What to do with a visually noisy blog

Part 1: Your template as your visual foundation

Fred Deutsch emailed me with a Help, help, help me subject line:

Hi, I really enjoy your site and am learning a lot. I’m wondering if you

might provide me some feedback or suggestions? I started my blog for two purposes — first to communicate with constituents and educational people, and second as a sort of reference area for me to list all my favorite sites (the side bars). But now that I’ve been blogging a few months, the blog page seems congested to me — or at least not as visually inviting as I would like it to be. Do you have any suggestions?

When I started looking at Fred’s site, I noticed a couple of things. But in order to really explain it, I need a couple of posts to do it. So I hope Fred can hang on while I talk about some of the visual basics under what is going on in his blog. When we select a template, we are choosing the foundation visuals of our blogs. I’m going to talk about the template Fred has chosen in this post, and write another post on the choices he has made that affect it.

How do people read on the web?

Eye tracking studies have shown people tend to read in an F shaped pattern online. These are heatmaps, where the areas that are most looked at are red, then yellow, then blue, with the grey areas being places that the eye skips over.

F-shaped eye tracking

Looking at these charts you can see there is a general overall pattern (the F pattern) but you can also see how there are visual elements that also pull the eye. For example, in the middle heatmap, there are arrows that point to a box on the right side.

So when design elements fall into this F pattern, it’s pretty easy for the eye to follow. If you want the eye to go in another pattern, you have to do something to get its attention.

The template underneath Fred’s blog

Fred uses a customized version of Stardust. It’s a black and white template with red accents. Red against the black and white provides a lot of contrast and the red strongly attracts the eye. There is a decorative spray of leaves that also acts to deflect the eye back toward the post.

Stardust Theme

You can see, if you remove the spray (see template below), there is nothing to stop the eye from being pulled off the right side. The links create tracks for our eyes to follow that lead our attention off the blog to the right. Now if you have a short post so there is another red calendar or a strong image inserted on the left, you may be able to pull the eye back. But how often do you write your posts to satisfy the visual need of your blog? (OK, so I might.)

Remove decoration

What can you do to change the way the eye moves?

In this case, you can darken the color of the links on the right. That will help the brighter reds move the eye back to the post.

Darken Links

In order to do this you need to get into the code and change a color number on the stylesheet. It isn’t terribly difficult, but you do have to pay attention and not modify the code in any other ways. There are several steps:

  1. Determine the color number of the current links so you can find it in the code
  2. Determine the color number you want to change them to
  3. Find the place in the CSS on the stylesheet that controls those links
  4. Change the color number

Finding colors

There are many ways to do this depending on the software you have access to. I’m showing the color picker in Photoshop, since that is the image program I use. First I took the screen shot of the template I show above, then open the image in Photoshop. I used the eyedropper tool to find the red used in the template, then selected a darker version of that color. The hexidecimal color number I need for the code is in the box at the bottom of the color picker.

Darker Red Links

Changing the Stylesheet in a WordPress blog

I installed this template on a testblog that has been updated to version 2.5.1. If you are using another version, the admin interface may look different, but the basic process is the same. Open the admin, go to the Design (used to be called Presentation) tab. Select Theme Editor, then Stylesheet. Scroll down until you find the code for the links (click on the image to see it larger and clearer type). Make the change and click update.

Change Link Color

Doing things in unconventional ways

Now, I am certainly one to break rules, especially in design. However, I do think about when it serves me and when it doesn’t. In a blog, we have many elements competing for attention. If we can use some elements that are familiar to the general user, those elements basically stop competing. We see them, recognize them, and move on.

This blog template chooses not to use the orange RSS symbol to subscribe to the feed. Instead it uses a link labeled RSS.

Usability expert Jacob Nielson has this to say:

The first, and strongest, guideline about news feeds is to stop calling them RSS. In our study, 82% of users had no idea what this term meant. Using implementation-oriented terminology is generally a bad idea, because most users don’t understand (or care about) the underlying technology. It’s better to use terms that indicate what the concept does for users. In this case, “news feed” does this far better than “RSS.”

