When considering cognitive load, why is visual design for learning so important? It is because too much of a good thing is too much. Visual design for learning must be interesting but not cognitively overwhelming; it must get the learner’s attention but not overshadow the content. It must have an identity that affects the delivery and affects the emotional dimension of learning in order to make the learner feel something. Most importantly, it must act in harmony with the content, supporting what is important and supporting the learning. Your visual design must incorporate restraint, and restraint is the most difficult aspect to apply in a consistent manner. Although technology has made it easy to add color, change fonts and add graphics, too much of a good thing can get old real fast. The overuse—or incorrect use—of graphics, fonts, white space or any other important element of visual design can cause overload, with the result that instead of tuning in, you tune out.
Visual emphasis will work as long as it is stable and not overwhelming. For instance, using capital letters to gain attention when using them is not appropriate can be disastrous. It can have the same effect as a coach who constantly yells at his or her players; eventually the players just tune out. Similarly, the overuse of watermarks, gimmicks or background noise can cause mental clutter and lead to cognitive overload. If every screen is clamoring for attention, the brain doesn’t know what is important and when it can rest. Nothing really stands out when everything is emphasized. excessive use of emphasis causes the learner to tune out. He or she shuts down, and the impact of what is supposed to be emphasized is reversed.
When designing your visuals, you need to pay attention to the details. As the saying goes, “the devil is in the details” and this surely is true when it comes to design for learning. You want to make sure that the reader’s eye is focused on that part of the screen that is important. A classic example of this is the PowerPoint slides used by the Army Core of Engineers to discuss the impact to the city of New Orleans of a storm as significant as Hurricane Katrina. The story goes that at the very bottom of a very uninteresting and uneventful graphic table was information about what might happen. This has prompted many experts, including the authors of “You, Inc.,” Harry and Christine Beckwith, 2007, to state that when doing presentations, you really should not even use visuals. I agree that poorly done, boring visuals can be worse than no visuals at all but that is not the point. The point is to teach you how to use visuals well. Its goal is to help you help your learners by creating visuals that first get the information into working memory so that it can be transferred to long term memory where the knowledge can be retrieved and applied.