The Graphic Facilitator’s Guide Review

How to use your listening, thinking, and drawing skills to make meaning.

Visual communication can be daunting. Most people don’t learn the foundations in school. Even if you go to art school, you may know how to draw, paint or make stuff. But you still may not know how to take this skills and utilize them in a business context.

Brandy breaks it all down in this book. She isolates the design aspects you need to effectively record conversations and provide visual overview for meetings and events.

Do you have what it takes to be a graphic recorder?

Early in the book, Brandy lists out the success factors for being a successful graphic recorder. Later she defines the language and skills you’d be using.

I am not a graphic recorder. While I have most of the skills required, my brain likes to gather lots of data and think about it before creating visuals. I’m just too reflective to be able to get the visuals down in real time. Even so, there is a lot of value in the book for me. It helps me understand the factors that make for other types of visuals like slides and flipcharts. It delves deeply into the most important elements to think about.

The Principles of Graphic Facilitation

 The bulk of the book are the Principles of Graphic Faciliation

  • Overview
  • Listening
  • Thinking
  • Drawing
  • Practicing
  • In the Room

She breaks down each part and clearly describes how you can use each principle to be more successful. Of course there are illustrations through out to help us see clearly exactly how to apply each idea.

Her section on drawing gives you a basic visual vocabulary that anyone can do. Really. If you can write and make simple marks on the page you can do these drawings. It’s a fantastic reference to pick up so you don’t have to think about how to draw something – it’s right there on the page.

(Real artists use references all the time! You can too.)

Other reasons I like this book

The book is well thought out through out.  Brandy really covers what you need to know to communicate more effectively using visuals. Graphic recording uses a lot of words. Oftentimes the visual parts are the organizing structures. I think this must be why Brandy is so good at it. She breathes structure and organization and makes it look effortless.

You can get a copy of the book at Amazon or on Brandy’s website.

If you’d like a really deep dive into graphic recording, Brandy is offering The Lab. It’s a small group concentrated learning experience, sure to accelerate your skills. I saw the results her students got after the last class and was really impressed. The next session is January 7-9, 2012 in Chicago. As of this posting, she’s only got 2 spaces left.

Can an Image Paint a Thousand Words?

Here’s what’s interesting about the brain.  It relies on memories to develop our values and belief systems.

I had to think about that at first because my initial reaction was, don’t I decide what I believe?  Nope.  My brain has an active role in determining what I believe based on what I remember.  Of course then I get to filter that information. 

So the mind, what we think of as our conscious self relies quite heavily on what the brain is doing and lets face it, the brain doesn’t really have the best filing system in the world or I’d be able to remember the name of that movie, you know the one with that guy…

And that leads me to images.  Images are the place where our memories hang. 
If you don’t believe me then look at the word below:


Now, how do you feel? How many memories were immediately triggered?  Or did you have to think about what the word meant first? 


Now, look at the image below:

So, this time, how did you feel?  How many memories were immediately triggered?

With the word you probably got some ideas about what the word means and what it means to you.  But I’m betting you didn’t have an emotional reaction like you might have when you looked at the image.

Images are powerful.  Not only are they worth a thousand words, they are worth a whole host of emotions, values, beliefs, passions and more. 

This is what makes VisualsSpeak tools so effective.  When working with individuals or groups on big questions about innovation or leadership or teambuilding.  Nothing breaks through barriers quite as quickly as images do.  Images reach into the brain’s filing cabinet of memories and make connections we couldn’t make as well on our own.

If you want big breakthroughs with your clients, if you want successful sessions every time, give images an opportunity to shine.  You’ll be amazed at the results… we always are!

The ImageSet does it all – check it out! >> ImageSet

What do I see, what might I see?

I’ve been exploring the idea of big data. Thinking about how technology can help us look at things differently. I want to be able to look at a combination of audio, video, text, and pull different threads from it. Find a series of pathways through the rich possibilities.

And I want the technology to learn. As I learn from it’s richness, or others do, I want it to get smarter.

Beyond one perspective

The most exciting thing about the idea of using technology to explore huge amounts of information is thinking about what it would be like to be able to explore patterns. To have the computer  identify possibilities. To be able to to explore layering and options. Allowing the computer to do what it does best, and partnering with it to bring the human elements we can not yet replicate.

Discovering beyond search

I’m longing to get beyond searching for a word or phrase. I want to be able to discover or consider things that are around an idea. A tool that manages divergence rather than just providing convergence. I know I can go down digital rabbit holes, but what if I could see how those rabbit holes related to other groups of data?