How do you deal with a visually noisy blog?

OK, I’ve given you my perspective, now tell me yours. What do you think about this template and the visual flow? What do you do to increase the readability of your blog from a visual perspective?

Next up: suggestions for Fred’s blog

I’ll be putting up a second post on how to de-noize (I’m going to copyright this word, so don’t steal it) a blog, using Fred’s as an example. Some of the things we’ll be looking at are the unintentional consequences of changing the template and what are people looking for when they come to your blog.

Suggestions for a visually noisy blog

What makes these blog headers effective?

Jabiz Raisdana left a comment on Does my header make my blog look fat?,

I would love a quick run-down on what story you think my images tell.

He has three blogs, and I think all of Jabiz’s headers are effective for a number of reasons.


IntrepidJabiz uses Intrepid in all his titles. From the Visual Thesaurus, we see words related to intrepid on the left. I would expect his headers to evoke these types of feelings.

He has three blogs.

Looking at the the lines in his headers

Here are the headers from his blogs. I have used red to identify what I see as the dominant lines in each image. Notice how these lines direct the eye to the two important areas, the posts and his sidebar. I’ve also made specific comments about the images below each example.
Intrepid Teacher

On Intrepid Teacher, the use of a larger boy and a smaller one walking down an alley evokes fearlessness. You don’t know what is at the end around the corner. The larger boy looks like he is being supportive to the smaller one, much like a teacher would be to a student.

Intrepid Flame

On Intrepid Flame, the challis or bowl evokes a feeling of the unknown.

Intrepid Classroom

On Intrepid Classroom, the figures are going somewhere, but you don’t know where. They are all going together though. Much like we do in a classroom.

Interpretation of images can be very individual. Certainly affected by each of our experiences and cultural lenses. These are some of my impressions. What about you? And Jabiz, what were your intentions?

What makes these headers work?

It’s the combination of the visual and the verbal.

  1. There is something about each of the images that relates to the title. So, something that evokes the quality of intrepid.
  2. The dominant lines in the image guide the eye to the most important parts of the blog, the posts and the sidebar.

What else?

What do you see that you think makes a blog header effective? Any examples of headers you can point us to that are really great?

Does my header make my blog look fat?

Sue Waters has been cleaning up her blog again. She wasn’t happy with her former header image.


I assume this is the skyline of the Australian city she lives in? I don’t know for sure, and many of her other international readers may not know either. Is that a problem? Maybe, maybe not. But let’s look to see what she might be trying to convey for her blog.

What’s the blog about?

The title is Mobile Technology in TAFE. From her About page, we learn TAFE stands for Tertiary and Further Education. She is an aquaculture lecturer. But it doesn’t take reading very far to learn she is passionate about all kinds of technology. Not just a little, she lives and breathes it. And it’s not just using it, it’s about helping people all over the world learn how to use it.

The old image is busy. Lots of buildings, and the image is cropped so there is no space above the buildings. When she first started using this header, the busy visual quality reflected the posting frequency and how the blog was chock full of information.

The blog went on a diet

Now Sue didn’t stop her constant output of information, rather she added other outlets. She found Twitter early on, and it was a perfect medium for her. I still don’t get twitter, but I know everytime I log in, Sue will have posted something interesting to look at.

She also started writing for The Edublogger to help people using the Edublogs system. What I know is when any new thing comes out, if Sue hasn’t already written not only about how it works, but how to actually apply it in educational practice, she will very soon.

So if you follow Sue in various places, you know she has increased her output. If you only look at her personal blog, the quantity of information is lower. Not in quality, just quantity. So, I think her instinct to reduce the clutter in the visuals better reflects the new overall feel of her blog.

A new header image

Sue put up this new image.


And she got this comment from Christy Tucker

Does it seem like the header image leads your image off the right side of the page though? Look at the line of the rocks and the direction the person is facing–it seems to all be pointing off to the right. I wonder if you flipped the image horizontally if it would work better. You’d have to move the text somewhere else, perhaps, but with the image flipped it would draw your eye right down to the content.

