Visual communication is one of the least frequently explored areas within the content world, possibly because it’s so easy to lump in with UI design, aka Not Our Problem. But many forms of visual communication clearly are content, part of the muscle of a website or other project.
In the hands of a skillful communicator, visual content conveys information and ideas with extraordinary efficiency. In the content world, we pay lip service to non-textual content—and we do work with photographs, screenshots, and video—but how often do most of us get to employ custom illustration, diagrams, illustrative animation, or infographics?
Similarly, we’ve probably all drooled over the beautiful, intelligent communication work in Edward Tufte’s publications, but how many of us in content positions have integrated visual ideas into our early planning processes?
Traditional Uses of Visual Content
The winners of Science magazine and the National Science Foundation‘s Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge are excellent examples of the relatively common use of visual content to explain complex scientific or technical ideas to a popular readership:
As are these images, from New Scientist and the US Geological Survey, respectively.
Geological time spiral, by the USGS (more info)
Visual Content Requires New Tactics
The New Scientist poster demonstrates an interesting and web-specific problem in the use of visual content. Published in 2007, the image popped online in April 2009, and was passed around blogs and newsfeeds as an isolated image divorced from its context. It took me 15 minutes of Googling to find the article it originally accompanied. Much easier to find was a set of interesting critical remarks about the image and its implications; this is presumably not what the New Scientist editors would have preferred.
This example of disassociation from context illuminates a problem: content workers must consider the fate of visual content that breaks loose from its original home. Each piece of visual content needs to include a hook back to its source in case it gets passed around separately, as is increasingly likely in a web experience characterized by feeds, Digg, and tumblr.
A tangential but more important problem centers on the contextual information itself. When I finally did find the original New Scientist article, I found almost no details about the data represented, about the choices made by the image’s designers, or about meaningful connections between article and image.
The web, which gives publishers an opportunity to back up broad overviews with background content and abundant data, has also made it easier and easier for readers to spot fluffy, shallow approaches to communication. Visual content must not become an excuse for presenting only the eyecatching, the easily grasped, and the universally appealing.
Unexpected Visual Angles
Ancient Hebrew Cosmology, by Michæl Paukner
Canadian designer Marian Bantje’s influences map
Visual content can also communicate ideas normally buried in relatively dry text—ancient cosmological models, for example, can be liberated from Religious Studies textbooks by a great image, and artistic influences conveyed in a way that’s far more compelling and individual than the one more artist’s statement or lengthy interview Q&A.
The Cost of Visual Content
One reason illustrations and other visual forms of communication don’t often make it to the web is that it’s perceived to be too expensive. In reality, the expense is relative.
Good visual content can clear up confusion, strengthen brands, and make a website feel like a solid publication. Above all, it can communicate in ways and at speeds that text alone cannot. It’s a form of content worthy of serious consideration during the content planning—and funding—process.
Still not sure custom visual content is worth the extra money?
Consider the debate provoked by this image:
Infographic from BarackObama.com
A paragraph of text or a data table would have been less expensive to create than the Obama administration’s visual story, but would have had only a fraction of the impact. The ensuing debate has revealed quite a lot about the strategic thinking that goes into visual content.
As content professionals, we’re working within a golden age of visual communication, and visual content offers us (and the people who hire us) an excellent opportunity to communicate more clearly. I know that I, at least, need to do a better job of integrating visual storytelling into my large content projects, and of advocating appropriate means of communication even when they cost a bit more up front.
Obama Hires Tufte
I wrote this article last week and set it aside to cool before posting. Since then, the White House has announced that it has appointed Edward Tufte to its Recovery Independent Advisory Panel. The administration has apparently realized what an extraordinarily powerful tool visual content can be in the communication of complex information—so why not bring in the best man in the game?
- Crisis of Credit from The New Mediators
- The wonderful Transparency blog at Good.is
- Book Review: Visual Language for Designers (and Scientists)
- Maria Kalman‘s Pursuit of Happiness blog for The New York Times
- Mint.com‘s Reader’s Choice Financial Infographics of 2009
- Kevin Cornell’s brand-defining work as the illustrator of A List Apart magazine (which deserves a post of its own)