Enhancing Learning Through Graphics and Emotional Design

One of the primary roles of multimedia learning is to facilitate learning by using different visual design elements. Many scholars have studied how visual design elements such as words and graphics can impact, engage, and transfer knowledge.

However, are aesthetically pleasing design elements in multimedia learning useful? Are these design elements just seductive visual elements or are they improving learning outcomes?

There are many questions about what makes multimedia instructional content a compelling learning medium. It is important for instructional designers to understand different design principles to be able to create multimedia learning elements that can promote and facilitate learning.

Many scholars have agreed that content based on text alone is not enough for helping learners process information. In fact, many studies have confirmed that students can learn better when presented with both textual and pictorial content than just text information. (Park, Knörzer, Plass, & Brünken, 2015).

Therefore, to enhance learning, it is essential to utilize a variety of multimedia elements in the best appropriate way without negatively impacting learning.

The Brain and Its Cognitive Function

In order to understand how graphics and emotional design can impact learning, it is important to comprehend the way the brain operates and processes information.

There are three major triune areas in the brain, which are the Neocortex, the Reptilian, and the Limbic System.

The Neocortex is the central control tower. The Reptilian is the one that alerts the brain to any danger, and the Limbic System is the one that uses senses to perceive emotions that can either transmit or not data to the Neocortex.

It is the limbic system’s job to sense emotions before transmitting meaning and knowledge to the Neocortex. The Limbic System will determine if new information that has been perceived through senses (seeing, hearing, smelling, or touching) should be classified as valuable information that needs to be sent to the Neocortex. If the experience detected is positive, then new knowledge will be transmitted to the Neocortex. It is through the human senses that memory can be transformed.

By understanding how the brain operates, one can see how valuable the emotions and feelings are for the human brain to aid or to hinder knowledge.

But, what is the difference between positive and negative emotions?

Positive emotions in multimedia learning can be perceived as joy, excitement, desire, and the confidence that the learner expressed when wanting to continue learning something.
Negative emotions on the other side can harmfully impact the way the learner processes information. It can deactivate, raise the difficulty, and discourage the learner from wanting to continue learning.

If for example, the interface design of multimedia learning is distracting or confusing for learners, this could cause negative emotions, which could hinder learning. Thus, it is important to have a balance and to use graphics and visuals that are meaningful, and that can provoke positive emotions.

For learning to be meaningful, it is important to understand that is not only about cognitive processing as one previously thought, but that also emotional responses are a crucial part in stimulating the brain to want to process information.

It is important to remember that anything both verbal or visual that is irrelevant should be removed from the learning content. Arguably, this does not mean that well-designed essential elements should be taken out. It is important though to design with a critical mind for the graphics and content to engage, promote positive emotions, and enhance learning.

Anything extra visually that does not belong to the learning material is only going to increase cognitive processing that is going to prevent the transfer of knowledge.

In short, Instructional designers need to consider not only the working memory capacity of the student, but also the extraneous cognitive load that unnecessary visual elements could add to the learner. Adding extra graphics without a purpose can provoke negative emotions that disrupt the learning process and so distracting the learners from what is relevant to the learning material. It is also crucial to understand how the brain works and processes information, and how positive emotions, based on senses, can engage and motivate learners to want to pursue knowledge.

Visual graphics have the power to evoke emotions that can positively enhance and transfer learning. The golden rule is to keep things simple and to use graphics and emotional design purposely and meaningfully to increase learning performance.


Mayer, R. (2014). Incorporating motivation into multimedia learning. Learning and Instruction, 29, 171–173.

Park, B. , Knörzer, L. , Plass, J. , & Brünken, R. (2015). Emotional design and positive emotions in multimedia learning: An eyetracking study on the use of anthropomorphisms. Computers & Education, 86, 30–42.

Merriam, Sharan B., and Bierema, Laura L.. Adult Learning: Linking Theory and Practice (1). Somerset, US: Jossey-Bass, 2013.