Just a thought–you might want to check with Christine Martell or someone else more visually inclined. It’s possible I’m simply imagining things!

Well, Christy, you are not imaging things. The header does lead the eye to the right. But lets’ look at why.

At first glance, you might think it’s just the direction the boy is facing. This certainly contributes, but it’s aggravated by the type which is anchored visually by being right up against the left edge and visually pushes into the back of the boy.


Now, there aren’t any right answers for how to deal with this. Just some options to consider. First, you can move the type over so it leads the eye to circle back around the rocks.


If you have more image software skills, there are some other things you can do. You could shorten the tag line so it fits in the rocks, and flip the boy so he is looking back the other way. This shifts the eye to lead strongly down along the back of the boy. In order to really see if this works, you would need to look at it in the template to see how this lines up with the rest of the template.


You could also remove the boy entirely, and allow the header to lead the eye down the space between the rocks, but in a softer way.


Moving the type to the top balances the image standing along better, but once again, you would want to test it in the actual template to see how it works with the rest of the elements around it.


The same would be true for darker type. You would want to look at it in context, and pay particular attention to how it related to the title of the blog.


What do you want to say with your image?

We’ve made the isolated header work better visually, but does it say what Sue is trying to convey? She said:

the idea was the lonely person staring out into the vastness of the ocean wondering what to do and where to get help.

To make this work, we probably need to bring the boy back. However, when we face him toward the pile of rocks, he isn’t really looking out into the vastness. So, I moved him to the right and adjusted the type to visually relate the the framing of the rocks on the left and the boy on the right.


This leads the eye to circle back and focus on the tagline.


The type feels a bit crowded still, so I also try the shorter tag line and change the type color to relate to the lichen on the rocks below it. The water where I removed the boy also needed a bit more touch-up, and I could spend even more time improving it.


But what’s the right answer?

In design there isn’t a right answer. It’s a balance between what you are wanting to convey and the limitations of what you have to work with combined with the opinions and desires of the person who gets to decide. For a blog header, you are also affected by the template you are using and all of the other elements that surround the header.

Any of these headers can work. Let’s send it back to Sue and see what she thinks. And have her try some of them in her template to see how they work in context.

Design is a process of trial and error for many of us. It might look like we can just pull these things out of the air, but I think for most of us it is iterative. Some people can visualize exactly what they want in their heads then just create it, but I think there are many more of us that try lots of variations to see what will work.

Capturing attention with cute puppies

I’ve written about Beth Kanter’s use of images before, actually made a screencast about it which was selected as screencast of the week over at Techsmith.

This time I attended a webinar where Beth was a presenter. Usually when I am on a webinar, I am doing several other things. Email, reading blogs, perhaps on chat. Seldom does something compel me to give it full attention.

Beth did something very interesting, which kept me focused. Cute puppies. She has noticed that a lot of her audience of non-profit techies post pictures of themselves with their dogs online. So she came up with the idea that pictures of dogs would capture their attention.

Now I don’t even think of myself as a non-profit techie, and I have three cats not dogs. She was talking about the use of technology and social networking. Yet, my focus was captured by wanting to see what creative dog picture she would use next. Even more interesting to me was I had actually already seen the slide deck, and still I wanted to see how she would weave together the social media story with the dogs.

What makes visuals speak? VizThink Breakout Session

Who came and what they were interested in


Five groups joined me for a facilitated break-out session at VizThink 08 to explore the various aspects that make visuals speak.

The first session I facilitated was on Monday afternoon. By this time, I knew the community that came together for this event was special. The only other times I have been with so many people interested in visuals was when I worked at Penland School of Craft and attended RISD. The difference this time was this audience also shared an interest in the intersection of visuals and business.

Mini-AssessmentI wanted to get a bit more information about them as a group, so I drew a quick mini-assessment on the Nomad Rolling Dry Erase Panel provided by Kinetic Energies.

