Learning by doing

I received an email from a chap who wanted to let me know that I had made quite a few typographic errors on this site, especially in my post on being creative . He said that the text ran awkwardly into the photo caption and he was right, it did look ugly. I’ve fixed it now, but in future I’ll be a lot more careful to check how the blog entries look on different browsers.

He made it pretty clear that I should not be giving people advice about graphic design when my blog contains so many obvious errors. As you can imagine I was a bit flattened by this and it took me a couple of days and some kind words from my husband before I cheered up again.

It did make me have a long hard look at what I am trying to do on this blog, so I thought I would share some of my thoughts with you…

As I have mentioned before, I started this blog primarily to practise my writing. It can be hard to find something to write about, so I decided to write about things that I’m interested in, these being design, visual communication and writing. I come from a family of grammar pedants and general nitpickers, so I really can’t help being interested in these things. Travel along a highway with any member of my family and you will hear a running commentary on why the roadside signs are unclear or confusing and how they could be improved.

So although I was criticised for being a student giving graphic design advice, I actually write about a whole range of topics and don’t consider myself an expert in the area of graphic design.

Graphic design is only one aspect of clear communication and is no more or less important than knowing what it is that you want to say, and being able to express that as clearly as possible. 

It’s true that I am enrolled in a graphic design course, but this is merely out of interest and not because I have any aspirations to become a graphic designer. I simply don’t have the talent. This doesn’t bother me.

Learning about graphic design helps me do my job better, as does reading about how we absorb information and make sense of the world.

I am very much a learner sharing my learning journey with the world. I’m a staunch advocate of learning by doing, so this naturally means that I’ll be making plenty of mistakes along the way.

I also love to teach and this means that I want to share ideas, insights and information with people like you. My hope is that you will find the content useful and interesting (at least some of the time).

I appreciate that publishing my ideas and opinions leaves me open to criticism and that’s okay. Receiving feedback is just part of the learning process and I really do welcome any comments or questions you have, good or bad.


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In praise of stick men

Foto de Larry

Foto de Larry (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Lots of people think that they aren’t creative. I used to think this myself, despite having worked in a number of jobs that require some degree of creativity, including working as a film editor, writer and teacher. Nevertheless it took me quite a long while to realise that when I said I wasn’t creative, I really meant that I couldn’t draw.

Whilst I would love to be able to draw, I have come to understand that if you are trying to explain something complex, stick men are not only perfectly adequate, they are actually preferable. Stick men, which even I can draw reasonably well, can convey information very clearly because they don’t come with the visual distractions that accompany a photo or a drawing of a real person. When we look at photos our brains are distracted by the extra information that we are asked to process. How old is that woman, what colour are her eyes, is she happy or sad, does she look like someone I know? These are only a few of the thoughts and ideas that flow through minds in the first few milliseconds when we see an image. The same goes for an illustration, especially if it’s well executed and life-like.

Not only do we get the message really quickly from a stick man (or a stick woman for that matter), a stick man can also convey movement (for example running) with little of no effort on our part.

So don’t fret if you can’t draw. You only need the most basic skills to depict relationships, instructions and behaviours. Go ahead and practice your stick men. Your audience will understand that you are merely illustrating a concept, and not trying to be an artist. And if you figure out a way to draw a stick woman (without be rude), let me know.

The truth about learning styles

Let me say straight up that I’m not a big fan of learning styles. You know, that’s where we do a little test to see if we are kinaesthetic, visual or auditory learners. I think that unless you have a disability and are limited in the use of one of your senses, then you are highly likely to learn using all of your senses. I have never met anyone who didn’t gain value from putting a set of ideas into practice (kinaesthetic learning) even if this is just by way of a scenario or a case study. It’s obviously not a good idea to practice your brain surgery skills on a real live person!

I think it’s more realistic to say that we all have preferences in the way we absorb information and this relates more to quantity and timing, rather than to learning styles. Some people really like lots of detail early on in the piece and other people (like me) much prefer to get an understanding of the big picture before they get into the nitty gritty details. I like to see the long term prospects of an idea and find details boring if they are provided to early in the piece. Other people like to know the ‘how, why and where’ right up front and can find it frustrating when people like me talk in broad generalities about why something is a good idea.

Not only can these two types of people drive one another crazy, it can lead to differences in opinion about the level of detail required in a document or a presentation. Have you ever written something lovely and detailed, only to have it come back with a request to cut half of the content? One of the main reasons that people put too much information on their slides is that they are ‘detail people’ and they think that everyone else wants to know every little detail about the project/plan/product. This doesn’t mean that big picture people are shallow or that detail people are pernickety fuss pots. It just means that we have to strike a balance without cluttering up the slides or ending up with a 40 page document when a 10 page document will do the job.

How can you work around this?

As a whole picture person, I am inclined to develop minimalist slides covering broad concepts. I have to constantly remind myself that some people like details but I really hate cluttering up my slides with text. On the flip side I know that everyone benefits from examples, so what I try to do is support my claim with evidence. This is known in presentation world as the ‘assertion- evidence’ method.