How can data be searched multi-dimensionally, and more importantly, fed back in a way that is comprehensible? I know it has a lot to do with making it visual. Flexible. With a variety of lenses.

When Science and Art Dance

I facilitated the Re-inventing University-level Learning Workshop at the University of Washington Bothell earlier this spring. Since then, a small group has continued to work toward creating programs and courses that reflect some of the ideas that came from the workshop. I was copied on an email to the group, where they were looking at images of science and art.

Maria Popova shared one in her post, Systemic Wonder: A Definition that Accounts for Whimsy

When I saw this image, I liked the idea of wonder emerging from the intersection, but the overlap felt too contained. It seems to be a lot more energy emerges when you bring science and art together. Almost immediately, this image popped into my head.

When science and art come together it’s more like a dance. In it’s highest expression. It takes attitudes of curiosity and wonder, and a willingness to search for the best parts of each approach. This image started an interesting project, where it spawned a series of images about this topic. I collaborated with one of our customers, Skip Walter, to uncover then design a presentation for a conference. More about that soon.


What do images mean?

Many people want us to tell them what the images we use mean. Or what the arrangements mean.

Here’s the thing. After watching thousands of people tell us what the same images mean to them, we know it varies. There are some patterns, with about 60% having similar idea, but the rest are all over the map.

Just when we think we have heard it all, someone comes up with something we have never heard before.

This is why we focus on asking participants what the images mean. Even if they don’t think they know, once they get started talking, they discover they do. The story unfolds.



Why Use Images?

Light a flame in participants!How do the images get such better results than traditional verbal-only or verbal+writing approaches? What are the benefits of using images? There are many! Here are a handful:

Create more engaging processes
Photographs have a natural way of getting people to look and ask questions. There are usually stories attached to them. Think about the last time you were around someone showing pictures of a recent trip or of their family to a group of people. What happens? Stories get told, people ask questions and the lookers begin to tell stories of their own, because the combination of stories and pictures spark connections for them. People are engaged!

This is very similar to the process that happens with VisualsSpeak tools. People will be engaged. And when they get engaged, they participate.

Increase participation
Because you are using a visual-based tool, you have helped people to engage with the process. This kind of engagement develops a synergy. When one person “gets it,” the others are soon to follow. Even people who had no inclination or desire to participate when they arrived are much more inclined to do so when others get actively involved. Who wants to be the odd one out?

Connect the dots
Images help participants get below the surface quickly. They create a door between the conscious and subconscious, giving your groups the ability to make associations and connections to information that is not always directly accessible. This linkage allows them to take leaps in their thinking by getting them out of their literal, analytical minds.

Level the playing field for non-native speakers
If your group consists of non-native speakers of the dominant language, then using images gives them another way to express themselves. The photographs will allow these participants to literally show their thoughts and gives them ways to communicate other than just in words. This has the added benefit of helping them feel included and empowered to share more. As a result, VisualsSpeak tools are used successfully across a wide range of intercultural settings.

Inspire storytelling
Stories are everywhere. They are the basis of communication regardless of culture. Every day we are bombarded with stories in the form of advertisements, movies, news, books, radio, songs and more. Even financial reports are stories told in the language of mathematics! Images help unlock the inner storyteller in your participants.

Increase learning through fun
Searching through stacks of images is a process that invokes fun in participants. They will compare and share stories about them, and engage in creative dialogues and find new ways to express themselves. Don’t ever doubt the power of increased learning through having fun–especially when it comes to adults!

Breaking out of habitual patterns
It is easy to fall into routines of thinking–it’s actually how we develop our expertise! Most of the time this is very helpful, but it can also tip into patterns that do not allow for new possibilities. Using images to spark associations can lead us to new ideas and insights that are beyond what we think about with words alone. The brain processes pictures faster and in larger chunks, to we can further open the possibility of making leaps in our thinking by using images.

VisualsSpeak versus Collage

When people see the VisualsSpeak process for the first time, or they look at our web site, one question that often comes up is about how it differs from collage. One artifact of the VisualsSpeak process looks a lot like collage, after all, with images arranged (often overlapping) on a surface or backing paper. But in actuality, they’re really quite different.