The top chart column asks for people to identify the sector they work in: non-profit, education, government , or corporate. The rows ask about role: small business owner, independent consultant, individual contributor, manager, or executive. The largest number of participants were small business owners and individual contributors working in a corporate environment.

The section at the bottom asked about the topics they were most interested in. The ones that came out at top were:

  • visual literacy
  • visual language
  • creativity and innovation
  • creating visual tools

Creating Individual Images

Individual imagesEach table had a VisualsSpeak ImageSet containing 200 photographs. We used the framing question: What makes visuals speak? Each person selected photos and assembled them on a piece of construction paper.

We looked at the patterns in how each individual constructed their image on the page.

  • Did they stay within the rectangle?
  • Did the images overlap?
  • Are they aligned with the edges?
  • Is the background covered?

Over years of watching people go through this process, we’ve observed most people make similar images in terms of how they assemble their photographs on the page which correlates to how they think. Seeing the difference in how the images are constructed can help people understand each others perspectives.

The stories

two working togetherUnderstanding deepens as people share the stories of what the images mean to them. Difference emerges, from what is seen in the individual images to how the images are discussed.

Working in a group

Each group then created an image together to answer: What makes visuals speak? It was up to the members of the group to determine the process they would use. Each group’s process is unique.

Creating an image with other people is different. Suddenly you have to negotiate. Or not, as the case may be. The process and conversations become as important as the product itself.

What does make visuals speak?

Here are five perspectives, along with what I heard from them. What do you think? Anything missing?

Group 1

  • connected statement
  • various elements: color, unity, contrast
  • emotion
  • story
  • message
  • eye movement
  • process versus product
  • Group 2

  • contemplation
  • invitation
  • beauty and emotion
  • provocative
  • arresting
  • Group 3

  • pictures make me feel
  • juxtaposition
  • individuality
  • ambiguity
  • raise questions
  • spontaneous
  • fit into environment
  • Group 4

  • color
  • emotion
  • structure and form
  • combined ingredients
  • paths to separate and connect
  • reorient with perspective
  • commonality
  • speaks individually
  • Group 5

  • relationships
  • storyline
  • associations
  • journey
  • spontaneous
  • color
  • pattern
  • Do we really agree? Let’s See.

    Social Media variationsMichele Martin and I had a long discussion over the phone yesterday. It was part of an ongoing conversation we have been having over the last few months. We have used email, wikis, IM, face-to-face, and phone. The point being, this is not a new conversation. It has been developing over time.

    And the conversation is not about images, rather about the use of social media as learning professionals. It’s an interesting topic, and I would encourage you to go over to Michele’s blog for the conversation about the content.

    This post is about how we each saw the image we were talking about.

    It started with Michele sending me a tall pyramid. As we were talking I said I thought it was more of a spiral, and we talked about what I meant by that. From the conversation, I would have guessed we were aligned and were seeing the same things.

    Michele’s Image

    This morning, Michele posts this spiraling image on her blog. Wow, really? A tall skinny spiral? A tornado spiral? When I think about it, aspects of the lower levels do kind of get sucked up into the higher level areas. And bits and pieces of the top levels filter down and layer on top. I can get there, but it was surprising when I first saw it.

    Christine’s Image

    I was seeing a flat spiral. Different, and more so than I would have guessed.

    Does this matter?

    Are these differences that matter? In this context, maybe not. This was a conversation between colleagues, one where we were challenging each other to expand our thinking. But what if we had been taking action based on this conversation? Would these different perspectives matter then? Especially since we thought we had come to alignment?

    How images can make a difference

    If we had been able to see what we were each scribbling down while we were talking, we could have had a deeper conversation about why we were seeing these differently. Or if we really were. Or was it just the way we were sketching? I suspect from these drawings that there are areas where we could tease out more differences in our understanding, places where we each could learn more from each other.

    Because we relied on just words in the moment, we limited the depth of our potential conversation because we assumed we were in agreement. And we have a tendency to search harder for the places we agree. It affirms our connection, and feels good.

