Show me, don’t tell me: making use of visual literacy to clarify the abstract

Are your team members struggling to understand your new initiative? Do you wish you could explain your ideas with more clarity and excitement? This is a problem that many people have. At our cores, humans are simply “show me” people. Having the ability to recognize and understand ideas conveyed through images is called visual literacy. Humans’ innate visual literacy can help you convey your abstract ideas that don’t always make the cut when they’re explained with words alone.

Consider all the situations in which visuals help us lead our lives. Examples include the washing instructions on the tag of your t-shirt, health and nutritional symbols on your cereal box, or the road signs that help keep traffic orderly on the highway. Being able to translate symbols, icons, colors, lines, and shapes into meaningful content is foundational to learning. We learn the ability to read and interpret images at a very early age. In fact, researchers have found that children can associate photographs with real life experiences before their first year — like seeing an apple and understanding what it tastes like. As adults, we continue to use visuals to increase understanding. We even do it inherently. Think of the last book you read–did you mentally visualize what was being described? Sure you did! You probably envisioned a photograph of an apple while reading the previous passage. We visualize information as we read to gain a better understanding of it. Many of these visual literacy skills develop automatically, with little input required from educators. Visual literacy is integrated within our everyday lives, and there are benefits to taking advantage of it.

Visuals help us communicate quickly

Your readers will benefit from the speed at which they are able to interpret images versus paragraphs of text. Consider how long it takes to read a simple graph compared to reading that same information, written out in complex sentences. Inversely, consider how quickly you can generate a quick graph or sketch in comparison to a written description. When a visitor asks for directions to their hotel, a quick sketch is far more valuable than the most detailed of descriptions. Using visual communication to convey complex ideas can save both you and your audience valuable time.

Visuals improve understanding

Many ideas are difficult to convey with words alone. Visuals can help decrease the complexity of ideas by demonstrating relationships rather than describing them. There are many complex ideas can be conveyed with a series of quick illustrations. And you don’t have to be an artist to get your point across — stick figures work wonders to explain relationships! Consider the following concepts and how they could increase the comprehension of your idea.

Remember, even the most complex to the simplest information can benefit from the use of visual communication. So for your next project, consider using visuals to communicate quickly and clarify your idea from the start.

Jamie Slater is a designer and strategist who enjoys working with client teams to curate complex information into well-ordered, beautiful solutions.

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