VisualsSpeak takes the randomness of results and the time-consuming nature of traditional collage processes out of the equation. The images that participants use have been tested in advance and pre-selected for accessibility and effectiveness across a broad range of topics. Here at VisualsSpeak, we spent years researching the underlying visual language of images and how that translates into creating processes that will engage groups and transform their conversations.

Also, participant and facilitation time will not be wasted by having to collect materials and clean up after the process is over. Participants won’t be spending precious time by having to clip images from magazines. Unlike traditional collage, VisualsSpeak is the opposite of a design process, because the emphasis is on rapidly selecting and arranging the photos, which engages the intuitive part of the brain.

What this means to you is that you are helping groups to bypass the linear/intellectual and delve into the fertile levels of imagination and creativity!

Eliciting Meaning Through Visuals…and Pantyhose?

Eliciting Meaning ... through pantyhose?In a recent Tuesday Topics call, we sat down with Christine Martell to talk about why visuals work. As a part of that conversation, Martell talked about the common ways to use images: conveying and organizing meaning. She then went on to contrast how VisualsSpeak uses images, with eliciting meaning. Here’s an excerpt:

Interviewer:It seems like the two categories that we’ve talked about so far, conveying meaning and organizing meaning, are really kind of similar in the sense that these are visuals that are picked to represent some bit of pre-established meaning that’s already there.

But those by themselves are not the only way to use visuals. I know that in the context of VisualsSpeak, a lot of the work that the tools are designed to do and that you’ve done there is really about an entirely different purpose altogether.

CM: Yeah. What we’re working with is eliciting meaning.

Int: How is that different?

CM: Well, eliciting meaning is using the ability of images to spark associations. So we’re saying, “Okay, we know that can happen. We know that we can pull things from people’s long-term memory if we show them something that reminds them of an experience they’ve had.” And we’re using images to optimize that.

Let me give you an example of someone else who does it.

Int: That would be helpful.

CM: There’s a guy [who was] working out of Harvard named Gerald Zaltman. He was working with doing this – he calls it metaphor elicitation. What he does is that he invites people to come into his lab and they have a topic. One I remember distinctly – this was years ago – they were doing research with duPont on pantyhose, women’s pantyhose.

So they asked women to come into the lab and bring images that they found around in magazines or books that evoked or reminded them of something about pantyhose.

What they do then is scan those images into the computer, and they sit with a graphic designer, who then talks with them about what these images mean. And they actually manipulate the images on the screen to make them bigger or smaller. They kind of work with them to create a collage that expresses their ideas about the topic.

So the thing that was really interesting to me was that when they did this research, what they discovered was that there was this feeling that some women got about feeling more beautiful or more elegant when they were wearing pantyhose. Which I cannot personally imagine because I think they’re torture devices. (Laughs)

Int: You don’t work for duPont, however.

CM: No, no I don’t.

But there was this large percentage of women who did feel that way. And they discovered that through this process that they went through, that they kept hearing little bits and pieces of that idea. So when they fed that back to duPont, they then realized that was something they could use in their marketing, and we began seeing [responsive ads]. [All based on ideas elicited from the images.]

For the whole interview, head to our audiocasts page. Don’t forget to sign up for our next free, monthly Tuesday Topics call!

Where Data and Visuals Meet

As a company focused on the effective use of visuals to deepen conversations and thought, we try to stay tuned to all the things an eyeball can take in. As a team, fortunately, we all have different areas of interest. Traditional visual arts, like painting and photography, for instance — or more contemporary examples like comics and manga.

One of my hands-down favorites, though, is infography. Loosely defined, infography is the art and science of using visuals to communicate information. Of course, that definition is so broad as to encompass nearly everything — including traditional paintings and photography. I tend to narrow it a bit further by defining information to be meaning supported by data.

As an example, take a look at the following graphic:

Infographic example

One of the longtime forerunners in the field is Edward Tufte, who has published often (and continues to do so) on data visualization, particularly visualizations for clarity. Infography today, though, seems to be focusing as much on being artistic as being clear. For the visually minded, this is a very good thing.

There’s something about a particularly well-done infographic that gives the observer multiple reactions. First, there’s a “wow” factor, because the graphic just looks amazing on its face. That seems like a good test of whether the infographic works well as art. Then the observer may experience a brief “huh?” moment, as they try to figure out just what information the graphic is trying to represent.

Is the graphic above about the numbers of people coming to the U.S.? Or the countries they’re coming from? Or something else entirely? It turns out that in that graphic, the answer to all three is “yes.” This “huh” stage is a good measure of how well the graphic performs on Tufte’s rubrics of information and data clarity.

