Communicating with illiterate audiences through graphics

Communicating with illiterate audiences through graphics

Today, nearly 17% of the world’s adult population is still not literate.

1 out of 7 USA citizens can’t access to vital information for health, community participation, and employment because they are not able to read it.

When text-based communication is useless, what is the best way to deliver messages? Are photographs better than abstract hand-drawn graphics? What is the best way to produce imagery for illiterate audiences?

Defining illiteracy

Non-literacy is not just about the inability to read but seems to be correlated with a variety of cognitive skills, such as the ability of learning and understanding hierarchical information.

Illiterate audiences didn’t have structured learning. As a result of this, this group has developed an alternative learning system so, your assumptions based on visual, tactile, musical, or affective skills should be revised before developing messages for these recipients.


Demystifying the audience

Due to this unstructured method of learning, illiterate audiences are more exposed to their immediate environment, so understanding cultural and media consumption for this audience is crucial.

Socio-economic conditions might be correlated with cognition and, commonly, illiterate audiences are limited to formal or informal channels in their immediate environment.

Illiterate audiences tend to have ‘communication consultants’ (relatives, neighbors, and friends) who help them decode certain communication materials.

Interviewing these ‘inner influencers’ is highly recommended because, these are the people who actually explain and summarize text-based messages for them. These influencers can teach you how to best approach illiterate audiences.

Visual representation response depends on personal and cultural context. Urban populations may have more pictorial understanding and a higher symbol decoding level rather than rural populations, because this last group is less exposed to TV, billboards, etc., but do not assume this without interviewing your target audience.

Illiterate audiences may or may not be innumerate. Using numbers as a tool for signaling or orienting may be a good support.

Illiterate audiences feel pressure when confronted with complex messages or codes and they might have problems with cognitive coordination when establishing relations among different concepts.

Even if they understand symbols or pictures, they might have problems describing them. So, be sure your concepts are easy to verbalize and correspond to tangible concepts they can recognize.

These audiences tend to relate one concept with the previous one and may ignore the context completely. Test the way you slice information to ensure you are planning correctly.

Conducting interviews with your audience will help you to learn how to best start communicating with them.

Ask, explain, persuade

The vast majority of research studies over communication for illiterate groups are mainly based in what will be the best representational method (drawings, pictures, icons) to deliver messages, and what will be the best combination of these methods to improve understanding.

As a general rule, don’t be afraid of combining elements from different languages (drawings, pictures, symbols) to push the understanding level of your recipients. Sacrifice consistency if necessary.


Your very first approach to content development must be context observation.

Test your assumptions with your audience. I found that semi-abstract drawings work better than photorealistic representations in some environments, while in others do not.



Sometimes, Community Outreach staff tend to think that just explaining concepts to the audience is enough to make them understand.

When dealing with illiteracy related issues, like poverty or stigma, illiterate audiences tend to say they understood the idea even if they did not.

Remember visual grammar is not universal. It is specific to the environment and era, and you should adapt global codes to what you have learned from your audience accordingly.

When driving messages to this group, keep in mind recognition is far easier than remembering, so use common, close to their daily life, easy-to-recognize concepts to explain your topics.

Think in images as reading elements: That’s the reason we all learned how to read through pictures.


Take into account cultural differences and give options and choices. Let your audience decide what will be the best channel by encouraging them to participate in the communication process.

Let people recognize and select those ideas that fit the best in their daily life because concepts that are easy to remember are also easy to learn.

5 Tips for content creation guys

1. Create a content strategy from the very first beginning and be consistent. Teaching the way your materials should be interpreted is a good idea when planning for the long term in specific areas.

2. Brand recognition is mandatory. Recipients should know who the sender is and why they are being targeted. You can’t build effective communications if the pillars are not understood.

3. Research, refine, observe the environment and ask your audience about it. Let them teach you what voice and code you must use with them.

4. Explore popular or traditional graphics for spreading information and invest some time and resources researching if these can help you achieve your goal.

5. Design for ‘zero effort’ behavior. Try to be practical by reducing abstract concepts to concrete representations.

  • Create content that admits visual representations.
  • Create content that have universally recognized meaning.
  • Create content that have culturally appropriate representations.

5 Tips for visual guys

1. Difficulties with understanding messages or instructions are often more to do with the look and layout of these messages than with the complexity of the messages itself.

2. Hand-drawn cartoons usually perform better than photorealistic representations. Preserve color and textural elements only if relevant.

3. Reduce visual complexity and let the graphic piece breathe using white space generously. Short, clearly separated chunks of information will help your recipients follow the story.

4. Use simple grids to help your audience use their finger to point the area they’re observing. Balance the center of focus and use simple hierarchies to support the central idea.

5. Mind your icons. Icons can’t reflect complex tasks. Icons are intended to reach high level literacy groups. It is best to choose descriptive pictures representing the local environment.

Got it. Now what?

Learn about users with limited literacy skills. The good old-fashioned scheme Plan-Design-Test fits here at its best.

Develop a monitoring system to know if content is understood. Don’t limit yourself to ask if everything is clear. Ensure message is delivered by asking for specific understanding indicators.

Now is your turn. Have you experienced some of these techniques to produce social change? Have you ever used these methods with other audiences?


UNESCO. Literacy data release 2016

Jan Chipchase. 2008. Literacy, Communication and Design.

Indrani Medhi, Archana Prasad, Kentaro Toyama. 2007. Optimal Audio-Visual Representations for Illiterate Users of Computers.