Imagine you’re reading an article about the lack of scientific evidence for the most popular dietary supplements. Folic acid, probiotics, green tea, resveratol, aloe vera, zinc, vitamin D, and so on. But you’re confused. “Wait,” you think, “Didn’t they just say there’s strong evidence for fish oil? Now they’re saying the evidence is only slightly promising.” Well, which is it?
Now imagine this same information delivered as a visual representation showing the strength of the evidence for various supplements for a variety of health problems (Figure 1). The stronger the evidence, the closer it is to the top. You see that fish oil is near the top, showing that there’s strong evidence for its use for high blood pressure and secondary heart disease. But look. There’s a line from fish oil down to another bubble a tad north of the “worth it” line, meaning that the strength of the evidence for fish oil for general health is much less than it is for high blood pressure and secondary heart disease. Ah, that explains the confusion. The strength of the evidence is different for different conditions.
Figure 1. Strength of scientific evidence for dietary supplements infographic (Source: http://www.informationisbeautiful.net/visualizations/snake-oil-supplements/)
The problem with many text explanations is that words get confusing when conveying complex relationships. And there are many complex relationships to explain in instruction. How things work. What’s related to what. How varying circumstances affect outcomes. And the explanations of these relationships too often become muddied or downright incomprehensible in a wall of words.
Concise, understandable, memorable, and fun
Enter visualizations or information graphics (commonly called infographics), stage right. Visualizations or information graphics are visuals specifically created to represent, instruct, or to disseminate information in a visual format. Traditionally, visualizations have included charts, maps, or diagrams. But there are many other types of visualizations and infographics in wide use today and you’ll see a bunch of examples in this article. For the rest of this article I’ll be using the term infographics to mean a wide range of visual representations whose goal is to inform and explain in a concise visual format.
You see infographics all around you and you use them without even thinking. For example, look at Figure 2 for a split second and tell me what it is.
Figure 2. I’m not telling you what this is but I bet you know.
When you looked at Figure 2, I’m betting you knew immediately that you were looking at a subway map. This particular subway map is for the Washington D.C. subway (Source: http://www.wmata.com/rail/maps/map.cfm).
We often see infographics used in news, science, and business communications but we don’t see too many of them used in instruction. And that’s a shame, because they can be very powerful for learning. Here’s why. These types of visual representations, when well designed, often have the power to do what words alone cannot. They can reveal what is hidden (where the transfer points are along the subway), make the complex easier to understand (where the stations are located and what “lines” they are on), and make the obscure more observable (how you can transfer to bus lines to get to local airports). They concisely summarize complex information into attractive visuals.
Well-designed infographics have perceptual, motivational, and cognitive characteristics that make them exceptionally valuable for instructional content, including improving:
Clarity and conciseness
Ability to make sense of complex information
Focus on key information
Engagement and ease of remembering