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Words + pictures > words alone


How many appliances are visible in your kitchen? Don't read on until you have your answer.

If you're like most people, you took a mental visual walk through your kitchen, "looking for" appliances. "OK, next to the refrigerator on the right side there's the toaster... next to the coffee maker... the microwave is up there..."

We’re visual creatures.

According to memory expert Kenneth Higbee, “The saying that a picture is worth a thousand words is usually applied to the effectiveness of a picture in understanding what was communicated; it may also apply to the effectiveness of a picture in remembering what was communicated.”

One reason for this effect is that visual images are processed in two parts of the brain rather than just one. A pile of evidence supports that people learn more deeply from words with pictures than from words alone (Mayer, 1989b, Mayer and Gallini, 1990; Mayer, Bove, and others, 1996.), and overall, several studies combined have shown a median percentage gain of 89% effectiveness. Pretty dramatic. Some of the theory behind the gain you get when words and pictures are combined is that we use our brains more fully, processing the content more deeply, because we actively connect the words to the pictures. In other words, our brains work to make sense of the combined pictures and text, and that processing leads to more meaningful and memorable learning. That's the theory, anyway.

Perhaps more importantly, our target audience—the Sesame Street-->MTV-->XBox generation—has a highly developed visual sensitivity earlier generations lacked. In his book Digital Game-Based Learning, Marc Prensky claims, “In previous generations, graphics were generally illustrations, accompanying the text and providing elucidation. For today’s Games Generation, the relationship is almost completely reversed: the role of text is to elucidate something that was first experienced as an image.” He goes on to say, “They find it much more natural than their predecessors to begin with visuals and to mix text and graphics in a richly meaningful way.”

And when there are images, the text that goes with the images should be integrated with the pictures. In five different tests, one group was exposed to text placed below the illustration, while the second group was exposed to text placed near the illustration. Although both groups saw identical text and graphics (with the only difference being placement of the text), in all five studies the second group performed better on subsequent tests. When a reader has to keep switching between the graphic and its description, he has to work harder... on the wrong things. There’s only so much mental bandwidth in a reader’s brain, and [broken record and dead-obvious here] that bandwidth should be used for making sense of the actual topic, not for making sense of the way the topic is presented.

Tech/education publishers--pay attention here--the one thing that could make a huge difference is to switch from captions-under-pictures to captions-within-pictures. Yes, I've heard all the arguments for why this is difficult for production. But the potential gain is HUGE.

I've talked about this a lot before, but I've noticed some of my co-authors slipping a little on the graphics so this is a little reminder ; )

One of the main reason my cohorts and I are using graphics is so that the picture in the user's head more closely matches the picture we're trying to convey. If you use words alone, you have to be a damn good writer--much better than I am. Those who write with crystal clarity can describe something complex with a higher chance that the intended meaning makes it into the user's head, but there's still no guarantee -- AND -- using words alone isn't as effective for a lot of topics.

And even seemingly simple ideas can take a lot more time to convey if you don't use pictures. We value our reader's time tremendously, and that's a big part of why we are so graphic-heavy. I look at these two simple graphics and imagine how many paragraphs of words it would take to make sure the user "read" it the same way:



Given the potential for such dramatic gains, my co-authors and I keep wondering why the vast majority of adult technical materials have so few visuals. The arguments I hear are usually misconceptions, and fall into one of these:

1) Adults don't need pictures

2) Adults don't want pictures

3) Only "visual" learners need pictures

4) It takes a lot more work

For many, many, many topics, and many, many, many audiences--these notions are just wrong. Generating graphics can be more work, but you make it up in other ways. When I can generate a two-page spread describing a complicated server process, I just saved myself five or more pages of writing! (And the stress associated with trying to be certain my words describe the story in a way that causes the reader to form an accurate, vivid mental picture.)

All it takes is a little getting used to. I'm always amazed when teachers do eleborate white board drawings, but never put them in their books or articles. Or when engineers can do fabulous napkin drawings to explain things to colleagues, but never put them in their books or articles.

The one thing that makes a big difference for me in being able to create pictures: my wacom. I'd give up my iPod before my tablet. There, I said it.

(Of course, I have an emergency backup iPod)

Posted by Kathy on October 31, 2005 | Permalink


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Bravo! This is one of the key reasons the head first series is so effective. The request/response diagrams from the servlet book really helped solidify my understanding of the servlet lifecycle, much more so then any of the text-only descriptions I had read.

One problem comes in when you are an author who is not artistic and do not have a designer or artist to fall back on. Do you still hack out some stick figure drawings? Has there been research done on different levels of quality in regards to text+pictures for education?

