Tag Archives: visual design

Tell your story, respect your reader

Look at these two maps. They’re based on the same data: population gain or loss by county. But they tell vastly different stories.

In the first map, the graphic artist started with the two extreme values in the data set (-6.3% and +28.7%) and divided the color scale into 5 equal pieces. As a result, all of the counties losing population are lumped together with counties that had no change or that posted slight gains.


Source: Pew Charitable Trusts

The map tells us that a lot of counties lost population or held steady, several counties added population, and exactly two (one in the top middle and one near the bottom middle) added a lot of population. Frankly, it’s not much of a story.

Now look at what the Washington Post‘s Christopher Ingraham did with the same data. Ingraham changed the color scheme: blue counties gained population and red counties lost. The color intensity changes for counties that gained or lost more than 1% or 2%.


Source: Christopher Ingraham, Washington Post

Now you can see a story. Continue reading

Taking our work to a higher plane

Try listening to a Beatles song and ignoring the vocals. It’s hard, because the lyrics are so good. But try to focus just on the music and the sounds in Eleanor Rigby, in Strawberry Fields Forever, in Day in the Life.


George Martin, the “Fifth Beatle,” working in the studio with the other Beatles

What you’re hearing is the genius of George Martin, who passed away yesterday at the age of 90.

Martin was an artist with the sound board, just as surely as Rembrandt and Picasso were artists with the brush. He took great songs the Beatles had written and lifted them to a higher plane.

In technical communication we talk about the words, and we should. The words are important. But in our profession what separates the good from the great is often the nonverbal part: the visual presentation.

  • The use of graphics to supplement the text
  • The placement of text and graphical elements on the page
  • The integration of other media like video and audio
  • The way in which the content adapts to the device on which it’s displayed

In a few weeks I’ll attend Edward Tufte‘s one-day course, Visual Explanations, in which he’ll cover some of the design principles he’s always espoused and introduce some new ideas about adapting a presentation to its audience.

For me, Tufte is the George Martin of visual design. His techniques pick up where words leave off and lift the content to a higher plane.

At heart I’m a “words guy.” I think that I have an instinct for writing, but I’ve needed training to develop my skills in visual presentation. Nevertheless, I’m convinced that every technical communicator needs to be adept at both the verbal and the visual.

RIP George Martin. Thanks for the great music. And thanks for inspiring me to be better at my craft.

Image source: By Capitol Records via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain