Not All Visuals Are Created Equal

While attempting to express our thoughts and ideas in a visual way, it’s important to consider that not all visuals are created equal. What I mean by this is that there are certain visuals (techniques) that will best represent specific types of information, and then there are other visuals that are most appropriate for visualizing other types of information. Getting these visuals mixed-up or using them inappropriately can often complicate your message to such an extent that your visuals end up hindering the communication process.

When a Chart is Not Enough

Several years ago I came across a very interesting article written by Dave Gray, who is the founder of Dachis Group (formerly known as XPlane). Dave wrote a short article titled: When a Chart is Not Enough.

Within this article Dave mentions that visuals are great to use if you want to communicate large volumes of information in a simple and effective way. Charts and graphs are especially useful for presenting statistics and making comparisons. They help make the information more engaging and appealing to the senses. However, Dave mentions that when describing something new and different, that charts and graphs are often not enough to get your message across.

During the days of global exploration, early explorers would often come across very unique things within their environment. These are things that they hadn’t seen before, and as such they had to be extra-careful to make sure that they captured the essence of what they were seeing in a visual way that could be easily understood by others. For this purpose they often used sketches that helped depict animals like the elephants you see below.

Looking at these drawings you can see that the elephants are quite odd looking. They look more like donkeys or horses with trunks than elephants. This just goes to show that even talented visual artists do have trouble visualizing things that they hadn’t come across before. However the images certainly give readers a visual idea of what an elephant looks like. But what if instead of drawing a picture of an elephant, the artist drew a graph like the one you see below.

This graph somehow doesn’t seem to have the same appeal as the elephant images presented above (excluding VizWiz of course). It does however represent the information in a very different way that could be useful within a specific context.

I guess the lesson here is that not all visual communication methods are created equal. We must therefore be very aware of the types of visuals we use to express our ideas and use them with a specific purpose in mind.

Selecting the Right Types of Visuals

To help you select the right types of visuals to communicate your ideas successfully, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What type of information am I trying to represent?
  • What is my goal? What am I trying to do with this information?
  • How many different ways could I represent this information?
  • How does each way of representing this information help or hinder in the communication of my message?
  • Which visual communication techniques must I use to help me get my intended message across?
  • How could I potentially combine different types of visual communication techniques to enhance my message?
  • What have I learned from this experience?
  • How can I use this knowledge to improve my visual communication in the future?

When In Doubt, Draw a Picture

It’s very easy to get a little lost among all the visual thinking techniques that are at your disposal. For this very reason, when in doubt, just start drawing a picture. This is important, because a picture will give you a starting-point that will allow your ideas to flow.

Simply begin in the middle of the page and draw the first thing that pops to mind. This could be a face expressing an emotion, something within your environment, or even a bunch of squiggly lines that represent your thoughts and feelings. From there, draw the next thing, which could be another picture, or maybe a graph, chart, metaphor, diagram, or something completely out of the ordinary that adds another element to your visual message.

As long as you keep drawing while making relevant associations and connections between different pieces of information, and you keep in mind the questions mentioned above, then you will continue to make progress in the right direction. However, always remember the 6-12 KISS Principle of visual thinking — ensuring that your message is clear, straightforward and understood.

Creating a Collage of Your Thoughts

In its simplest form, visual thinking is all about creating a collage of your thoughts. It’s about using a variety of visual thinking techniques in combination to help express your problems and ideas in a visual way. It’s also about unleashing your brain from the confines of the linear thinking process, and channeling your thoughts in creative and unconstricted manner.