Producing e-Learning is an inherently creative activity, and one that could make great use of visual communications – graphics, photography, and typography. For many reasons, though, e-Learning consistently falls short in the visual department. Heavy use of text and audio narration, clip art, and page-oriented layouts that seem to rely on the worst examples from the world of textbooks are too often typical.

At least part of this visual impoverishment is due to a lack of graphic design skills and knowledge among instructional designers, and among those who use authoring software. It is also due to a lack of knowledge among graphic designers about the particular requirements and constraints involved in e-Learning.

It is not that these problems are new, or that they have never been solved. Medical illustrators and technical illustrators, all the way back to the great Leonardo da Vinci, have long since worked out the principles and conventions that best support explanation, insight, understanding, and learning. What has been lacking, until now, has been a systematic presentation of those principles, matched to the requirements of the digital medium.

Connie Malamed, author of last week’s feature in Learning Solutions (“Gestalt Your Graphics: Improving Instructional Graphics”) has done a tremendous job of bringing these worlds together in her new book. Visual Language for Designers: Principles for creating graphics that people understand is a rare combination of science and aesthetics.

There are not many resources on visual information that are based on solid research and that are intended for e-Learning practitioners. Until now, the best known has probably been Clark and Lyons’ Graphics for Learning (2004), which does an excellent job of explaining how to use visuals, but does not offer much help on how to create those visuals in the first place.

Connie Malamed’s book takes care of the explaining, and the showing. Her book will not turn you (or your graphics person) into a Leonardo or a Michelangelo, but it will go a long way toward showing you what is possible, what works, and most importantly, how to make graphics that achieve quick and effective communication. She presents ways to design for the strengths of human mental capacities and to compensate for cognitive failures.

Visual language is the interface between a graphic and a viewer. Malamed’s clear explanations and excellent organization will help instructional designers, subject matter experts, and technical specialists understand that there is a hidden language in every picture that carries a message – even if the message was unintended. At the same time, her examples will show designers and illustrators more ways to use visual language to inform with accuracy and power. The result is bound to be better communication between technical members of an e-Learning development team and graphic artists.

This is a beautiful book. One of my frustrations in writing this review is that I am not going to be able to show you just how well the illustrations support the text. The text is very brief. The book makes its points by drawing on the very best work of some of today’s very best artists, photographers, graphic designers, and illustrators. Of the 240 pages, over 200 contain one or more graphics in full, luscious color.

Given this, it is important to repeat that the entire book is based on actual research, as well as on design theory. Disciplines represented in the content include visual communication and graphic design, learning theory and instructional design, cognitive psychology and neuroscience, and information visualization.

The content comprises two sections. The first section provides an overview of how human beings perceive, understand, and acquire visual information. It includes consideration of cognitive load in visual information, an issue sometimes overlooked by designers and artists. This section starts with the basics: the anatomy of the eye, the function of the brain, memory, and the human information processing system, all as they relate to visual information.

It is in the second (and longer) section where Malamed’s book really adds value, as it presents principles for creating graphics that accommodate and engage the human mind and emotions. The fact that the author specifically addresses the challenges of hooking the emotions of the learner is, to me, one of her most important contributions. People do not learn about things they do not care about. (And “care about” can include emotions other than the positive ones.) If you, the designer, do not make learners care about the topic of the e-Learning, your design and your product will fail.

The second section is a guide, not a rulebook, to doing six key things with and through graphics:

  • Organizing graphics for quick perception
  • Directing the eyes to essential information
  • Using visual shorthand for efficient communication (reducing realism)
  • Making the abstract concrete
  • Clarifying complexity
  • Charging a graphic with energy and emotion

Malamed devotes a chapter to each of these purposes, and organizes each chapter in the same way. Her simple and effective approach is to:

  • Present the concept(s), principles, and science supporting the outcome,
  • Explain how to apply the concepts, principles, and science, and
  • Present the various techniques that support the application.

So, for example, in presenting the techniques required to organize for quick perception, some of the techniques she explains include texture segregation, graphing, and “pop out.” For charging a graphic with energy and emotion, she explains the uses of emotional salience, narratives, visual metaphors, and novelty and humor.

Connie Malamed told me, “I was hoping to write a classic. … I always had instructional designers in mind as I was writing it. It's heavy on the information graphics, which very much relate to e-Learning and training. It took around 10 years to think about, and then around a year to seriously research and write. (Plus work as an e-Learning consultant and Web designer.) And it turned out completely different than I'd thought it would.” I’d say it was ten years well spent, and the result is completely successful.

Bibliographic details

Malamed, Connie. (2009) Visual Language for Designers: Principles for creating graphics that people understand. Beverly, Massachusetts: Rockport Publishers. Hardcover, 240 pages. ISBN-13: 978-1-59253-515-6. List price $40.00, Amazon price $26.00.