Picture Perfect Learning

Can Illustrations enhance your educational materials?
Our latest project for Athabasca University suggests it might be easier than you think!

Above: SOCI 216 TextBook cover illustration by Amanda.

How people form connections is a favourite fixation of educators and sociologists alike. Curio recently had the pleasure of working with both in an illustration project for Athabasca University.

AU, like any other world-class educational institution, trades on its ability to engage students in active learning. Unlike other institutions, however, AU delivers almost all of its programming online. 

Online delivery is a terrific advantage for learners at AU seeking to upgrade their education part-time or from a distance. However, a lack of in-person learning means that instructors must consider different strategies to impart complex ideas to students.

For visual communication designer Ian Grivois, one such strategy is to include illustrations in online textbooks.

Ian, a designer and illustrator by trade, has for 20 years worked at AU, where his job is to create visual cues that increase students’ odds of success in their education and in their careers. 

Early in 2022, he proposed the idea to Dr. Hugh Notman of the University’s Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences to commission custom illustrations for a new Sociology text. The two agreed that compelling visuals could serve to enable better learning for the students.

Last September, Ian emailed Curio’s Amanda Schutz, seeking 12 illustrations for a course called SOCI 216: Sociology of Families, which explores the family as a social institution and the development of different family forms in Canada.  

“I’m a classically-trained illustrator,” explains Amanda, “but I illustrate like a designer. I saw this project as a challenge to use illustrations strategically in the way a graphic designer would do.”

With only three months to deliver (and a host of other Curio projects on the go), Amanda hunkered down, first reading the textbook, then reviewing each chapter with the instructor to find the right look and tone. 

My illustration work tends towards a warmer, hand-rendered illustration style,” explains Amanda. “The textbook covers information on familial interactions and on how families sometimes break apart—this is emotionally heavy stuff, and it was important to us that the students be able to connect with the material on an emotional level.”

(Incidentally, visual memory is encoded in the medial temporal lobe of the brain, the same place where emotions are processed—research suggests that learning can be very effective when visual cues such as drawings elicit emotions, allowing for information to be more quickly and indelibly etched in the student’s long-term memory).

Emotions aside, Amanda also needed to plan for how to work within the constraints of time and money available. Her decades of experience managing design projects led her to propose some considerations for collaboration before the work officially got underway.   

“First off, we all agreed as a group that the clients would be pretty hands-off of the illustration process,” she says, which streamlined the workflow and resulted in fewer revisions required.

“Second,” she explains, “I adopted for this project a less-detailed style and a look that was somewhat naive and interpretive, which I think worked well with the subject matter.  And third, we reduced the colour scheme to one colour plus black, so I could use grey washes instead of full-colour.”

Amanda cites one other factor that was key to delivering the illustrations on-time:

“I really like the people that I worked with on this project. They‘re very appreciative, and they were open to my ideas and very considerate of my responsibilities outside of their project. Five stars!”

The clients, in turn, had some very kind things to say about the experience and the final result.

In a post-project email, Ian commented that “the warmth of hand drawing really is a lovely visual contrast with all the grids and cool sharp nature of most web/print environments. It was cool to see how you solved all these difficult visual concept questions and incorporated feedback to always come back with better designs.”

Dr. Eloy Rivas Sanchez, instructor for the course, followed up with a message of his own, saying “[the images] are astonishingly beautiful! The colours, the activities, the social bonds displaying there—the whole thing is just so very nice… I can’t wait for my students to go through the pages of the course and to be delighted with those beautiful pieces you drew.”

Walt Disney once said “of all of our inventions for mass communication, pictures still speak the most universally understood language.” If that’s true, it is encouraging to know that the experts who study how humans interact, form bonds, and germinate culture see the potential for illustrations to help us understand ourselves and our complex relationships.

Want to see more of Amanda’s illustration work? Check out her new website at

This post was last updated on January 31, 2023 by Matt Steringa