It works like this:

1. Make your claim in a clear simple statement. This can be in a complete sentence, for example “people are more likely to live longer if they get adequate amounts of sleep”.

2. You can support this claim in a number of ways. You don’t have to use statistics, although this is definitely one way of doing it. Other types of support can be images, anecdotes, charts and info-graphics. Remember that supporting the emotion behind an idea can help people absorb the message, so this counts as a type of support even though it’s not really evidence in the traditional sense.

Here’s an example of using an image to support an idea.

Assertion evidence method

Another suggestion is to let your audience know where they can find additional information. This includes providing links to websites, research reports and other supporting documents. Some people like to know the details and you have to satisfy their needs. What you shouldn’t do is clutter up your document or presentation with extraneous information. Remember simple is smart, you can do it!

Do you see what I see?

It’s been great to see how different people have responded to the penguins in the art gallery image. I even received this lovely artwork designed by Tom, emailed by Emma. Thanks for sharing Emma!

perceptual bias

It’s made me think deeply about the fact that we can never really tell how another person is ‘reading’ an image because our views are always distorted by our own perceptual bias. In other words, we all view the world through a lens made up of our experiences in the world. As Anais Nin said so eloquently…

“We don’t see things as they are. We see them as we are”.

I have been reading a book by Ken Robinson called ‘The element: how finding your passion changes everything’ and in it he talks about the impact of our cultural background on how we view the world. A number of studies have found that people raised in Western societies have a very different way of reading images to people from Asian communities where there is more of an emphasis on the community. When shown an image of a tiger in the jungle, people raised in Western cultures are likely to describe the image as being of ‘a tiger’. People raised in cultures where there are strong family and community ties are much more likely to say that the image depicts ‘a jungle with a tiger in it,’ or ‘a tiger in a jungle’.

What does this mean for people like us who are striving for simplicity and clarity? First of all we have to examine our own perceptual biases. Obviously we shouldn’t do this to the point of paralysis. If we stop too long to think about all the ways something can possibly be interpreted then we might end up doing nothing at all. But it is a good idea to be mindful of difference and to be open to other people’s interpretation of what we present. This means that when you are running your slides past a colleague and they completely misread the point you are making, you need to stop and listen and explore how and why they are interpreting your information the way they are. There’s every chance that they will bring a fresh new interpretation to your work.

This is what your comments have done for me and I’m really grateful. Thanks.


What does this image mean to you?

I have just finished doing an assignment on digital imaging where I had to produce a photomontage with a ‘message’. 

The instructions were to create an image which would make a strong visual statement about an issue, for example a political or social issue. This was difficult for me, not because I don’t feel strongly about a lot of things (because I do), but because it’s really hard to visualize some concepts, especially when you’re a bit hazy about your message.

The other criteria was that we could only use the photographs of certain (famous) photographers, so finding suitable source photos entailed hours of trawling the internet in a search for images which would inspire me. When I tried to rope in some friends and relatives to help me with my assignment, they all seemed to think that it would be a much easier task if I just knew what it was that I wanted to say. As a person who advocates for people to know what it is that they are trying to say before they start writing or creating presentations it struck me as hilariously funny that I had clearly failed to take my own advice. There was no way that I could find images that suited my theme when I didn’t have a clear idea of what it was I was trying to say.

I tried to get away with making some vague statements about the way the privileged classes monopolise culture, but it was hard to disguise the fact that I was just plain confused. I also tried to suggest that the finished image would express my idea better than any words ever could. Does an artist need to be able articulate the ideas behind their art? Shouldn’t the work speak for itself? Another ploy was to suggest that the viewer should be able to ‘read’ the image in any way they chose. Clearly, I was desperate and the due date was looming ever closer.

In the end I came up with the image below. It’s called ‘A visit to the gallery’.

What, if anything, does it mean to you? I would love to know if it says anything at all, or if you also struggle with pinning down your ideas?

The ambiguity of signs

Quick, where is the loo?Last week I had dinner at the RSL club with my 90 year old father-in-law and during the meal he asked what the green ‘running man’ sign meant. I said it was an exit sign and asked him what he thought it meant. He replied that he thought it might be a sign indicating that there was a toilet nearby. When I asked why the man was running, he said “he might be in a hurry to get to the toilet”. This exchange was followed by a lively discussion on whether signs are actually as clear as we assume them to be. Does the green running man really indicate that there’s an exit, or is he just a man in a hurry?

 I noticed that the word EXIT was on another sign, some distance away from the running man, however there was nothing to indicate that there was any relationship between them. In other words, proximity really does matter. If words and pictures are a long way apart we assume that they are not related concepts. Of course, the addition of the word EXIT on or near the sign doesn’t help people who can’t read very well or don’t speak English.

 According to Wikipedia (always a reliable source!), the ‘running man’ pictogram was designed by Yukio Ota in 1982 and is used in Japan, South Korea, China, Thailand, Australia, New Zealand, the UK and Norway. So the green running man is very widely used across a range of cultures, but is it clear?

 Can you think of a better way to indicate an exit using only visuals?