How-To Tips

Health Literacy

Using Visuals to Teach

Aug 1, 2022

Maybe you know visual learners like me—people who learn best when watching demonstrations or seeing drawings and photographs. Visuals can go a long way toward helping others understand health care concepts and instructions.

Here are some how-to’s:

  • Acquire the artwork you need. There are many ways to acquire needed artwork. You might begin by looking online for free or low-cost visuals. When you find an image you like, make sure you can freely use it or follow the instructions to obtain copyright permission. Another way is to hire a graphic artist, photographer, or cartoonist to create visuals specifically for you. Of course, there is always the option of creating your own artwork or asking an artistic colleague or friend to help.
  • Show sensitivity and respect. Choose visuals that are realistic and show people at their best. For instance, when writing about general health issues, include some people who are active and not just ill or infirm. As possible, represent the culture of your audience. This might be to include pictures of men wearing berets or turbans, not just baseball caps.
  • Select visuals appropriate to the subject matter. For example, you might use humorous, cartoon-like characters when writing about well-baby care, but more subdued illustrations in booklets about serious diagnoses. Consider the color of paper, too. I still recall a fact sheet about colonoscopy that was printed on light brown paper. Not a good color choice, in my humble opinion.
  • Show people in their entirety, not just body parts. When communicating about just one part of the body, such as the spleen, it’s tempting to show only this aspect of anatomy. It’s preferable to include at least one picture of the whole body with the spleen clearly labeled. This helps readers see where the spleen is and how it fits within the body. It also avoids showing “disembodied body parts” which some people may find upsetting, especially those traumatized by violence or war.
  • Combine pictures and text. Visuals alone are seldom sufficient, especially when explaining complicated information. To improve understanding, include simply worded captions beneath each visual. Captions not only help readers know what they’re seeing but also reinforce key ideas and actions.
  • Appreciate that symbols are not always understood. Symbols, just like other types of visuals, are subject to interpretation. For example, a picture of a pill bottle alongside a knife and fork may be intended to show that medication should be taken with meals. But for those from countries where food is taken by hand from a common serving bowl, this symbol may not have the same meaning or relevance.
  • Confirm understanding. As with all forms of communication, make sure that your readers can understand and use visual information. For print materials and websites, ask for feedback including whether your illustrations, colors, and symbols are appealing and informative. If you sketch a drawing when meeting in person, you might begin in a lighthearted way such as, “Let’s see how good an artist I am. What does this picture mean to you?”

This month’s Health Literacy Consulting How-To Tip is adapted from Helen Osborne’s award-winning book, Health Literacy from A to Z: Practical Ways to Communicate Your Health Message, Third Edition.