Words + Pictures > Words Alone

🧑‍🎨 Creator(s)
🗓️ Publish Date
October 31, 2005
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How many appliances are visible in your kitchen? Don't read on until you have your answer.

If you're like most people, you took a mental visual walk through your kitchen, "looking for" appliances. "OK, next to the refrigerator on the right side there's the toaster... next to the coffee maker... the microwave is up there..."

We’re visual creatures.

According to memory expert Kenneth Higbee, “The saying that a picture is worth a thousand words is usually applied to the effectiveness of a picture in understanding what was communicated; it may also apply to the effectiveness of a picture in remembering what was communicated.”

One reason for this effect is that visual images are processed in two parts of the brain rather than just one. A pile of evidence supports that people learn more deeply from words with pictures than from words alone (Mayer, 1989b, Mayer and Gallini, 1990; Mayer, Bove, and others, 1996.), and overall, several studies combined have shown a median percentage gain of 89% effectiveness. Pretty dramatic. Some of the theory behind the gain you get when words and pictures are combined is that we use our brains more fully, processing the content more deeply, because we actively connect the words to the pictures. In other words, our brains work to make sense of the combined pictures and text, and that processing leads to more meaningful and memorable learning. That's the theory, anyway.

Perhaps more importantly, our target audience—the Sesame Street-->MTV-->XBox generation—has a highly developed visual sensitivity earlier generations lacked. In his book Digital Game-Based Learning, Marc Prensky claims, “In previous generations, graphics were generally illustrations, accompanying the text and providing elucidation. For today’s Games Generation, the relationship is almost completely reversed: the role of text is to elucidate something that was first experienced as an image.” He goes on to say, “They find it much more natural than their predecessors to begin with visuals and to mix text and graphics in a richly meaningful way.”

And when there are images, the text that goes with the images should be integrated with the pictures. In five different tests, one group was exposed to text placed below the illustration, while the second group was exposed to text placed near the illustration. Although both groups saw identical text and graphics (with the only difference being placement of the text), in all five studies the second group performed better on subsequent tests. When a reader has to keep switching between the graphic and its description, he has to work harder... on the wrong things. There’s only so much mental bandwidth in a reader’s brain, and [broken record and dead-obvious here] that bandwidth should be used for making sense of the actual topic, not for making sense of the way the topic is presented.

Tech/education publishers--pay attention here--the one thing that could make a huge difference is to switch from captions-under-pictures to captions-within-pictures. Yes, I've heard all the arguments for why this is difficult for production. But the potential gain is HUGE.

I've talked about this a lot before, but I've noticed some of my co-authors slipping a little on the graphics so this is a little reminder ; )

One of the main reason my cohorts and I are using graphics is so that the picture in the user's head more closely matches the picture we're trying to convey. If you use words alone, you have to be a damn good writer--much better than I am. Those who write with crystal clarity can describe something complex with a higher chance that the intended meaning makes it into the user's head, but there's still no guarantee -- AND -- using words alone isn't as effective for a lot of topics.

And even seemingly simple ideas can take a lot more time to convey if you don't use pictures. We value our reader's time tremendously, and that's a big part of why we are so graphic-heavy. I look at these two simple graphics and imagine how many paragraphs of words it would take to make sure the user "read" it the same way:


Given the potential for such dramatic gains, my co-authors and I keep wondering why the vast majority of adult technical materials have so few visuals. The arguments I hear are usually misconceptions, and fall into one of these:

1) Adults don't need pictures

2) Adults don't want pictures

3) Only "visual" learners need pictures

4) It takes a lot more work

For many, many, many topics, and many, many, many audiences--these notions are just wrong. Generating graphics can be more work, but you make it up in other ways. When I can generate a two-page spread describing a complicated server process, I just saved myself five or more pages of writing! (And the stress associated with trying to be certain my words describe the story in a way that causes the reader to form an accurate, vivid mental picture.)

All it takes is a little getting used to. I'm always amazed when teachers do eleborate white board drawings, but never put them in their books or articles. Or when engineers can do fabulous napkin drawings to explain things to colleagues, but never put them in their books or articles.