Visual language

Visual Language, a term introduced by Robert Horn, refers to "language based on tight integration of words and visual elements". The visual elements include shapes, as well as images (e.g., icons, clip art).

What does this have to do with memory? Well, partly of course, because the appropriate use of images usually makes information more memorable, but visual language has considerably more to offer than that. To appreciate what it is, first look at some examples: Horn has examples at and another brilliant example is available from an information designer I deeply admire - Richard Saul Wurman - at

To truly appreciate these examples, you really need a full-text version of the same information, but hopefully you can imagine a prose text dense with the same information (realising that much of the information is contained in connections and juxtapositions as well as in the emotional connotations of particular images, all of which would, in a purely prose text, require explicit words to articulate).

There are many advantages in integrating word and image, such as:

  • clarifying meaning
  • reinforcing meaning
  • providing focus
  • facilitating comparisons
  • providing context

and many more ...

but I believe the great benefit of this approach is its power to SELECT and CONNECT.

Those who have read my book, The Memory Key, will be aware that I see these processes as absolutely fundamental to understanding and remembering new information. While there are many tools to help teachers and writers portray the information selected as most important (such as highlighting, and summarising), visual language stands out as offering a tool-bag of particular power. It also, of course, offers powerful tools for demonstrating connections between bits of information.

Look at Bob Horn's representation of an academic debate (can computers think)( )and you will readily see the power of visual language to organize complex information and show connections.

Visual language thus offers a powerful set of strategies for studying.

Some principles of visual language

There are six principles known as Gestalt principles, which are useful to know if you wish to draw effective visual representations:

  1. People tend to group together elements that are physically close to each other
  2. People tend to group together elements that are similar in some way (e.g., same color or size)
  3. People tend to see elements enclosed by lines as one unit
  4. People tend to see connected elements as a single unit
  5. People tend to group together elements that appear to be continuations of each other
  6. People tend to make figures "complete" when some elements are missing

This list is also a demonstration of the need for visual language - it's hard to describe these principles without visual examples; similarly, visual examples on their own would not be enough either. You can see examples of these principles at [ note: the examples here don't precisely match those I give, which are taken from Horn]

The way I have chosen to describe these principles points to another principle that's important for visual language: one we might call the naming principle. Isn't it easier to grasp the principles, and most particularly, remember them, if you have names for these principles? Here are the names of the 6 Gestalt principles:

  1. Proximity
  2. Similarity
  3. Common region
  4. Connectedness
  5. Continuation
  6. Closure

It is always worth trying to find a one or two word label for any bit of information you wish to remember. For one thing, the very act of so doing will help cement the information in your memory. And for another, the label will help you find the information again.

This article originally appeared in the January 2004 newsletter.


Horn, Robert E. 1998. Visual Language. Bainbridge Island, Washington: MacroVU, Inc.