Most of us have seen a blockbuster that has gone way overboard in terms of “visualization” — sacrificing both a comprehensible story line and any semblance of character development to the spectacle. Sure these can be nice to look at, but, in the end, are as shallow as the latest Hollywood holographic teen idol. Some are like a poorly made Fajita — lots of flash and sizzle but no real meat (or Tofu if you prefer) in the middle.
Having said that, as elearning developers, that’s probably not the problem most of us have to contend with. We usually have to work with budgets not big enough to buy a dozen donuts and a coffee. Not only that, instead of creating a course on how the robots in the movie Transformers were made, we probably have to create a course on the workings of actual electrical transformers. Instead of explaining how the end of the world might come about in 2012, we are more likely to have to describe how “The International Financial Reporting Standards” put an end to old accounting practices in 2013. These are not subjects that motivate most people to reach for a bag of popcorn.
As a result, we need to figure out how to make our productions at least mildly engaging in order to hold our audience long enough that they actually learn something. That means visualizing on a budget.
One way we can start, (and this might seem really trivial to some of you) is to use representative stock icons to replace or support onscreen text or narration. Web sites like iStockphoto allow you to purchase some really nice 3D icon sets for your elearning projects.
Here are a few reasons to use icons:
1. They are cheap. One set of 12 icons costs approximately $10 US. That’s not bad. You will probably have to buy more than one set to get all the images you need but still you can’t beat the price.
2. You can have a relatively uniform look and feel for your images. Since the artists usually create multiple sets of icons to cover a wide variety of areas such as multimedia, computers, environment, office icons etc., you will find many different images to represent things in roughly the same graphical style. In addition, because these images are icons, they are usually very generic looking and can fit in with almost any project you might have. It’s time to throw away that cheesy clip art!
3. You can use one icon to represent a number of different concepts. One of the beautiful things about human beings is that they can understand abstract symbolism. Once you associate a concept with an image, people can make connection easily and immediately.
4. Icons are in vector format and can be re-sized without lose of quality and animated easily in programs like Adobe Flash. We keep our library of icons in a Flash file as a kind of vector image library. That way we can create little animated scenes for our projects or simply put them on the stage and export them in any number of formats and sizes. It’s pretty handy.
To sum up, using icons allows you to “show” and not “tell” by representing concepts visually with simple, uniform, and high quality images. They provide an inexpensive and easy way to enhance your elearning titles. You are not going to win any special-effects awards, but perhaps your project will be a little more effective and come in under budget.