Something I’ve been thinking about since I started working on the Visual Design course for this summer is, when you’re designing instruction or job aids or other learning support materials do you rely on text or graphics to tell your story?
Mayer and his followers will tell you to use images and words and not just words alone – whether the words are spoken or printed. However, it’s not that simple. Normally graphical representations are better at certain things while verbal (printed or spoken) descriptions are better at other things. Graphics, especially diagrams, schematics, models, maps, and the like, are reductionist in nature. They constrain the inferences you can make about the content which is good for well-structured problems or when you are trying to help learners understand basic systems or processes. On the other hand, textual presentation of content allows for more ambiguity and dimension than you can present visually. Presenting information in context, with subtleties, and/or at a more complex, expert level may work better using more text.
While language has the ability to convey more complexity, there are certainly times when you want to convey less complex and more action-oriented messages. You want to pull out trends or patterns for learners to see clearly. You want to emphasize certain aspects of information in a way that is easy to understand and apply.
TacticalTech has a 25 page pdf booklet titled Visualising Information for Advocacy: An Introduction to Information Design that can be helpful in thinking about organizing and displaying information in these situation. They describe information design as:
telling a story with pictures. It can tell “how many?” “when?” or “where?” It can show trends over time, compare elements or reveal hidden patterns. Information design brings form and structure to information. It is not the same as graphic design, nor is it only about making something aesthetically pleasing. It’s not about branding, style, making a glossy product or something that looks “corporate.” Information design is about making your data:
- Clear: It makes complex information easier to understand.
- Compelling: Visuals grab people’s attention.
- Convincing: People who might not be persuaded by raw numbers or statistics may be more likely to understand and believe what they see in a chart or graphic.
While you may not think about what you are doing as advocacy in a “social change” sort of way, I challenge you to consider that any structured, objective-based instruction is advocacy. You are actively supporting a set of concepts and a recommending that learners adopt the same views (for the most part). It’s not normally thought of as advocacy when what you are teaching is considered “true,” such as grammar rules or safety information or how electrical circuits work or how to format a table in Excel. However, if you’re presuming that your learners don’t already know how to safely handle dry ice, for example, you have to convince them that wearing gloves is important. You’re advocating for safety.
So how can information design help you to better advocate to support learning?