Multimedia Principle: Adding Graphics to Words Improves Learning Posted Monday, January 20, 2014 at 10:00 AM

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Some think that a designer’s own technical capabilities and intuitive beliefs are far more influential on the design of most training materials than any proven, research-based principles.(1)  But even if it’s totally natural to be guided by your skills and intuitions, how do you know whether they’re leading you in the right direction?

With the prevalence of easy-to-use tools like Articulate Studio ’13 and Articulate Storyline, nearly anyone can create training—even if they don’t know how to design training. Which is why I think it’s a good idea to know about the research-based guidelines for designing instructional materials that lead to better learning results.

Richard Mayer is a professor of psychology at the University of California who studies how to present information in ways that help people better understand it, including how to use words and pictures more effectively. He has spent over 25 years researching how the design of multimedia instruction—lessons containing words (printed or spoken) and pictures (illustrations, photos, animations, or video)—affects learning.

Mayer and his colleagues have established a number of guidelines for designing instructional materials that have been shown to improve learning. One of Mayer’s guidelines for designing instructional materials is the multimedia principle, which simply says that people learn better from words and pictures than from words alone. (2)



In ten different studies, Mayer and his colleagues compared learning about various mechanical and scientific processes from lessons that used words alone to those that used words and pictures. In all ten, learners who took a multimedia lesson comprised of words and pictures performed better than those who received the same information only in words. On average, there was an 89% improvement in learning when pictures were included. (3)


Sounds like a good reason to get rid of lessons with nothing but screens and screens of text, right? Yes—but before you rush to fill your screens with pictures, note that not all pictures are equally effective. In some future posts, we’ll look at a few more of Mayer’s principles to learn the specifics of how to use visuals to improve learning.

In the meantime, you can learn more about the multimedia principle and the rest of Mayer’s principles in “E-learning and the Science of Instruction: Proven Guidelines for Consumers and Designers of Multimedia Learning” (Public Library)




1  Park, I., and Hannafin, M. (1994). Empirically-Based Guidelines for the Design of Interactive Multimedia. Educational Technology Research and Development, 41, 63-85.


2  Mayer, R. E. “Introduction to Multimedia Learning,” in R. E. Mayer (Ed.). The Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.


3  Clark, R. C., and R. E. Mayer. E-Learning and the Science of Instruction, 2nd edition. San

Francisco: Pfeiffer, 2007.

Mayer, R. Applying the Science of Learning: Evidence-Based Principles for the Design of Multimedia Instruction. American Psychologist, November 2008, 760-769.

Post written by Mike Taylor



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11 comments so far

James Kocher

26 posts

Posted Tuesday, January 21, 2014 at 12:53 PM

Thanks, Mike! I had to run over the library and grab Mayer's book!

JP Dull

1 posts

Posted Wednesday, January 22, 2014 at 11:06 AM

Nice post. I wonder, if you take this one step further, how this applies to motion, and moving graphics. In your example above, would the training more effective if those arrows were actually rotating clockwise? At what point do graphics no longer add to the effectiveness of instruction and instead begin to take away from it?

User Rank Jeff Kortenbosch

1,116 posts

Posted Wednesday, January 22, 2014 at 11:15 AM

Good point JP. I'd say if the animations would strengthen the visual in a natural way it potentially could strengthen the experience e,g, the graph bars rising equally and then the green one bypassing it the way it does. Add the some dramatic background audio to bring the point home...

Diane Miziolek

1 posts

Posted Wednesday, January 22, 2014 at 12:52 PM

And never forget the power of interaction with the learner... instructional designers need to also create some activity during eLearning to keep learner focused and engaged.  But I also definitely agree that  pictures/graphics add so much more learning retention to text based modules.

User Rank Mike Taylor

940 posts

Posted Thursday, January 23, 2014 at 1:58 PM

Those are some great points. There is some similar research on animations and sound also which I'm eager to share as well. Much of it is in Mayer & Clark's book too. I think it would be fun to take a poll and see where people land on those and how that compares to the research.

Mike Taylor's Blog

1,764 posts

Posted Monday, February 10, 2014 at 2:35 AM

Since graphics are an important part of any learning course , anyone who builds e-learning should have

Mike Taylor's Blog

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Posted Monday, March 03, 2014 at 2:38 AM

In a previous post, we talked about adding graphics to your e-learning designs, which can significantly

Mike Taylor's Blog

1,764 posts

Posted Monday, April 14, 2014 at 2:37 AM

Recently we looked at how adding graphics to words can significantly improve learning . In that post

Mike Taylor's Blog

1,764 posts

Posted Monday, May 12, 2014 at 2:46 AM

Today I’d like to continue our tour of Richard Mayer’s research-based multimedia design principles

Mike Taylor's Blog

1,764 posts

Posted Monday, July 14, 2014 at 1:42 AM

A while back, I did a post about using the multimedia principle . In a nutshell, it’s where you

Jeffrey Dalto

64 posts

Posted Wednesday, August 20, 2014 at 11:16 PM

I've enjoyed the series of posts on visuals that Mike Taylor has put together--nice job. Mayer's book is on my list and is now even higher.

Here's a similar article demonstrating 25 effective tips for creating visuals in training. They're drawn from another book I highly recommend by Connie Malamed (Visual Language for Designers).