Making a clear connection in a white noise world

I’ve been a Graphic Designer for thirty years. For the last fourteen, my position with Delsys Research Group has been as a Visual Communication Specialist — a kind of visual translator, if you will — of ideas, concepts, government initiatives, and scientific indicators. My final graphic and interactive products are used to communicate to Canadians, to brief Ministers, and to gain consensus inside and outside departments and agencies. Now I run my own outfit.

Visual communication

Next to the knowledge economy and the information age, ‘visual communication’ is the buzz phrase of the day. The words visual communication, graphic design and visual storytelling seem to be everywhere.

Anyone with smartphone can tell you that visuals are everywhere. But so can anyone who has ever followed a recipe, operated a strange microwave oven, travelled across town or across the world, navigated an amusement park, or put together a bookcase from Ikea. We all use visual directions every day, and have for some time.

Visual communication is a broad category. From cave paintings 40,000 years ago, to icons and pictograms commonly recognized worldwide, visuals are the oldest form of communication.

As travel brought people from far and wide into direct contact, the printed word and other symbols spread and preserved ideas and information. And where text needs to be translated into other languages, symbols roam free with a passport to the world: universal human recognition.

Nearly everyone can recognize a tree, or a stick figure, or an eye. Even when concepts get more abstract, simple shapes get a clear message across. Three wavy lines: water. A hand up, palm facing outward: stop.

Except for some cultural differences, visual language is about as universal as you can get.

This is for you, Government.

Through the last decade of working across nearly every department and agency in the Canadian Federal Government, I have come to understand a bit about this environment.

It sure isn’t like business.

Government departments and agencies have the unenviable task of securing resources by proving public value, repeatedly. The criteria by which outcomes and impacts are measured can be mind-boggling. Initiatives have outcomes that often emerge years later, making connections to their impacts difficult at  best.

So, just getting people to understand what you are doing, and why, is a monumental challenge.

For instance, how do you communicate stuff like this?

  • illegal telemarketing spam calls are down, based on the number of complaints we are not getting
  • which industries are bad actors in the environment, which are improving, and by how much, based on ninety-six tables of wetlands data?
  • the benefits of a new piece of legislation that modernizes outdated regulations and allows for more efficient trade with international partners?

My fourteen year old daughter’s understanding of what government does is not actually that different than most people’s: we give them money, through taxes, and they build stuff, or make problems go away, with that money.

For the cynical or the uninformed, taxes are always too damned high, and the money is often wasted. Not too many people go hunting around to find out what the actual mandate of a certain agency is, or whether they should have an interest in what its perceived ‘public value’ would be.

But they all want to know one thing: How does this affect me?

We need stories

For that, you need to tell a story. And not just for the masses.

In strategizing with stakeholders, your goal is to invite legitimacy and support. Externally, support from politicians and leaders in other institutions; and internally, reinforcement and full engagement from your own department’s leaders and managers.

Externally, support from politicians and leaders in other institutions; and internally, reinforcement and full engagement from your own department’s leaders and managers.

You also need the organizational capacity to realize your initiatives, and to see your mandate goals met. And that takes funding.

It is vital to communicate this vision of public value to all of these  players.

Cutting through the noise… 
all the way through.

Canadians can’t just stop using your services.

But if they’re unhappy, they’ll make noise. A lot of it. And since everyone is unhappy about something sometime, it’s an incredibly noisy environment.

To cut through all of that noise, your message needs to really connect.

Bottom line? The two resources you need first are time and attention.

Think about the time it takes you to uncover the meaning in your own data. How easy is could that possibly be for an outsider?

Now, imagine this: a compelling story that holds your information, along with a clear core message. That is the difference between information or data, and stories. Stories are memorable, meaningful and emotional. A well-told story is worth the time it takes to digest.

To begin with, you have gained someone’s full attention.

The curse of knowledge…

When we think of a story, we usually think of the written word.
You could write a novel of a report to make a case using your  data.