From there, a common final reaction with a well-done infographic is the more long-lasting “cool.” It’s the stage where the observer picks into the graphic for meaning and leaves having learned something and appreciating the art AND science of the graphic.

Whether you’re an experienced infographer or just finding out about this emerging area, here are some links to sites with great examples of the form:

Power of Visual Communication

If you missed my December 9 Webinar about the Power of Visual Communication, you can view the full program here.

In the webinar, I talk about some of the many uses for the VisualsSpeak ImageSet. Here’s a quick breakdown of what I covered:

  • Why use visuals?
  • Heart Image icebreaker
  • How conversations change when using visuals
  • Research in creating VisualsSpeak
  • Facilitation Model we use
  • Case Study- Developing cultural competence in future leaders
  • Case Study- Change Management Initiative and Team Building
  • Conflict Resolution
  • Strategic Visioning
  • Question & Answer

Time: 43 minutes

You can download a free copy of the Heart Image exercise I show at the beginning of the webinar on the VisualsSpeak website.

You can get 20% off any VisualsSpeak product until Jan 9, 2010 by entering the coupon code (vswebcast) in the shopping cart

  • VisualsSpeak ImageSet deluxe version Regular price $495 – Sale price $396!
  • VisualsSpeak ImageSet Lite Regular price $425 Sale price $340!

Being an experiential facilitator, it was strange to work from a script on PowerPoint. Even though there were over 300 people signed up for the call, I was talking to my computer monitor and a cat. It was such a relief to have attendees ask questions so I could get a sense of the audience. So different than working with the energy in the room with a face-to-face audience.

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More about seeing color differently

My last post Seeing Color Differently inspired by realizing Kevin can’t see my favorite iphone game generated a interesting comment string.

Cathy Moore said “color alone isn’t a reliable way to deliver a message.” That really got me to thinking how often I rely on color to convey a feeling or communicate emotion. Then I realized Kevin, and others with red/green challenges couldn’t see my logo colors. I went back to the Vischeck tool to run some more examples.

And those with blue/yellow challenges see something else entirely.

When I think about my brand, it is the colors I think about. I have a whole wardrobe of clothing in lime green and orange that I wear when I am in ‘business’ mode. I print handout covers on my color. I even have toys in my logo colors to play with during training classes. Lets say I am color identified. I made a comment to Kevin on the last post,

Now I also see my logo colors are out of the range you can see, so you see everything on my sites as yucky yellow brown.

and he comes back with

The thing is, I don’t attach characteristics or feelings to color as you might. The colors are yellow-brownish, but I wouldn’t call them ‘yucky’. I wouldn’t call them anything – just there. I have never really noticed your colors before – again, they were just what they were but I largely ignore color altogether.

Because I am deficient in the color world, I have almost disassociated color with everything. Yes, it is there, but I don’t make decisions by it or attribute anything to it. For example, on a traffic light, I go when the bottom light lights up and stop when either the middle or top light up – but it is according to position, not color. When I approach a flashing intersection light in the country I never know if it is caution or stop.

Wow. This has been a slow seeping in of realization of how totally different my day to day reality is from Kevin’s. I started noticing how driving down the highway at night is not the same for us.

It seems like it would take a lot more effort to discern taillights without the color contrast as a cue. Virgina Yonkers reminds us,

I know from my cross cultural training, that it is difficult to get people to recognize that they may perceive things differently than others, and how others perceive those things.

I would say it even goes deeper than that. Even when we intellectually understand the difference, and even see examples, we may not really fully understand until we can put the information into a context that makes sense to us personally. Not being able to play an iphone game, see my logo colors and realizing taillights are red did that for me. My understanding of seeing color differently deepened considerably.

Thanks Kevin for sharing a piece of your reality that I didn’t really fully understand before.

Seeing color differently

Kevin Jones was stuck in an all day meeting, twittering on his iphone. I tweeted back that he should be playing iphone games. Long story short, I suggested one of my favorites for boring meetings and classes, Trism. He tweeted back, what about something not about color?

I forgot. He doesn’t see color the same as I do. And I realized all the games I like to play are based on color. What does this really mean? I went over to Vischeck, a tool that enables me to see things like he does.

Kevin, as you would say— I cry.

What Makes a Visual Thinker?

VizThink is a community of visual thinkers. What does this really mean? Tom Crawford, the CEO of VizThink recently joined me using the VisualsSpeak ImageSet to explore this in two video podcasts. The first one can be found on the VizThink blog.

