Let me illustrate that! A quick guide to using illustrations in eLearning

What are illustrations?

The use of illustrations dates as far back as the ancient times and as a matter of fact, the oldest cave painting known to us is more than 40,000 years old and archaeologists have figured out that these are the earliest forms of story-telling and ways of providing instructions. A cave painting of a mammoth depicting where its heart is located guides the hunter where it is best to aim at for a successful hunt. This works the same way a modern infographic would where instead of using written words or text, illustrations are used to convey the message or instruction quickly and clearly.

According to Wikipedia, “an illustration is a decoration, interpretation or visual explanation of a text, concept or process, designed for integration in published media, such as posters, flyers, magazines, books, teaching materials, animations, video games and films.” Illustrations can be seen all around us and can be found in combination with different types of media but this time we’re going to talk about how we use illustrations in the context of creating effective eLearning content.

Mammoth painted in red with what appears to be a heart, painted in the same colour, at the left shoulder.
Photo: Berenger (1994) Location: Cueva del Pindal

Why use illustrations for your eLearning?

According to a dual-coding theory, a theory of cognition, hypothesized by Allan Paivio in 1971 the formation of mental images aids in learning (Reed, 2010). He says that there are two ways a person could expand on learned material, the first is verbal associations and second is visual imagery.

When a person reads words like for example, dog, cat and car, these are going to be stored in the brain as verbal memory. But if you also show images that represent each of these words, these images will then be stored in your brain as visual memory. Having these two types of stored memory makes information twice as memorable, which explains why the use of images or illustrations are important tools to aid effective learning. And not only that, it seems like we have a natural tendency to prefer illustrated books or magazines over books that contain very few or no images at all. That’s also one reason why children’s books contain lots of illustrations with the intention to immediately capture the interest of the child and then guide them as the story builds up. Isn’t it that some of the most memorable stories that we’ve read or encountered when we were young are those books that had illustrations or images on them? No wonder, you could still vividly remember your favourite cartoon show from way back when you were young. The same is true for creating eLearning content, you must make sure that you get the learner’s attention and as much as possible keep them engaged throughout the learning process and using illustrations is one of the best ways to do this.

Illustrations can help simplify complex learning concepts or ideas. Diagrams, graphs and charts are some of the basic examples of these visual representations, although they do come in handy for reports and presentations, in the long run they don’t seem to be as interesting or engaging for most learners. A good alternative is to use infographics, which has become very popular in recent years as graphic designers figured out creative ways to condense large chunks of data or knowledge into a visual representation that looks appealing and easier to understand. Infographics take advantage of the human’s innate ability to easily detect patterns and trends and at the same time grab the learners’ attention using iconography, illustrations and colour.

What are the some of the pros and cons of using illustrations?

Using illustrations can provide a lot of flexibility in terms creating instructional design. If you are going for a scenario-based approach, you can create illustrations of characters that fit all the specific qualities that you need. This is particularly helpful if you require that a character have a specific job, attire or facial expression, since it is a bit difficult to source photos of the same person in a series of different poses and expressions based on your content unless you decide to go for a photoshoot. But this option usually comes at a higher cost and involves much more complex project planning. With illustrations, you have the ability to create characters that fit exactly what you intend them to be and you can further highlight certain concepts or ideas by adding supporting graphical elements, like custom backgrounds or props.

You can have a graphic artist or illustrator build these from scratch, however, you also must be wary that the more complex or more intricate you would like to go in terms of customising your graphics the more time and effort it will require. A good way to overcome this challenge is to prepare in advance and try to establish the final look of a character or a graphical element beforehand to avoid lots of revisions along the way. It would also be much better if you are able to source illustrations or graphics from online stock libraries that fit or come close to what you need. You can purchase and use these as a base or a starting point in creating your illustrated graphics or characters. These can also serve as templates that you could tweak or modify to fit your needs. Sometimes, if you can pick the right ones to start with, it’s possible that all you must do is to alter a few colours or edit small parts the illustration and then you’re all set. The use of illustrations can add a lot of value, but you must be able to manage the complexities of custom design and development as early as possible.

Another thing to consider when going for an illustration-based strategy is to determine if it goes along with your client’s company brand. There are times when the use of custom illustrations or graphics are not mentioned or not a part of their company branding guidelines. It is always best to discuss and confirm this with the client. But if you are certain that the best approach is to use illustrations, you must be able to make sure the client is well-informed about how much more beneficial it would be to your eLearning. You should also help them realise that in most cases, illustrations even provide a good opportunity to highlight their brand as you have more flexibility to tailor-fit them according to your needs. One example is to have your illustrations use or match their brand’s primary or secondary colour palettes.


In summary, here are some of the benefits of using illustrations in creating effective eLearning.

Illustrations help,

  • catch attention and keep the learner engaged;
  • help simplify complex data and large chunks of text;
  • help the learners retain more information;
  • help the learners understand abstract concepts or ideas that are often too hard to convey using only photographs, and;
  • provide the flexibility to perfectly match learning needs and company branding.

Additional tips

Meanwhile, it is important to note that the quality of the illustrations you are going to use is something you must always take into consideration. Aim for the highest quality that your budget and timeline allow for while making sure you don’t end up with illustrations or graphics that look like low quality clipart art images. Another important thing to watch out for to ensure quality is the consistency of the style being used. Illustrations usually vary in terms of style and mood, so it’s important that you stick to one style that you deem most effective and use it consistently throughout your eLearning course.

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