Visual Content: Beyond Tufte

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:

Bat flight visualization poster

2007 Winner, Informational Posters and Graphics

Brain development visualization poster

2009 Winner, Informational Posters and Graphics

As are these images, from New Scientist and the US Geological Survey, respectively.

how long resources will last

Resource use, from New Scientist (criticism here)

geologic time depicted as a spiral

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

diagram of the Ancient Hebrew construction of the universe

Ancient Hebrew Cosmology, by Michæl Paukner

elaborate diagram of artistic influences

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:

The Road to Recovery infographic

Infographic from

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?

Brain Food

5 thoughts on “Visual Content: Beyond Tufte

  1. Good points, Erin. As a content developer for online learning, we too often use graphics for eye candy rather than for the visual explanation of important concepts. Because our brains are hard-wired for graphics, the cost of development is well worth the value in improved communication and learning.

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  3. The Obama graph is a little dubious:
    1.There is no source for the data used for the graphic. It is actually inexcusable and scientifically dishonest to omit your sources.

    2.There is not an accurate method of determining the number of unemployed. Through the Department of Labor’s statistics you can only determine the number of people who are filing for unemployment, as opposed to the actual number of workers who are unemployed.

  4. @Dirk Serious

    1. You are incorrect. If you’d clicked through to the chart’s source, linked from the (cropped) image itself and in the caption, you’d have seen the source: the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Which you reference in your next point, so I assume you do, in fact, know that the chart’s data is cited.

    2. This chart doesn’t claim to list “the unemployed,” but rather lists job losses per month, which is something quite different. These are the same job-loss stats all major organizations use in the US, and because they deal only with *new* claims, the usual “doesn’t count people who give up looking” caveat doesn’t apply.

    3. If you’re going to come to a blog about content strategy to kvetch about Obama, you’re already on the verge of trolldom; if you do it without getting your own facts straight, you’re wasting everyone’s time.

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