Educational Graphics: Five Considerations

Da Vinci water lifting devices sketch

Many instructors go beyond text and tables and use graphic elements to illustrate their educational materials. When chosen and applied carefully, graphics can add valuable context and information. When chosen poorly, graphics can confuse students and interfere with their understanding of key concepts.

Here are some things to think about when developing educational graphics.

  • Is it legible? To be useful, a graphic needs to clearly portray its subject, including any text or numbers used in it. Make sure the image can be understood on all the devices students are likely to use and when viewed by students with some forms of visual impairment, such as color blindness.
  • Is it simple? If one has to spend more time explaining how the graphic relates to the topic than on the topic itself, the graphic needs to be revised for clarity, or the information needs to be conveyed in another manner. A simple graphic will generally be easier to understand than a complex one, as long as it’s complex enough to convey the necessary information.
  • Is it consistent? If a red triangle on one slide indicates “stop” and a red triangle three slides later indicates “change,” the graphics may confuse more than they clarify. If a shape or a color has a meaning, be sure to carry that meaning throughout the document.
  • Is it helpful? Students may have trouble grasping key concepts in class lectures—graphics can aid in understanding them. Sometimes ideas under discussion are complex—graphics can help illustrate them. Some processes take extensive amounts of text to describe—images may be able to convey them better. Make sure the graphic is addressing a specific concern before adding it to the course materials, as purposeless graphics can distract from the important content.
  • Is it legal? There are millions of interesting, potentially useful graphics available online. However, educational fair use has limits, and one must respect intellectual property while creating course materials. Duke University provides fair use guidance here.

For more information and support in using educational graphics, contact CIT at cit@duke.edu.