Skip to content Skip to cookie consent
Skip to content


Visual aids for development

More than 800 million people in the world cannot read or write. In communities where people are illiterate, pictures can become a very powerful educational tool 

1996 Available in English, French, Spanish and Portuguese

Footsteps magazine issues on a wooden desk.

From: Population – Footsteps 27

A discussion about population growth, family planning and other relevant themes

by Petra Röhr-Rouendaal.

‘ I feel like a bird who can fly for the first time!’ This is what Brenda told me after she had produced her first visual aids. She is a nurse working in the north of Kenya with the nomadic Samburu and Turkana people. She has travelled with the nomads over the last few years, living in a simple grass-mat hut. Brenda’s work is to teach people about primary health care. This proved difficult as few people could read or write and she had no visual aids. Visual aid teaching materials on health might have been available in the capital city Nairobi, but they probably would not have been culturally appropriate. When pictures are used for education in an illiterate community it is important to use images which the people can identify with.

For example, the poster on AIDS education, shown at the top of this page, was designed by the Ministry of Health in Addis Ababa and was found on walls all over Ethiopia. How relevant is this poster for people in rural areas where there are no two-storey houses, where men don’t wear suits and smart shoes and carry briefcases? No wonder people’s response was to say, ‘Yes, AIDS is only a disease in towns – we won’t get it here.’

Simple visual aids

More than 800 million people in the world cannot read or write. In communities where people are illiterate, pictures can become a very powerful educational tool. Thousands of development workers world-wide could use posters and other visual aids. However, there is a great shortage of simple visual aids in health and development. Trainers have to rely on an occasional poster made locally or given to them by the Government or aid agencies. There are rarely enough simple educational pictures to help development workers get across vital information that could improve people’s lives.

‘Health Images’ was started nine years ago in response to this need. Based in the UK, it specialises in helping groups in poorer countries develop and produce their own, locally relevant visual aids for health, development and education. We have worked with people at grassroots level in many different countries, helping them identify their own local problems and produce appropriate visual aids. We take a similar approach to Paulo Freire’s, the forefather of adult literacy. He believed that education is successful only when a real dialogue with the community takes place and when one ‘starts where the learner is’. This participatory approach is the essence of our work. We help community members to produce visual aids for the local community.


Thinking through the problems

Our role as facilitators is to provide space and time for local people to come together and discuss local health and development issues. Once they have identified the problems, we help them to think about their ideas in the form of different visual aids. If, for instance, they want to remind people to get their child vaccinated, a simple message poster may be appropriate. If they want to talk about AIDS education, a puppet show could be a good way of communicating this sensitive and possibly embarrassing issue. If the development worker wants to discover what people know about water-related diseases, a discussion starter may be the right kind of visual aid.

Historically, pictures for development communication have been used in a topdown way. Messages were directed at the target audience without allowing any room for their involvement. In many communities we find that people have seen simple message posters which tell them that ‘Breast milk is best’ or to ‘Use a condom to stop AIDS,’ but they are often not aware that there are many other kinds of visual aids such as discussion starters, picture cards, educational games, puppets and masks, educational comic strips, T-shirt design or flannel board figures, all of which are very participatory and encourage discussion.

Beyond participation

Over the years we have found increasingly that even this participatory approach does not go far enough. The word ‘participation’ implies that people take part, but this does not empower them to make their own decisions. Often planners say, ‘We need to empower people to do this or that,’ but the very idea that you can empower someone else is a contradiction. Empowerment cannot be given or taught. It can only be done by people for themselves.

In our workshops we try to encourage people to take part in lively discussions. We help people focus on the health or development issues they feel are important in their community. We encourage them to make their own decisions and build up their self confidence. Once that is done, we introduce the different kinds of visual aids and explain the technical side, especially when silk screen printing is involved. We also spend much time in pre-testing the visual aids produced in any workshop.

Often people say in a panic ‘…but I can’t draw!’ It’s useful to remind them that a visual aid does not need to be a piece of art – it just has to pass on a message. We do help people with basic drawing skills if that is what they want. We also concentrate on the kinds of visual aid that can be easily produced or mass produced (like silk screen printing).

Workshops may have very different themes. Over the years these have included primary health care, AIDS education, agricultural training, literacy campaigns, animal husbandry, water hygiene and caring for the environment. It is wonderful to work with people who really want to help themselves.

Health Images provides workshops in countries around the world for all kinds of groups. They will shortly be publishing a new ‘Copy Book’ with guidelines on how to produce visual aids. Contacts for further information:

Petra Röhr-Rouendaal, 73 Clarence Road, Birmingham, B13 9UH, UK

Bob Linney, Holly Tree Farm, Walpole, Halesworth, Suffolk, IP19 9AB, UK.

Similarly Tagged Content

Share this resource

If you found this resource useful, please share it with others so they can benefit too.

Subscribe to Footsteps magazine

A free digital and print magazine for community development workers. Covering a diverse range of topics, it is published three times a year.

Sign up now - Subscribe to Footsteps magazine

Cookie preferences

Your privacy and peace of mind are important to us. We are committed to keeping your data safe. We only collect data from people for specific purposes and once that purpose has finished, we won’t hold on to the data.

For further information, including a full list of individual cookies, please see our privacy policy.

  • These cookies are necessary for the website to function and cannot be switched off in our systems.

  • These cookies allow us to measure and improve the performance of our site. All information these cookies collect is anonymous.

  • These allow for a more personalised experience. For example, they can remember the region you are in, as well as your accessibility settings.

  • These cookies help us to make our adverts personalised to you and allow us to measure the effectiveness of our campaigns.