Posted by: Rob Sanheim | Oct 31, 2005 7:25:56 PM

When people get to the certain levels of reading and writing, it seems to me that people are becoming less visual. Personally, I like to be more visual and write at same time if I can.

The four misconceptions you put above and just misconceptions! People need visual if they cannot figure out or understand it from many letters and sentences lying down in white plain paper! Kudos for the artists and visual enthusiasts. :)

Posted by: Twinkie | Oct 31, 2005 7:45:22 PM

I don't think it is particularly difficult to make graphics - for most technical things all you need to do is a screen shot, which is one of the easiest things to do. Other graphics (charts and graphs) can easily be done in excel or another spreadsheet program. If it comes down to needing custom graphics then the author of a work or publishing company should spend a little money and pay a graphic artist.

Posted by: EFL Geek | Oct 31, 2005 8:31:44 PM


Since we're so visual, it's unfortunate that we still create software using textual "code".

For an entirely visual approach to software development, take a look at my project, Tersus (http://www.tersus.org)

Posted by: Youval | Oct 31, 2005 10:41:00 PM

Let's take this a bit further.

Could you write a Head First style book that was ENTIRELY annotated pictures? That is, no large blocks of text at all?

Head First is fairly close to this already. I think you can kill most of the text, and the books might even be better for it.

Posted by: Jeff Atwood | Nov 1, 2005 3:19:28 AM

My first exploration of the Head First series has been Design Patterns. It seems very effective.

In "Seeing Voices" by Oliver Sacks there is discussion about the effects of using a purely visual language (ASL) on the processing of information such as Chinese characters "written" in the air with a light. Deaf people attempting to draw them, after seeing them presented this way, were more successful than hearing people.

I found some of the print in Head First Design Patterns difficult to see: some was very small, particularly text in some images, and some was thin and grey (some of the Java was more difficult than other bits, but probably variations in lighting was a factor). So two questions spring from this:

Any chance of large print editions for this series?

How would you make this effective for, and accessible to, totally blind people? Tapes are too passive, braille is just text....

I'm thinking that there may be benefits for others in cosidering this: the "topic - comment" structure of sign languages maps well to teaching (make sure people have the context first before plunging into a subject), which helps lipreaders, too; and the good visual techniques that help dyslexics help others as well.

Posted by: hgs | Nov 1, 2005 5:01:17 AM

Yep. Context is powerful in helping us assimilate information. Two years ago, I convinced a client to switch from text-based user guides to image-based user guides, and came up with a design that all but eliminated the need for a) translatioins and b) 80% of the paper volume. (This turned out to be a hefty cost reduction.) Users scoffed at the idea at first, but after six months of trials, installation-related service calls for those products dropped to almost zero. The few calls that we did receive were about 25% shorter than they used to be because once the customer service rep helped the user locate the user guide, the conversation was basically over. "Oh cool, it's all right here! Okay, I know what to do now. Sorry. Thanks for your time."


A pretty cool illustration of what can be done with image and text "merges" can be found on rockstar photographer Christopher Wray-McCann's website (more specifically in this gallery: http://www.wray-mccann.com/rottenoasis/declassified09.03.01/thunbnails.htm ). While his work does nothing to enhance memory, it's still a cool use for integrating text into images to enhance their context.

(Oh, and beware the photo of the naked guy in a cape.)

Posted by: olivier blanchard | Nov 1, 2005 7:25:24 AM

I have to say, I've never gotten into comic books precisely because I find it so difficult to focus on both text and images at the same time. It gives me a raging headache. In the newspaper, I typically read the captions of the comics first, then study the pictures to put the whole thing together. That's good for three or four frames, but obviously not so good for several pages. For newspaper comics I only marginally care about, I just skim the text and move on.

The interesting thing is, I'm part of the original Sesame Street generation (1969), as well as classic Star Trek, so it isn't like I haven't been exposed to graphics in my life. But, given a choice between a nice, thick book (think "The Lord of the Rings") and a movie or computer game, the book wins almost every time.

So, the thought of an instruction manual that's basically formatted like a comic book or graphic novel makes me shudder. I sincerely hope I'm dead or retired before the old-style manuals (text with some pictures) completely disappear.

Posted by: Bob Shepard | Nov 1, 2005 8:30:36 AM

Yes! Who isn't sick and tired of sitting through heavy content laden powerpoint presentations?

We created a "how we do it" poster and took it to a trade show. It was a huge hit. Our prospects immediately "got it".

No one executes this better than a company called Xplane. (No, I don't work for them, I'm just a fan.) www.xplane.com. Check 'em out.

