Designing for Online Content: The Power of Visuals

Published by Caroline Carlin on

Author:  Simon Hawkesworth – TELT

It’s perfectly possible to create good online content with just text. Lots of online materials consist of just that, and there is much, in terms of concepts, explanations and discussion, that only text can fully represent. The often-used phrase about a picture painting a thousand words has some truth in it, but we are species closely tied to language as a means to convey complex (or even simple) ideas. No one has found an effective way of graphically representing the depth of ideas or breadth of information found in substantive pieces of fiction or non-fiction – though works such as War and Peace or Uylsses could arguably benefit from one or two decent flowcharts or infographics, just to help us work out what’s going on, or which character is married to who.

The Myth of the ‘Visual Learner’

Imagery, however, can be an extraordinarily powerful tool in helping users to understand what we mean, and in ways that words – or at least, words on their own – can’t always do well. It’s worth at this stage, calling into question the suggestion that ‘some people are visual learners’ (embodied in Fleming’s VAK model) – that they learn most from visual content. The appears to be little scientific evidence that this is the case (Lankow et. al., 2012: 44). We may have some preference for one or the other, but we all appear to use both textual and graphical content to learn, and often in concert.

As Allan Paivio (1971, 2016) has hypothesized in the concept of Dual Coding, the idea that the ‘interplay’ between visual and non-visual systems enhances both cognitive understanding, and the retention of information. Paivio considers that some words can be considered as ‘concrete’, having access to non-verbal imagery that help the user envisage or recall them. An example would be the word ‘flower,’ were as the word ‘shame’ may not have the same available image association. In creating content, a designer can utilise the ‘concrete’ aspects of the words to aid the content user. Although key aspects of Paivio’s theory have been questioned (Kousta, et al., 2011), educationalists such as Bates (2019) view dual coding as a useful way of understanding how image-text interactions can help in the interpretation of content.

One aspect that is particularly interesting about imagery, from both an educational and psychological perspective, is the way in which the brain can recall the meaning associated with visual objects that it has previously seen – at speeds that are frankly, astonishing. The brain has the potential to recall the associated meaning of an object that is has stored in long-term (semantic) memory, in around 100 milliseconds (Ware, 2004: 353), allowing us to utilise visual content extraordinarily quickly. This aids the brain in processing what might be described as the objectives of visualisation.

 Objectives of Visualisation

When we use visuals to convey meaning or information, it can be useful to think of three key characteristics:

  • Appeal: ability to enhance the visual aesthetics of the content.
  • Comprehension: ability to help the viewer understand the content or concept.
  • Retention: ability to help the viewer to retain and recall the information being delivered.

 The degree of importance of each of these will depend on what the visual content is being used for. The diagram below, indicates how different kinds of use (academic, marketing, editorial) affect the degree to which these characteristics are important. Infographics, for example, which are primarily aimed at conveying data, are likely to focus on comprehension.

 Infographic priorities by application (Source: Lankow, et. al., 2012: 38)

Different kinds of imagery can also impact on the effectiveness these characteristics. Photographs, rather than infographics, may act more to appeal than the other features, though of course, this depends on the photograph. Stills taken from the ‘Zapruder’ film, showing the assassination of President Kennedy’s in 1963, are likely to have a significant ‘retention’ effect, because the imaged are so horrifying. Though interestingly, those images could also act to create comprehension – the hypothesis of the lone gunman, situated behind the Presidential cavalcade, is hard to defend when the images clearly show that at least one bullet strikes from the front.

 Imagery’s ability to increase the appeal of content can work on an aesthetic level. Well-designed graphics, well-constructed infographics and well-shot photographs, can enhance content. The ‘well’ bit can be hard to quantify, but it’s often clear when visual material is poorly constructed or presented. A heavily pixelated photograph, a graphic created with colours that ‘jar’, or text labels that are hard to read, will net server the user well. Perhaps a good approach is to not include any materials that are detrimental to the content. If you don’t have well-made items, it’s best to have nothing. To paraphrase Williams Morris, ‘Have nothing in your ‘content’ [home] that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.

Use and beauty can be effective characteristics in getting users to hang around and work with content. There are a number of well-practiced approaches to online content that can help engage and retain user interest, and these are often dependent on the use of high-quality text and image content. Here visuals enhance and inform, alongside text that can add depth of meaning.

One area that provides a good example of how design can help engagement, is Infographics – an increasingly popular form of visual content. You can present a data set perfectly well in a simple bar chart, but adding illustrative elements, and visuals that can help the user to understand how data relates to each other or the world it’s been abstracted from, as well as word-image association, can help them get more from the content, or not simply go look at something more ‘interesting’ on their phone.

In terms of comprehension, infographics also illustrate how visuals can aid understanding through those very same characteristics suggested above. The example shown below is one of the earliest examples of infographics. It was designed by Florence Nightingale in 1855 to show the number of casualties during the Crimean War, and was used to explain how the ‘ … intervention of the Sanitary Commission … ‘ – who acted to improve hygiene conditions in the field – ‘ … dramatically reduced the death rate …’

Diagram of the Causes of Mortality in the Army of the East (Source:

Part of the reason for the effectiveness of some visuals, as Colin Ware (2004) has noted, is because our organic visual systems are ‘… pattern seekers of enormous power and subtlety.’, allowing us, he argues, to gather more information through visual processes than our other senses combined – in part because of the speed of visual processing and, because of the way in which we attach meaning to objects. Visual objects often have stored associated memories and meanings, which are recalled when we view them. In some circumstances, these can act to ‘… bias our brains towards particular actions and thought patterns, making them more likely’ (Ware, 2008: 126). So, it’s possible, though the right visuals, to affect our perception of things. This of course, underpins a lot of the advertising industry, but in other situations, it can help the user to better understand what’s being presented. The photograph below, entitled The Urge to See, is by Josef Koudelka, and represents a moment during the 1968 Soviet invasion of Prague. The empty streets, the wrist watch, the tanks in the distance, all have strong emotive meanings that illustrate the importance of impact of the events.

The Urge to See by Josef Koudelka (Source: Tufte, 1997: 13)

A well-crafted graphic or a telling image, working with well-considered text, presents a powerful information resource, particularly when processed by our extraordinary evolutionary visual and memory apparatus. To reiterate, it’s not a question of visuals or text, but as Lankow et .al. argue (2012: 45) ‘.. the strongest visualisations are those that are supported by descriptions as well as narratives …’

In terms of retention, the brain is able to rapidly recall the non-visual associations related to visual objects, drawing these from our long-term memory, and as Ware (2004: 352) has noted, at speeds that can be as short as 100 milliseconds. A study by Bateman et. al. (2010) also suggested that the addition of illustrative elements to graphical objects such as bar charts, act to help recall the associated data, mostly likely through both the emotional and aesthetic effects of the content.

So, images can help the appeal of content as well as enabling users to understand the meaning of it, and to more easily recall that information later. As always, the quality and ‘fitness’ of an image for the resource is important. Using high-quality visuals is worth the effort, as poor content can have the opposite effect. From a content developer perspective, it can also make the process of development more fun, and engaging for them. And why shouldn’t it be. If you get greater pleasure from the act of creating resources – adding beauty and usefulness to the material – there’s a decent chance that the end user is going to get a better experience as well.


Bateman, S., Mandryk, R. L., Gutwin, C., Genest, A., McDine, D.,and Brooks, C. (2010) Useful Junk? The Effects of Visual Embellishment on Comprehension and Memorability of Charts. [online] Available at [Accessed: 12th December, 2019].

Bates, B. (2019) Learning Theories Simplified (Second edition). London: SAGE Publications Ltd.

Kousta, S. T., Vigliocco, G., Andrews, M. and Del Campo, (2011) The representation of abstract words: why emotion matters. Journal of Experimental Psychology, Feb;140(1): 14-34.

Lankow, J., Ritchie, J. and Crooks, R. (2012) Infographics: The Power of Visual Storytelling. London: John Wiley & Sons.

Paivio, A. (1971). Imagery and verbal processes. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Paivio, A. (2006) [online] Available at Accessed: 12th December, 2019].

Tufte, E. R. (1997) Visual Explanations. Connecticut: Graphic Press.

Ware, C. (2004) Information Visualization: Perception for Design. San Francisco: Morgan Haufmann.

Ware, C. (2008) Visual Thinking: Design for Design. San Francisco: Morgan Haufmann.


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