In the second one, we talk in more depth about what the visual language can tell us. This podcast is part of the premium VizThink community site. You can join for free, with a 60-day trial of the premium content. There are a number of webinars, and podcasts on a wide variety of visual thinking topics. I have watched all of them, and have learned a lot. I consider this site an important part of my professional development, and encourage you to consider it for yourself.

This is all in preparation for the VizThink North America 09 conference in San Jose, CA on February 22-25. There is nothing like being with a whole conference full of visual thinkers for inspiration and sharpening or developing skills. You can get a $100 discount on the conference with the code DCCM01.

Love to see you in San Jose. Do let me know if you will be there so we can connect.

Using visuals to discover deep metaphors

I’ve recently read, Marketing Metaphoria: What Deep Metaphors Reveal About the Minds of Consumers. Written by Professor Emeritus from Harvard, Gerald Zaltman and his son Lindsay, it is an exploration of what they have identified as the seven deep metaphors that influence what we think, hear, say and do.

What do visuals have to do with it?

The Zaltmans have developed a patented process, Zaltman Methaphor Elicitation Technique (ZMET). It involves asking people to find photographs about their feelings toward something specific. Through structured interviews and working with a graphic designer, a collage image is digitally constructed about the topic. You can see some small pieces of the process in this video.

What stands out for me in this video, and as it did in the book is the description how often we are lead astray in our thinking by focusing on surface differences rather than searching for the significant similarities expressed in deep metaphors.

Three Levels of Metaphors

The Zaltmans describe three levels of metaphors, and use this example:

Surface Metaphors

  • Money runs through his fingers
  • I am drowning in debt
  • Don’t pour your money down the drain
  • The bank froze his assets

Metaphor Theme

  • Money is like liquid

Deep Metaphor

  • Resource

It is through understanding the deep metaphors that we understand the roots of our business challenges. Visual exploration identifies the subconscious drivers of behavior by helping us see the deep metaphors.

As I developed the VisualsSpeak ImageSet, we looked a lot at metaphor. In the testing of potential images, we found that the images that depicted surface metaphors did not inspire deep insights as readily as images that were more elemental. We decided to offer participants the opportunity to construct their own metaphors by providing a visual language set to do it with. This is one part of why we consistently hear people get new insights when they work with our tools.

Thinking Deeply

One of the more interesting articles coming from the publicity for the book was published by the Harvard Business School’s Working Knowledge Newsletter, Why Don’t Managers Think Deeply?.

In decrying the lack of what they call “deep thinking” among managers and especially those responsible for marketing, they suggest some things that get in its way. Among them are:

  1. reluctance to take risk, especially when short-term performance is at stake,
  2. the fear of disruption resulting from “thinking differently and deeply,”
  3. the potential psychological cost of changing one’s mind resulting from deep thinking,
  4. the lack of information providing deep insights on which to base deep thinking.

The articles inspired 136 comments. Many of comments pointed to the limitations of thinking embedded into the management levels of many organizations. Even more pointed to the perception of a lack of time. Yet, doesn’t it take way more time when an organization is not thinking deeply enough about what it is doing?

Why don’t managers use visuals to help them think?

Even though the ZMET uses visuals and words to uncover the core metaphors that drive customer behavior, a a major portion of this book is describing the seven metaphors. Might part of the problem be managers don’t have the visual thinking skills or access to the tools that allow for deep thinking? Seems there is an almost obsessive focus on finding the ‘answer’, but not so much on making sure the process used to get there can actually accommodate the scale of the issue.

Visual Thinking resources

In the past many of the resources for learning to use visual thinking have been scattered. There are a number of companies who work in the space across a wide range of price points, who take a range of approaches. Luckily, we now have Vizthink, which is helping to form a worldwide community of people who work in this space. The inaugural conference was held in Jan, and I was fortunate to participate as a facilitator and exhibitor. You can see the ways we used VisualsSpeak, graphic facilitation, and mind mapping to explore market position in this series of posts:

The VizThink blog has series of webinars from leaders in the space including Dave Gray, David Sibbet, Nancy Duarte, Jamie Nast, and Chuck Frey. There is also a series of podcasts on a variety of visual topics.

For those who prefer to learn from books, here are some of the books you might start with. (Really I just wanted to put the interesting spinning visual on my blog, but these really are favorite books)

Other posts I have written on visual language include

What can we do to get visuals in the hands of managers to help them think more deeply? What do you need to know in order to be willing to use visuals? What would help?