    This is happening all the time, all around us

    Words are wonderful. But we bring all of our unique experiences and understanding to them. How many times a day do we think we are saying something that is in alignment with someone else? How many times are we sure?

    Not that visuals are the answer. If you show a picture to five people they will often tell you five different things. But there is a concrete starting point in the image. You can see more of the thinking, you can ask questions. Added to the words, you might be a step closer to really understanding each other.

    Using images in fundraising

    The Sharing Foundations bid to win $50,000

    Beth Kanter has been participating in Parade Magazine’s America’s Giving Challenge. $50,000 will be awarded to the project that gets the most unique donors before January 31, 2008. Beth has selected the Sharing Foundation, which provides education for children and young adults in Cambodia. With a little help from her blogging friends, she is now number three on the leader board. You can participate by donating as little as $10 through the widget above set up by Michele Martin at the Bamboo Project. The effort is gaining momentum, as Beth has requested donations in honor of her birthday on Friday.

    It has been a fascinating campaign to watch. Beth has done some interesting things with photographs. I am learning how to screencast, and that is another topic Beth has been incredibly generous in sharing of her knowledge. In honor of her birthday, I have made this screencast about her use of images in the challenge.

    And here is a real pro-screencast done by Harry, Beth’s 10 year old son with a little help from Mom.

    Visual Language: Shape

    Visual LanguageThis post is part of a series on Visual Language. Starting with the premise that you have to be able to see the various aspects of a visual in order to be able to create visuals, each post is exploring a different aspect that goes into visual language.

    Shape is comprised of several things. For simplicity, we will talk about a line drawing, which uses a line to define the outside shape of an object. There are several things that affect the perception of that shape. These include the positive (foreground) and negative (background) space, contrast and color. The following screencast talks about each of these while showing examples.

    So What?

    When we begin to understand and can identify the various elements that go into visual language, we can begin to use them to convey what it is we want to say visually. There are many ways you can bring emphasis or attention to an area of an image. We learn what they are so we can utilize the best ones to create the effect we are after in the particular instance. It’s like learning vocabulary. After a while you start to discern the difference between rain, sleet, downpour and drizzle. Then you can select the word that hones in on just what it is you want to say.

    There are related posts about Line and Color and Contrast.

    Does any of this help you see the various aspects that contribute to effective visuals?

    Simple lines for effective messages

    Story of Stuff

    Story of STuffA nod to David Sibbett from Grove Consultants for pointing out a link to an effective use of simple line drawing to convey a complex message.

    The Story of Stuff is a 20 minute video about our consumer society done with a combination of filming Annie Leonard talking with simple line drawings to illustrate what she is saying. It’s worth the time to take a look.

    These are drawings for communication, not drawings for art. They are simple, some might even go in the category of not quite right, but they do an exceedingly good job of emphasizing the message.

    We have been environmentally conscious for a long time, but just when we think we are making a good choice, another perspective comes along to make us wonder.

    We really had a tough time when we created the VisualsSpeak ImageSet. Here we are buying green energy, recycling, making donations, reducing our use of stuff and creating training tools laminated in plastic. However, our other choice was to make training tools that fell apart after a short while and would need to be replaced. Did we pick the right path? We’re still not sure, but we are planning to make other alternatives available, so when you don’t need the durability of a plastic coated photograph, you’ll be able to purchase something else.

    I wish there were easier answers. Guess we just do the best we know how at the time, and be willing to change as we learn new things. Do you see other options?

    Discovering the essence of visuals

    What we can learn about visual language from Web 1.0 vs Web 2.0

    I watched the VizThink webinar yesterday, How is visual thinking related to e-learning? where Tony Karrer was asking Dave Gray questions. (The recording is now available here). A couple of things jumped out at me. First Dave talked about drawing pictures in his classes in high school. He was already making sense of the world through drawing, and finding value in being able to go to the teacher and ask if his depiction was correct.

