Graphic designers and illustrators intuitively believe that their graphic embellishments such as pictures, photographs and graphics will aid a learner when they use instructional material. The results of empirical studies however indicate that graphic embellishments have a limited effect and only contribute to learning under very specific conditions.
Scholars working in the fields of educational psychology have published extensively on variables that aid reading, recognition, recall, and comprehension. Their study fields included the use of supplementary, decorative, informative and explanative pictures, as well as using visual sequencing and animation. These empirical studies for example, indicate that pictures are distracting and should be avoided when the aim is to teach people how to read. Animated graphics have some value in a learning situation but can also place additional cognitive demands on a learner and might not facilitate learning.
Designers must develop knowledge of published research, consider the expected outcome of the learning material, and must know which type of graphic will most likely have the best cognitive effect given the learner and the text. Designers must pre-test their images in conjunction with the learning material in order to eliminate visual barriers and the possibility of inappropriate visual language that could cause miscommunication.
Graphic designers can, by applying the results of published research, improve the inherent learning value of graphics when used with instructional material.