Our brains are wired to analyze patterns, make predictions, and form links between different phenomena. One of these cognitive tricks our brains play is called the spacial contiguity principle, which states that we learn more effectively when related elements are grouped together, such as an image and its caption. It sounds like it should be obvious, but in order to form mental links between an image and text, it helps to have the two close together.

For a basic example, look at this shot from a presentation about rivers.

bad riversIf the learner didn’t already know anything about either Amazon River or the River Thames, the pictures at the top don’t mean a thing to them. For all they know, the designer of this course just thought that these two pictures looked pretty and had something to do with rivers, so they made a nice motif for this slide.

amazonthamesIn this layout, we get the sense that the text actually has something to do with the images. Since the pictures are in tight proximity with their descriptive text, the brain can more easily form a connection between the two.

The flip side of this is that we sometimes form mental connections where there are none. Putting an image too close to unrelated text can mislead the learner into believing the elements are related.

This is an issue that newspaper designers often run into, occasionally producing humorous juxtapositions between headlines and completely irrelevant images, somehow giving a new meaning to both.


Don’t let this happen to your course! Incorporate the spatial contiguity principle into your design now to avoid layout disasters like those featured here.

Have you dealt with these issues in your eLearning? Tell us about how you solved your problems in the comments.

12 Principles of Multimedia Series, #4

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#1 - Trimming the Fat for More Coherent eLearning

Next: #5 – Reduce the Weak Links in Your eLearning: Part 2

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