Visual business cards

I attended a workshop last week sponsored by the Senior Forum of ASTD-Cascadia, Improve New Hire Productivity Using Visual Thinking. It was facilitated by Barrie Levinson, the Director of Consulting at Xplane.

Visual Business Cards

visual Business Card

The first thing we did was to quickly draw our own visual business cards, and share them with someone else. Simple quick sketches drawn on business card size paper with Sharpie markers.

Mine shows I use the computer and photography to work with groups of people. It’s not a great drawing. People don’t look like a circle with a line below it, yet when I tell you that is what it represents, it works. The person I was paired with in the exercise understood something about what I did.

What does my card say I do? Business Card

Image-based Training & Consulting.

I know, no one knows what that means. It is eye-catching with great graphics. I have yet to come up with an effective concise description of what I do.

OK, really I haven’t come up with a paragraph to describe my work. Yet, I can show you in a few minutes. In many ways, the quick rough sketch tells you a lot more than the expensive professionally designed version about what I do.

Now I don’t think I am ready to ditch my cards that actually give you contact information. I do need a new tagline (any ideas???). But I am thinking about ways to use the back of my card to show something more meaningful.

What did other participants think of the visual cards?

When asked to reflect on what it was like to introduce yourself visually, and to hear others’ explanations, this is what participants reported:

  • easier
  • more enjoyable
  • sustainable
  • relaxing
  • evoked more questions
  • learned about the person
  • easier to understand what the job entailed
  • faster to understand
  • gets past the jargon and buzzwords
  • engaged interaction
  • immediately multidimensional
  • focuses on one component
  • works when both are on the same plane, similar expectations
  • requires talent and confidence
  • some jobs are easier to depict than others

I certainly don’t hear those outcomes from exchanging regular business cards. So why don’t we see these methods being used more frequently?

What are we really trying to do with a card?

Guy’s business cardA few weeks ago Guy Kawasaki wrote a post about his new business card . No pictures, but nothing extra. Guy is about his websites, which are all listed there.

They were designed by Justin Ruckman. You can see many examples on his site of simple effective design, and the thing that jumps out at me, is you really get a sense of what people do.

Visuals don’t have to be the answer. Guy’s card is really effective using words. Now I would argue that a large part of the effectiveness of the words are their visual quality. So I don’t think the answer is the same for everyone.

How would you show people what you do?

Suggestions for a visually noisy blog

This is the second post for looking at the visual details that effect how we read a blog. Part 1: What to do with a visually noisy blog focused on the design of the template that was modified for the School of Thought blog.

Part 2: Ideas for visually simplifying a blog

First I want to acknowledge the blog we are talking about in this post is chock full of great information and resources. So the goal here is to make that come front and center in a way that isn’t quite so visually overwhelming.

When I started blogging there were so many cool widgets and things to stick in my sidebar that I wanted to try them all. Even being conscious of the visual impact, I still did it. Then I read Skellie’s 50 Ways to Unclutter Your Blog. It really helped me to think more in terms of the readers perspective and about what I was trying to do. I pulled a lot of stuff off my blog that day.

What are readers looking for when they come to your blog?

I think this may be really different from blog to blog, and perhaps from reader to reader. When I come to a blog, the first thing I look at is the tagline for an overall sense of what it is about. I want to see who the author is and something about them. I look for categories or tags so I get a general overview of the topics the person is writing about. Therefore, when I look at the visuals on a blog, my opinions are influenced by what I want to see. Ultimately what works for a particular blog is a balance between what the owner is trying to convey and their readers’ needs.

Customizing a template

Stardust ThemeThe School of Thought blog uses a customized version of Stardust, which I talked about in part 1. The most obvious difference is that the two column design from the original template has been converted to three columns. In the last post we talked about how people read in an F pattern on the web. When there are three columns, the reading pattern is slightly different. The eye can go on several paths, which may become confusing.

Sue Waters wondered:

Based on how you have explained people read online I now wondering how whether a left and right sidebar change this reading pattern and are they competing for attention with the post?

And Sue Wyatt saw it like this:

I never thought about the way my template might be read – choices of colour, number of columns, left to right in F pattern. I went into Fred’s blog and immediately the black writing got my eye, but further down the page the red on the left drew my eye first. I don’t think I even looked at the right hand side.