You could write a novel of a report to make a case using your  data.
You know your content. You know how important it is to get all the details into it. There are rules to follow; guidelines for truth- proofing. It has to be fulsome. If you’re not constrained by printing costs, you can put as much narrative, proof, history, and footnotes in as you want to.


More is more, right? Wrong. In fact, you could be cursed.

Because nobody knows the data you’ve seen.

It’s called the curse of knowledge. Wikipedia gives a short little definition: it’s a cognitive bias, assuming that others know, and are capable of understanding, your content… almost as well as you do.

I can assure you, they don’t. This goes for the public, stakeholders, media, industry, and Ministers.

The details that tie the whole thing together for you, the numbers that you geek out for, can fly right by even the most curious and intelligent reader.

Pretty, fluffy, empty… do you risk dumbing down your data with visuals?

Isn’t ‘visual fluff’ just going to dumb things down, or oversimplify some very complicated  data?

I believe that the opposite is true. The more complex the message, the more you absolutely need a visual story.

There is just something about visuals that just seems second-nature to us. We are, in fact, visual beings.

Our brain is a visual organ. 90% of the information we absorb is visual. We process purely visual information 60,000 times faster than verbal or written words.

The common wisdom goes something like this: we retain only about 10% of new written information after three days. But set an image in with that text, and the rate jumps — to 65% — after the same amount of  time.

There is some dispute about these numbers. In 1946, Edgar Dale, the creator of the original model, included no numbers. In fact, Dale warned his readers not to take the model too literally.

And I think that is somewhat ironic.

Because what has propelled this possible myth far and wide, are the simple charts and visual diagrams that support the assertion. That is the power — and a reminder of the responsibility that comes with it — of using visuals to tell your story.

There is no question, though, that visuals enhance our cognition. They spark imagination and creativity, and make it more fun for us to remember.

Visual communication is believed to be the type that people rely on most, and it includes signs, graphic designs, film, typography, and countless other examples.

The competition

It is a whole new world out there. And it’s a visually noisy one.

Everywhere you look, clickbait images and headlines beckon you for a second or three of your time. One weird trick promises eternal beauty, shocking truths will be revealed if you just click through this online slideshow, and Pinterest is out there… many of you know Pinterest, right? I’ve gone there for inspiration — and went missing for two  days.

So how on earth do you get eyes on your eighty page report through all of this visual pollution? How do you get clarity from  public engagement? Even when your stakeholders are fully invested in the content, the competition for their cognitive attention is intense.

You might as well be shouting that report at them in the middle of a crowded  nightclub.

Organize your story

The story you put in front of your chosen audience will contain a mix of visual elements and story levels.

I like to aim for three levels of  information.

Level One is a very high level overview. This level is suitable for skimming: think internet portals, chapter headings, table of contents type stuff.

The other two levels go progressively deeper, with Level Two holding a mostly narrative level of content, and Level Three allowing for more visibility of hard data, references, footnotes, and supporting  documentation.

Level Three is contained within ‘buckets’ in Level Two, and Level two is contained within ‘buckets’ in Level One. You don’t have  to be a designer to understand this. If you are familiar with outlines, headings and subheadings, you will know what I’m talking about.

What you want to do is find a ‘home’ for all of your content. Even if all the details of a certain level are not seen by an end user, the ‘doorway’ to that content is always there.

Reveal your story

Rather than reducing accuracy, the exercise of visually enhancing your content can bring a surprising discipline.

Organizing your information this way is very revealing. If something in there doesn’t seem to belong to any buckets, my colleagues and I have observed almost without fail, that either the story isn’t right, or the information isn’t. It is about as far as you can get from ‘going all artsy’, or ‘dumbing things down’.

People worry about losing the meaning of accurate information content when they make a decision to go visually rich. But the goal is to enhance the content.

Visual Elements

It’s important to remember, that every word, every colour, and every shape has a meaning.

Depending on what level of content you are showing, the mix of elements in your visually rich story will be different.

