Understand How They Learn

by Jenn + Ken Visocky O’Grady

The goal of any information design task is to communicate a specific message to the end user in a way that is clear, accessible, and easy to understand. Even an elementary review of educational theory, how we learn, can provide the designer with crucial insight into the needs of the end user (and make a big difference in the way aesthetic decisions are made). This overview of learning styles has immediate implications for visual communication:

There are many theories within the educational and cognitive science communities regarding the processes and motivations that drive the way in which people learn. These models vary in complexity, yet it is largely agreed that all individuals prefer some particular sensory method (or mode) of experiencing, interacting with, and remembering new information. These predispositions are called “learning styles.” The three most common learning styles are Visual, Auditory/Verbal, and Kinesthetic/Tactile.

Visual learners prefer images when encountering new information. They are more likely to remember information when it has been presented in the form of a picture, map, chart, or film. Visual learners create flowcharts, diagrams, or other forms of graphic organization to master new knowledge. People who learn best by seeing new information often think in terms of movies or pictures rather than words. As such, visual learners tend to have a strong awareness of aesthetics and space.

Verbal learners prefer experiencing new information in the form of written and spoken words. Individuals exhibiting this learning style prefer information when presented in the form of lectures, written documents, and group discussion. They study by reading, writing notes, listening, and talking. Auditory/verbal learners tend to think in words rather than pictures and often have strong written and verbal communication skills.

Kinesthetic learners acquire knowledge by doing. These individuals need to physically experience new information by using large and small muscle groups, and need to touch and feel content. They prefer labs, demonstrations, and learning through play. Kinesthetic/tactile learners will act out skits, role-play, or devise other forms of physical manipulation to master new skills. Individuals exhibiting this learning style tend to work well with their hands and are physically coordinated.

Different learning styles suit our developmental needs at different times of our lives. Most of us learn best through a combination of educational experiences, but each individual tends toward a particular learning style as he or she reaches adulthood. While noting the unique needs of the individual, it is also sometimes possible to predict the general learning styles of an audience by assessing clues such as professions, skills, and hobbies. Armed with a simple understanding of the human learning process, the information designer is better able to communicate with the target audience. It is important to remember that most people learn through a combination of styles. By incorporating supporting layers of information in the form of type, images, and when possible tactile and aural experiences, the designer is able to engage multiple stimuli, creating a more memorable and meaningful experience.

An eye, ear and hand are visual representations of Learning Styles

VISUAL LEARNERS: Learn best from images / Think in terms of pictures /Possess a strong aesthetic sense

AUDITORY/VERBAL LEARNERS: Learn best from using language / Think in terms of words / Possess strong written and verbal skills

KINESTHETIC/TACTILE LEARNERS: Learn best by “doing” / Work well with their hands / Possess good physical coordination

An excellent illustration of design to engage multiple learning styles is found in
Mathematica, A World of Numbers and Beyond. The first prominent exhibition produced by the Eames Office (well before an organized theory on learning styles was published), its goal was to communicate complex mathematical theory in simple terms and engage and entertain museumgoers through multiple sensory experiences.

A boy peers through the Interactive Multiplication Cube.
A boy peers through the Interactive Multiplication Cube.

Two patrons sit and watch the Mathematica peep shows.
Two patrons sit and watch the Mathematica Peep Shows.

A family contemplates the bell curve created by columns of balls in the Probability Machine.
A family contemplates the bell curve created by the Probability Machine.

Patrons explore the History Wall.
Patrons explore the History Wall.

Mathematica, A World of Numbers and Beyond images courtesy of the IBM Corporate Archive for The Information Design Handbook

Quick Tip
Help them learn: Designers can address different learning styles by creating different artifacts. For example: a poster could contain both illustrations and text-heavy charts, which should appeal to visual and verbal learners, where a video game creates a more interactive, thus kinesthetic, user experience.

Dig Deeper!
1. This parse is excerpted from The Information Design Handbook by Jenn + Ken Visocky O’Grady

2. Rita and Kenneth Dunn’s highly influential exploration of learning styles began in the 1970s. Since that time numerous educators and psychologists have contributed to the discussion. Read more about the Dunn and Dunn Learning-Style Model, which has been widely studied and applied to all levels of academia and education, at the Learning Styles Community.

3. The Eames’ Mathematica exhibit (photos above) is an excellent example of this theory in practice, and all the more innovative and inspiring as it was designed in 1961. You can still see it on display at the Museum of Science in Boston, Massachusetts (where it has been on permanent exhibition since 1981).

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