Posted by: Jonathan Dampier | Nov 1, 2005 2:31:44 PM

hgs: can you point out where in Head First Design Patterns the text is too small for you? Some places, the text is left in pictures that we shrink down (and doesn't actually *need* to be read to understand the pictures). So I want to determine which text / lines you're having trouble with. If it's something Eric and I can fix for the next printing, we'd be happy to do that.

On a more general note; remember that most kids call themselves "artists" when asked the first few years. The number gradually drops off... by high school, most kids don't call themselves artists unless they are in an "art program". I think that's part of the problem with adults not creating enough visuals, and more importantly, most adults not believing they are capable of it. Rob: I say, draw those stick figures! Better than nothing, and I bet you'd be surprised what you could draw with a little practice and the help of a good program like In Design (which we use to create the Head First books).


Posted by: Beth Freeman | Nov 1, 2005 8:17:11 PM

I've generally considered myself a stick figure drawing type person. Yet I write technical guides for a living and I've been peppering them with graphics and screen captures since I started. The software that is out there - Illustrator/Corel Draw/Photoshop/Paintshop Pro/Visio/the open office.org equivalents/whatever - allow even those of us without the ability to draw freehand to put together decent material. Yes, it takes some time and effort, but less than I expected. I view it as an opportunity to learn new things. My personal favourite for the basics is the book "The Non-Designers Design Book" by Robin Williams.

I recently asked a contractor, who has worked with a broad range of writers over the years, if most writers also do graphics. He estimated no more than 20%.

Lots of opportunity there.

Posted by: Cathy | Nov 2, 2005 9:27:42 AM


Lovely post and this is what makes your books great. It's just unfortuante that your publisher doesn't provide the wonderful graphics to instructors who want to use your books. This is why CS class instructors will resort to Deitel over Head First (except me, but that's because I'm a glutton for punishment willing to photocopy some pages, scan those pages, get crappy graphics that I put in my viewgraph presentation so that the class can be in sync in terms of lecture and the Head First Java book).


Posted by: El | Nov 2, 2005 4:12:56 PM

The photos generally avoided difficult to see text. I could see at the start of the Factories chapter that the book had "baking with OO factories" on it, so when I got to the Command Patterns chapter, I found myself trying to read the command being posted in the bin (on the basis that such details are there to support learning). So that isn't vital. I found some of the diagrams more difficult than others: on page 114 there is a cloud with text in at the top and the low contrast made that difficult. The larger class diagrams pp 56, 64 and a few others were at about the limit of my vision, and not comfortable to read, but the bolder print on page 101 makes that much easier. The nested decorators (decorated eggs? :-)) were rather low contrast for me, and the dependency inversion principle page 140 object blobs were difficult to read because of size, but the boldness was good.

Anyway, I hope that gives you an idea of where my difficulties were. I think part of it is that although in most cases being able to read the print is not critical to understanding, the reader can't tell that until they have read it! :-) It might be useful to put a note next to a diagram when it is available in a larger form elsewhere in the book. It is hard to tell that you are looking at a smaller version of a diagram already seen, and not a new one with subtle differences, otherwise. You have graphic symbols for "close look at code", "exercise", etc, maybe you could have one for this? ... alt="eyeball peering at insect"... or something.

However, I should balance that by saying that this has been an enjoyable book to study, the techniques stimulating spatial memory and vibrant stories (of flooding chocolate boilers...) are very good mnemonics and I'm getting a much better feel for this than with the GOF book. Seeing them applied is a big help: some of the applications in GOF left me with questions (which could be answered from the text but its much more work). I could see their book was good, I just felt I hadn't "got it".

The surprising thing about this book was that it felt really easy leaning this material. I expected it to be clear, and memorable from what I've read on the blog, but making a subject easy is ... usually very difficult :-)

Thank you.

Posted by: hgs | Nov 2, 2005 4:54:40 PM

November 3rd is World Usability Day. Thought you might find that interesting.

Posted by: jm | Nov 4, 2005 12:01:25 PM

Nice piece. I wrote something similar you may be interested in:


Posted by: Sour Duck | Nov 9, 2005 2:17:14 PM

Kathy, we know from your blog you're a mind-manager + tablet devotee (me too!) - but do you have other apps you lean on for sketching, and creating these graphics with the tablet? I'd love to know what's in you're toolbag. Thanks.

Posted by: Phil Cockfield | Nov 10, 2005 1:56:48 AM

Im doing a science project on how we learn better, through pictures or words. i need research. help!!!!

Posted by: Amanda | Jan 7, 2007 1:26:29 PM

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