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Learning through images

Updated: May 26, 2020

Digital learning is a visual medium. We develop content to get information across to the learner quickly and efficiently often involving a lot of images. The question is what type of image is best for different situations?

There are a lot of image types out there but for now I will focus on just four:

  • Photos

  • Illustrations

  • Infographics

  • Gifs


You don't have to be Robert Frank to get photos these days (but it would help). Photos are eye-catching and automatically convey real situations that we can connect to. They can be easily accessed through sites like shutterstock, provided by the client or if you've got the skills, taken by you.


  • Can showcase a direct situation or visual your learner will interact with. (i.e. This is the death valve that you should never touch)

  • Tells a relatable story but if too specific may ostracize some learners (i.e. focusing on one role in a multi role learning piece can make some people feel under represented or dissociated from the learning)

  • Can visually create a series of specific instructions easily

  • Can be easy to take and edit (if you have the software)


  • Not great at getting concepts or complex information across

  • Stock can be expensive and limited

If photography is your best call try to use client provided or 'on site' imagery as much as possible. Sometimes what you think is a good stock image may not suit the situation at all. No matter the photo, try to be sure the image is at 300 ppi (pixels per inch) or dpi (dots per inch). Any less and the quality could look off, and humans can't discern any more than 300.


Illustrations allow for scope and scale that photos can't match. They allow you to convey or visualise ideas quickly. They can be as simple as an icon or as detailed as a painting. Like photos, they can be found on stock sites, outsourced or self-made (and depending on your goal, self-made isn't as hard as it used to be).


  • Can be used in place of photos for a wider array of subjects

  • Can help visualise difficult or complex material and present in ways photos can't (See the vein example above. It would be a messy photo.)

  • Can lighten a tone and boost engagement

  • 3d illustrations can mimic photos and showcase in depth detail not possible in a photo

  • Icons can convey a lot of meaning with very little detail


  • Will never replace the ‘real thing’ in some situations

  • Can be expensive to buy or difficult to make depending on the ask

If illustration is the best solution remember you can create your own content in a variety of ways. If you're not an Adobe Illustrator pro but still want to try your hand, sites like Drawkit (generalist) or Biorender (science/medical) are great. If you do want to add illustrator to your skill set then consider courses on sites like udemy or skillshare.

No matter how you get the image remember the difference between raster (pixel based, non-scale) and vector (maths based, scale). And like photos aim for higher quality using png (lossless but larger file size) over jpeg (loss when compressed but small files).


Infographics are everywhere. They have become a popular way of summarising processes and data in an engaging and quick format. They can come with or without text depending if they are used in tandem with copy or are the center-piece of information. As they use simple images they can be easy to create with little know-how. There are also plenty of service sites that can be used to build them, like snappa.


  • Can convey complex details to their most concise points

  • Perfect for visualizing data or process information

  • A good change in engagement from copy and image alone and can allow for tone change


  • Can be overused

  • Too much content or lack of 'flow' can cause confusion

Infographics can easily replace boring pie charts and copy heavy paragraphs. Just be cautious with how much you use them and how detailed you go. Like illustrations, be aware of file types and image quality.


Gif culture, like memes, have exploded. It is at the point where people can have conversations in gifs alone. Gifs can put a sequence together in seconds and really grab the learner. Because of the popularity of gifs you need to be careful when using them. Gifs can be made from scratch on sites like vyond, or in Adobe Premier Pro if you have the skills. You can also find tons of free gifs on sites like giphy.


  • Can convey complex sequences in a short time

  • Smaller file size than video

  • Lots of free sites

  • Engaging and eye-catching


  • Can be distracting and take from the learning

  • Can convey an unprofessional tone if misused

  • Can isolate learners unfamiliar with gif culture

However you use them, gifs won't go unnoticed. However they can also be the spork of the visual world (not quite an illustration but not an animation).

No matter the imagery you are using, be sure it suits the target message and always aims to support understanding.

#images #InstructionalDesign #eLearning

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