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When to use illustration and photography in e‑learning

When to use illustration and photography in e‑learning

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One of the advantages of e‑learning is its ability to incorporate images into the learning experience. These images generally fall into two categories: photography or illustration. Both photography and illustration have certain connotations, and it is important to ensure that they are compatible within the client’s business context. Imagine Bugs Bunny talking to you about a funeral policy? Or Prince Charles giving you advice on primary healthcare. It just doesn’t sit right.

So it is crucial that these two mediums are used with a clear understanding of who the target audience is, what the learning methodologies are and how they will connect with the user interface.

In order for us to look at how, and when, to use illustration or photography, it’s necessary to first understand what they are. This might seem like a bit of a ‘duh!’ thing to do, but it highlights their unique differences and will give a better idea of which to choose. As Simon Sinek says below, why we do something is incredibly important

1. Illustration: Hand and Eye

Simply put, illustration is the act of making marks on a surface. In e‑learning, these are popular because of their power in how easily we can relate to them. They help us imagine unimaginable things in very practical ways – like architectural blueprints – or fantastical ways – like the image of a comic book superhero.

However, producing immense detail is difficult and time-consuming and in some settings illustration might not be appropriate, as it doesn’t hold the same gravitas as photography does. The financial industry comes to mind as that industry’s environment demands a certain ‘seriousness’ that illustration struggles to evoke. Stick figures will not do justice to their content.

An illustrated avatar (see our post on avatars!) is a great example of effective use of illustration in e‑learning. Avatar’s expressions can be comically exaggerated to liven up a course. One can also have an illustrated look-and-feel that’s threaded through the UI/UX design; illustrating the course’s navigational buttons and interactive elements breaking the rigidity of straightforward user interfaces. Infographics are also illustrations, and – just like avatars – their style can be quite playful and cartoon-like or more reserved and geometric like technical drawing.

2. Photography: Machine and Lens

Since its invention, photography has offered us a slice of reality. Even a blurry, out-of-focus mess is still the result of capturing photons (light) from a real place, and there’s power in that.

Because of this, people have a certain trust in photography – one could easily argue it’s misplaced – but whether you like it or not, it’s there. Family photos, mugshots, surveillance footage, all those ‘before’ and ‘after’ photos that we all seem to believe against our better judgement, all of them demand that we perceive them as reality. With this connotation, photography can bring a certain credibility to the visuals in your e‑learning.

Photography does have its disadvantages, though. It can quickly recede into the background losing its link with the content. It can also struggle to represent unreal images convincingly (check out the uncanny valley for additional reading).

Photography in e‑learning is ideal for on-site learning simulations. In the context of the mining industry, photographs of machinery and the mining environment speaks volumes to the learner. It allows for images of real scenarios and objects that significantly connects the learner to their working environment. One can place the learner “behind the wheel” with little expense and no risk without even starting up an engine.

On a higher level, photography offers us the illusion of an accurate representation of reality, whereas illustration offers the overtly symbolic representation of an imagined reality. This is an important difference to note, as they’re both useful. They are not neutral mediums and an awareness of what they are and why they are being used is necessary. They are indispensable tools in e‑learning, but their application depends on the context of the learning.

Author: Simon Pienaar

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