically.

Also, symbols, which are essential metaphors, must be used especially carefully. As just one example, the emblem used by the charitable organization known as the Red Cross in the western world is replaced by a quarter moon shape used by the Red Crescent in Turkey and Arabic countries.

If a high percentage of your learner population is from a culture with which you are not familiar, it pays to get some help on how localization issues such as color, symbols, and even the space needed for text within the graphic can impact your instruction. Just as one brief example, English uses approximately one third less space than French or Spanish as illustrated in Figure 3. If your materials will be presented in several languages, it pays to look at the space requirements of any text in graphics. There are many companies that specialize in localization and the American Institute of Graphics Artists sponsors a forum dedicated to graphic design across cultures.

Figure 3

It’s part of our job as writers to identify how we want our audience to use the material we present. In simple terms – we need to know our purpose. The same is doubly true for designing or selecting graphics for instruction.

Is our purpose immediate performance, with no long-term memory recall required?
To illustrate, a patient who gives herself a monthly intramuscular 1 cc injection probably needs only a performance aid depicting the steps she must take. Ideally, the aid has pictures of each step, starting with visuals of all the items she should have ready and including illustrations of such steps as pulling the syringe plunger back to the 1 cc line, injecting the air into the inverted bottle of medicine, again pulling back to fill the syringe with the drug and so forth. The patient doesn’t need elaborate text explanations beside each step, nor does she need graphics depicting the physics of displacement theory or even an illustration of deep muscular structure in order to inject herself once a month.

On the other hand, if the purpose is not performance, but learning, perhaps for a nursing student, explanations integrated with the steps, perhaps even voice over accompanying an animation, provide richer instruction for long-term understanding. The nursing student would additionally benefit from visuals of giving injections to different types of patients, using different sizes of needles and dosages.

Often graphics by themselves result in faster performance than does text alone or surprisingly, graphics with explanatory text. But if the goal is learning, graphics integrated with explanations (either text in close proximity to key components, or voice over narration) better support encoding the information into long term memory.

Is your purpose to teach the audience a procedural task – such as entering customer data into a software system?

When teaching procedures, instructional graphics should match as closely as possible how the objects used in the procedure appear on the job. Doing so helps the audience more readily transfer what has been learned to their jobs. For example, if you are creating assembly instructions that require a tool not included in the package, provide an illustration of that tool. As a rather simplistic example, if your instructions call for a Phillips screwdriver, provide an illustration of a Phillips as opposed to a flathead screwdriver so that your learners will know it when they see it.

Additionally, the graphics should match the learner’s perspective. For example, illustrations for changing the left high beam light bulb in a car should be shown from the same angle as a person actually changing it.

Figure 4

Better yet, the graphic should also provide enough information so the user is oriented. For example, if you show just the high and low beam sockets as in Figure 4, without including any orienting information, the user cannot distinguish the right headlight’s high beam from the left’s. In other words, always include orientation clues, such as Up, North, or “you are here.”

Figure 5

In complicated procedures, design the graphics to help manage “cognitive load,” to avoid making the learner feel overwhelmed. Use graphics that demonstrate the task in easily digestible chunks, depending on the learner’s expertise levels. Most of us are familiar with the fact that working memory can hold anywhere from five to nine unique pieces of information. Indeed, many individuals have trouble remembering a string of ten random numbers. But when grouped into three or four chunks, as in telephone numbers, almost anyone can hold those ten or so digits in memory, for at least as long as is needed to write them down.

Expert learners can process chunks of more complicated information, whereas for novice learners, the chunks themselves may need to be of reduced complexity. In either case, if you end up using animation for procedural tasks such as how to bandage an arm, create three dimensional chart in Powerpoint, or even change a tire, keep the animations to seven plus or minus 2 steps. In fact, for novice users, animations of about 5 steps seem optimum. Also, to help manage load and support mental processing, provide replay options and employ other techniques such as cueing graphics to help focus attention.

Finally, graphics that illustrate warnings, alerts and when a learner has gone down the wrong path (if the cream begins to turn to butter, you have whipped it too long) are a critical, but often overlooked, component of procedural instruction.

Is your purpose to teach the audience the skills required for trouble-shooting, problem-solving or other “principle-based tasks”?
Principle-based tasks are activities that require diagnosis and discernment, based on the characteristics of the particular situation. Typical principle based tasks are activities such as diagnosing the cause of an automotive engine noise or maybe a patient’s illness, decorating a summer home, or even designing instructional graphics for a training manual.

Principle-based tasks can be helped by graphics that illustrate the principles themselves, independent of applying them. Learning principles requires plentiful examples as well as “non-examples.” To illustrate, a course on graphic design might use several examples demonstrating layers such as those shown in Figure 6.

Figure 6

Additional examples showing appropriate application of the perspective principles (Do’s) would be included, and then finally “non-examples” illustrating perspective gone awry (Don’ts). Or perhaps, a course training technicians to diagnose the causes of water pipe corrosion might begin by providing ample visual examples of different types of corrosion and their chemical causes.

Training on principle-based tasks involves applying the principles and guidelines in scenarios that closely approximate real-life. Videos and/or graphics with audio representing actual cases, such as boiler explosions, patients with various complaints, malfunctioning

Finally, is the purpose of the piece solely to motivate or to create awareness of a new initiate? Then it’s not training per se, but corporate communications or advertising.


Our strengths as technical writers are our abilities to research information and reconstitute it in an easily comprehensible format for our readers. Chances are that as you absorb and assimilate the information you need to distill for your audience, you think visually, without even being aware that you are doing so.

Pay attention to your own mental processing techniques.
If some passage makes you start trying to diagram, flowchart or “mind map” the relationships of ideas, your learners may also need some sort of visualization for the same point. Note when your experts resort to sketching out illustrations on a whiteboard, flipchart, notepad or napkin to explain points to you. The act of drawing itself represents a need for visual communication of an idea. Or, if part of your research involves touring content-related facilities, register why and what is critical to be seen.

Take photos of onsite locations, equipment being used, and environments for case studies. These photos aren’t for production, but to help you develop graphic ideas and spark inspiration.

Identify those graphics such as organizers and explanatory visuals that need to be designed early, as they may be carried through the design of several lessons, impact several other visuals and perhaps even influence the overall look and feel of your product.

As you analyze your content, look to outside sources for inspiration as well. Consider competitive materials designed for the same purpose and audience. Or go further afield. With an eye toward “borrowings” for your project, watch movies and visit museums, galleries, libraries and bookstores to get fresh takes on how to present information. Thumb through idea books -- magazines and periodicals to see how they illustrate key content.

Try drawing key concepts. Even if your drawing skills never progressed beyond coloring books, this exercise will stimulate your visual eye and help you make sure the verbal and visual are integrated.

So the next time you hear those nuggets of conventional wisdom, don’t take them as absolute truths. Remember that when selecting graphics to instruct, our own assessment of our audience, the material and what we want our audience to do provides guidance on which principles apply.

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© 2010 Chopeta Lyons reprinted from Intercom 2004

» Ten Tips for Talking to Artists -- How to communicate your graphic ideas 2/8/06
» Crossing Over and Evaluating Training -- How to evaluate training materials 9/0/99
» Picture Perfect: Selecting Graphics for Instruction
-- What makes a graphic effective? 2/16/09
» Avoiding Shovelware - How to escape the wall of words syndrome 2001
» Good Screen Design Basics - Arranging screen elements to maximize learning 1994