The second thing is the decorative flourish that separated the post from the right sidebar, in the original template, has been removed. The flourish provided a visual diverter to keep the eye going back to the posts. Without it, the visual path leads the eye almost off the right side.

School of Thought blog

What else is affecting how the eye moves?

The picture of Fred helps lead the eye into the post. The description below the photo appears as a grey rectangle. There is nothing to break up the block. Therefore, even though the words are situated in a place which normally would get a lot of attention, they melt into the background. I wouldn’t normally read something in a block like this. The content is great; warm, welcoming, engaging. But you have to get people to read it to know that. Sue Waters noticed:

Fred’s image plus information on the left is dominating the blog dragging my eyes to the left. I don’t think that is a bad thing but feel that the wording needs to be shortened and broken up to make it more concise.

How might you do this? Break it up into shorter parts. Use some bold? Maybe a bullet? Use a shorter excerpt and lead people to a longer version on the About page? Lots of choices.

As you scroll down, there are long lists of red links in small type. To my eye, when I try to focus on reading the post, it feels like the red links are trying to pull my eyes in two directions. Since it is a flexible width blog, I can reduce this on my 23″ Cinema Display, but there isn’t enough room on the 17″ monitor on my Windows machine at home. It gets even more dramatic on my 12″ laptop.

red sidebars

Manish Mohan saw it this way:

On Fred’s blog I basically read through the middle column. The text was easy to read in the middle. The side bars (left and right) have very small font text. So even though the color is red, and like you say pulls the eye, I ignored it completely. Perhaps it is because unconsciously I know that the main content on the page is in the middle column, perhaps because the middle column is significantly easier to read with bigger font. Only after I had scanned through the posts content did I review the page again for snippets on the sidebars to see if there was anything interesting.

Prime Blog Real Estate

For any blog, the things that are most important to our readers should be in the most prominent places on the blog. This may vary from blog to blog, but I suspect for a large percentage of people the most crucial elements are:

  • Name of the blog
  • The tagline (what it is about)
  • Something about the author
  • Where to subscribe
  • Categories or most popular posts
  • Ads if you are blogging for income

The prime real estate on a blog are the header, the top of the sidebars and anything that is above the fold (meaning things that show without having to scroll).

Right now on Fred’s blog we have the name, tagline, how to search and a way to subscribe labeled RSS in the header. At the top of the sidebar on the left is a picture of Fred. On the right where the eye is being most strongly lead, there is a link that brings you to another site. Underneath it is the login area for the author.


There are lots of possibilities and a variety of reasons you might go one way or another. If there are statistics available, I would look at what people are clicking on. That would help me see what is important to my readers.

Here is one idea. It’s a sketch I created by taking screenshots and rearranging them, so it’s just to get an idea of how this might look.

rearranged site

I would select the most important links on the site to go in the left column. I usually put my categories here. Fred has a lot of link lists, and it’s not clear to me which ones he thinks are most important for his readers. I would identify what they are and put them here. Right now, categories are in a drop down menu, and there are lot of them. I’d think about shortening the number of categories and listing them out to make them more accessible. I would also place them as high up as possible on the template.

I moved Fred’s picture to the right since that is where this particular template naturally leads the eye. This has the added benefit of deflecting the eye back toward the posts. He could also enhance the visual path back to the post by breaking up the text underneath using bold letters, bullets, and/or paragraphs.

I’d add a Feedburner subscribe link, or some other one that uses natural language. Yes, there is an RSS link above, but I suspect many of Fred’s readers do not know what RSS is. Might also consider a subscribe by email. I have placed the subscribe link where most people expect to find it.

As you scroll down the current blog page, there are multiple link lists. I would move some of them to static pages. This way the offerings you most want readers to see would show up in the horizontal navigation where they can see them when they arrive on your site. There is a lot of great information for readers on this site, but I don’t know how many people are discovering all that is available to them since it requires so much scrolling. There is also the problem with red links on both sides of the page. By removing a lot of the links and placing them on a static Resource page, this would help reduce how much scrolling people have to do in order to get to what they’re after.

I’d move the meta section to the bottom of the blog. Something like this is only for the author, and we know where to find it. It’s just confusing to readers who aren’t WordPress bloggers.

What else might Fred consider?

What do you notice about Fred’s blog? He’s looking for suggestions, so I’m sure he’d appreciate hearing from you. Especially if you are a first time reader, those fresh eyes can often be the most helpful.