There are dozens of tools in the Visual Storyteller’s toolbox. Depending on the story being told, and the medium of delivery, any mix and match of the following elements may be called for:

  • Text
  • Photos
  • Graphics
  • Icons
  • Charts and graphs
  • Space and positioning
  • Colour

and for interactive content:

  • Sound
  • Motion
  • User Interface Elements
  • Navigation

…and more.

(Yes, text is a visual element. Even if that is all you use right now, you are already visualizing your information.)

Visually Enhanced

There are many many different kinds of visually enhanced content, including and certainly not limited to:Infographics

  • Infographics
  • Illustrated Reports
  • Placemats
  • Dashboards
  • Visual Plans
  • Visual Narratives
  • Processes and flight plans Maps
  • Org Charts
  • Slide Shows Videos
  • Interactive Stories
  • Web Portals
  • Charts
  • Graphs
  • Tables
  • Diagrams

…and I just ran out of oxygen.

Best Practices

As for accessibility, far from limiting access to information, adding imagery — along with descriptive tags — actually enhances your ability to convey your story to the widest possible  audience.

By following web accessibility guidelines available on the government’s site, you can easily understand that what makes for accessible content overlaps well with the best practices and principles of good visual translation and design.

Platforms and Tools

There is a dizzying array of applications, online tools, and platforms to build your stories.

For industry standard, we have:

Adobe’s big three: Illustrator, Photoshop, Indesign. Omnigraffle. Visio.

Apple’s iWork apps: Pages, Keynote, Numbers.

And, at the risk of committing design heresy, Microsoft Office: PowerPoint, Word, and Excel have a good selection of many powerful tools for visually enhancing content.

Excel gets a particular shout-out here for covering a lot of ground between database, data grooming, and data visualization — making it a natural for building live-updatable performance measurement and briefing dashboards

There are so many tools for building online visual and interactive content I could not possibly name them all. Suffice it to say, Adobe again, WordPress, Joomla, Piktochart, and Prezi are among thousands of them.

Even the free resources available to designers and content creators online — icons, fonts, inspiration, backgrounds, templates, best practices, colour theory, swatches — is nothing short of overflowing.

The thing to remember about these tools is that they all have a useful ‘sweet spot’, that is, doing the things for which they are built… and they all have limitations. A well trained professional should be able to use any combination of applications and resources to the fullest advantage for a project.

You, the resource

The most important resource you have in creating content that is compelling, memorable, and accurate, are people. You.

Specifically, I am referring to the people researching, gathering and compiling the information, working together with the people trained in the use of good design practices and the technology to bring these stories to life.

It’s a bit of a persistent myth that design and substantive content don’t play well together. I’ve heard many stories from project leads that important elements in their content may be ignored by designers, and on the flip side, from designers, that someone always wants to jam a phone book’s worth of text content into a space the size of a postcard.

These are extreme stereotypes, but they highlight the need for mutual respect and good message coordination.

As a visual interpreter, it is my responsibility to not only communicate the right messaging to an end user audience, but to communicate my design decisions to my clients — people who are expert in their information — but not necessarily in graphics. Mutual respect and professionalism go a long way here.

Visual Facilitation

One of the most effective means of pulling together engaging content that I’ve ever seen is through visual facilitation.

The people at Delsys Research Group, Larimar Strategies, and my firm, Kate Cassidy Design, have been developing and using this methodology for two decades to gain consensus in a group setting.

Often the people around the table in one of our sessions don’t get to see each other to discuss the various aspects of a shared project. Our attendees often express surprise at the holistic project perspective they gain from this. In session is where many issues can be given voice, and a place in the  story.

The value of a visual product

Getting people on the same page, and enabling them to visualize the same mental model, is a huge step on the road to true team and management engagement or support.

A professionally realized visual product is not just pretty, but pretty useful — depicting costing, results, performance measurement, change management, process improvements and policy shifts — in a way that everyone can understand.

This shared understanding is at the heart of communicating your public value.

This article is adapted from an Infonex presentation by Kate Cassidy, Feb 21, 2017


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *