Skip to main content

Most of you are visual learners which means that the primary way you take in information is through your internal or external sense of vision. You are not good listeners, but you are astute observers. The good news is that using good visuals to impact learning  is an easy and inexpensive way to reach people. It doesn’t take much more effort to use images correctly to enhance the learning experience than it does to do so incorrectly. By effectively using visuals you get a lot of “bang for your buck” quickly  and without much added expense.  “Visuals improve the learning process and quicken your ability to make connections” (Conner, 2008, ¶ 1).

So why then, do people design screen after screen using poor visual images for learning?  I believe it is because they do not know any better. Very few sales managers, product directors or engineers have been schooled in visual design. Even designers who have had extensive instruction in visual design do not always understand that good visual design is not always good design for learning. I like to put it this way: good visual design is always good design, and good visual design for learning is always good design, but not all good visual design is good visual design for learning.

Arguably you have at least five senses—some experts say more. It is generally accepted that you take information in through your senses, but even this is not all that simple. You can find different accounts of how many senses you have and what role they play. In addition to the normal five senses accredited to the human being—sight, smell, hearing, touch and taste—additional sensory perceptions are often included in the list of senses. These include temperature, balance, kinesthetic, pain and sometimes intuition (or the sixth sense). These differing views are all part of an effort to label and classify. The fact remains that visuals quicken your ability to establish meaning and internalize information (Conner, 2008).

Vision is the sense that includes sight; it is the ability of the brain to detect images in a certain electromagnetic way in a range of light. Images however, are a little more complex than just taking in a visual. You take in an image on many levels.  For example, electromagnetic impulses, or thoughts, are believed to be some form of energy. There is controversy, however, about what impacts these impulses. Some schools of thought say that there are actually two or three different senses that make up the energy field called vision including sensors for color, brightness and depth perception. I believe it is even a bit more complex than that. Because visuals are also filtered through the affective domain they are not only influenced by cognition, but they also influence and are influenced by your feelings.  Vision can be stimulated externally or internally. You can look at a drawing or photograph of a tree by a stream , or you can imagine the same thing.

There are four ways you use your sense of internal and external vision:

  1. Attention
  2. Perception
  3. Visualization
  4. Imagination


Many famous learning, instructional and motivational theories begin with “attention.”  Your teachers—and your mother—always told you to pay attention, please! What is attention and why is it so important? Attention is about focus and concentration. It is the cognitive process of concentrating on a particular thought, emotion or thing. Visuals can grab our attention and help us hold and focus on a thought.  But how do visual images help you gain and focus a learner’s attention?

My son Bert once had a tennis coach who was trying to explain to him the importance of attention. Bert was about fourteen-years-old at the time, and he and his coach had just had a grueling experience on the practice court. The coach came over to our house for some refreshments, and I made them both sandwiches and lemonade. As they sat in our family room eating lunch, my dog Max joined them. He was extremely interested in their tuna fish sandwiches. In fact, Max never took his eyes off the sandwiches. It didn’t matter who said what or did what; Max’s eyes were focused on those sandwiches.  Until the last bite was consumed, Max’s number one priority and center of focus was those tuna sandwiches. “Watch Max, Bert. Now that is attention,” his coach said.  He was right. All of Max’s thoughts were focused on one thing and one thing only—the tuna fish sandwiches.  As long as one bite of those sandwiches was still available and there was the possibility that a crumb might fall his way, those sandwiches had Max’s undivided attention.

Throughout history the great philosophers and scientists have tried to understand thought. From the seventeenth-century philosopher, Renee Descartes,  who stated, “ I think therefore I am,” to Dr. Robert Anderson, 1976, Carnegie Mellon University, who developed the famous ACT  theory ( Adaptive Control of Thought), many great minds have realized that in order for you to learn, you must focus your thoughts.

Robert Gagne, one of the twentieth century’s innovators in instructional design, developed conditions of learning. These are cognitive processes tied to “Nine Events of Instruction.” The first event of instruction is to gain attention.  Gagne’s nine events include: gain attention, inform of objectives, review prerequisites, present stimuli, provide guidance, elicit performance, provide feedback, assess performance and retention, and transfer. Although some consider Gagne to be behaviorist in orientation and a bit out of favor with the current constructivist pedagogy, I believe he still has validity. Notice that he starts off the creation of instruction with “gain attention.”  If there is no attention, no connection, no focus and your thoughts are elsewhere, the odds of your learning decrease (Gagne, Briggs & Wagner, 1992).

John Keller developed ARCS, a theory of adult learner motivation more than a pure learning theory, that states that learner motivation is dependent on four factors—attention, relevance, confidence and satisfaction.  Attention is all about reining in the level of interest, focus and engagement After all, when your thoughts are elsewhere and you are not paying attention, you are not going to learn because you are not going to be motivated to learn.  Relevance is the “WIIFM” or “What’s in it for me?”  In the case of learning, what is important is what is in it for the learner—not the instructor or the teacher or the subject-matter expert. What is in it for the learner? Adult learners have to know why. Confidence comes as the learner gains assurance and belief in self by learning new things. Finally, satisfaction means that the learner is feeling more competent. The learner needs to be satisfied that the investment was worth the time, and in many cases, the money (Keller, 2006).

It is also important to understand how, where and why you focus your attention. Attention, afterall, is focused or concentrated thought.  An example I like to use to illustrate this is pharmaceutical commercials. Have you see the television commercials produced by some of the large pharmaceutical companies? They are advertising drugs, but you would never know it. You never see a pill, a doctor, a hospital or any other sign of illness. You never see the drug. These commercials draw your attention to a lifestyle. They show people on the golf course, groups of men in fishing boats, a middle-aged couple in the middle of a lake with a sunset.  They are intentionally drawing your attention to something else; a feeling, a lifestyle or a promise of a better life. While you are watching scenes of a sunset, they are reading you the legal disclaimers and side effects. These multi-billion dollar organizations understand the power of visuals and they understand attention.


You and I do not see the same picture in exactly the same way. Since each of us is an individual and each of us constructs our own thoughts and perceptions, it is quite possible for us to look at the same picture and see two entirely different things. Perceptions, then, are our unique way of taking in the world, and they can be influenced by mood, culture, and even expectations.

Have you ever had the experience of driving down a road following a route that is very familiar to you and seeing something you have never seen on that road before? This might be the route you travel to and from work every day. Perhaps, you have traveled it twice a day for years. Then all of a sudden you see a building, or a tree, or a swing set that has been there all along, but you never noticed it. You never “saw” it before.  Suddenly there it is!

Our perception of the world around us depends on mapping signals to the primary sensory areas in the brain.  The main center for processing visual information leads from the retina to the area of the cortex known as V1. This center handles motion, color, and form, and it is from here that signals are distributed to the rest of the cortex. Many studies, including imaging studies using simple stimuli, visual illusions and stimuli that may occur in nature, confirm these findings. This simple processing is prone to errors when combined with more complex cognitive functions (Frackowiak, 2001).

How you see things is unique to your own mind and cognitive processing.