    I too was drawing all over my papers in high school, but I was drawing elaborate patterns in the margins. My images reflected what the topic ‘felt’ like. The common thread is we were using drawing as a means to process information early, and doing it a lot. The difference is Dave was drawing things that were more literally descriptive, where I was capturing essence. Which makes sense, I went on to study textile design, and have focused on using visuals as a process and connector.

    The other thing that jumped out is how frustrating this visual stuff can be for people. Tony is a highly respected e-learning professional who knows the value of visuals. I could really hear the frustration in not being able to make the leap from where he is to where he wants to be in producing visuals to enhance his messages.

    What does web 1.0 versus 2.0 look like?

    Tony mentioned he has been struggling with illustrating how the world is shifting relative to e-learning. He referred to his chart of e-learning 1.0, 1.3, 2.0.

    Tony Karrer e-learning 1.0, 1.3, 2.0

    Here is a screencast where I describe an image I created using the VisualsSpeak ImageSet. For the purpose of illustrating my point, I made an image based on how I understand the transition that is happening from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0, which is similar to what Tony mentioned as an example. This will help you see how you can discover some of the essential qualities of visual language that will make your visuals more effective.

    (Left- Web 1.0 transitioning to Web 2.0 on right)

    So What? How does that help me create a visual?

    My description of the collage in the screencast reveals my impressions, my story of how I see the transition from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0. In this kind of process you can discover a lot of the content you want to get across.

    But there is another story in the visual language that can unlock the essence of what you want to communicate visually. You can look at the overall arrangement of the images. The left side that describes Web 1.0 is more gridded and ordered. The edges of the images are aligned to each other. When you move into web 2.0 the images are fanning out from each other.

    Next you can look at the lines and shapes in the images themselves.Web 1.0

    Notice the type of shapes held within the images I selected to depict Web 1.0. There are a lot of squares or grids like those in an orderly table or spreadsheet. There are also lines much like those used in a graph.

    Web 2.0 patterns

    The shapes common in my Web 2.0 depiction are circular, radiating in or out depending on your perspective, and vertical zig-zags. To me, Web 2.0 takes on the form of not being so linearly organized. How do you see the transition? Do you have a different way of visualizing it?

    So what do I do with that?

    Well, if you are selecting a photograph or clip art to illustrate these concepts, you can use these visual elements to guide your selection. You might search for a structured grid or a surrounded web (such as the spiderweb picture) for Web 1.0. In contrast, you might search for an image that had lines radiating from a circular form for Web 2.0.

    You can also begin to develop an illustration from the patterns. web 1.0 to 2.0 in lines

    (In this sketch I used the Web 1.0 concepts of grids and graphs to transition into the more radiating form of Web 2.0)

    This is just a quick overview, intended to show a process that might be used to generate ideas for effective visuals. Creating a finished visual is more complex, and does take a certain time investment. However, if you can identify some of the essence of what you are looking for, you can also hand it off to a graphic designer or illustrator to develop the ideas more fully.

    Do you have some additional input for developing visuals? Or would you like me to elaborate on anything I said in this post? Let me know.

    Visual Language: About Line

    Visual LanguageThis is the first topic in a series about visual language. The posts are intended to provide a basic understanding about some of the foundational elements that go into visual language, so you can communicate more effectively with visuals.

    Starting to explore visuals
    Visual language is complex. You can’t really separate one aspect out, since visuals contain multiple elements. However, we can focus more attention on one aspect than another. So for example, we are going to talk about lines in this post, but you could also talk about shapes in many of the images. The goal is to train your eyes to be able to notice the details, and to be able to discern which elements are important to what you are trying to communicate.

    I don’t think it is possible to create visuals if you can’t see its elements. I suggested beginning to explore a common everyday object, and I chose my keychain. I’ve been doing this two ways. I sketch while I’m doing other things at my desk like listening to webinars and conference calls. I’ve also been photographing and using Photoshop to call out various elements. While I can show you pictures of things, you’ll get more out of it if you are also exploring an object of your own. Where is your key chain?


    You may have noticed that many of the people who use visuals to explain concepts or help others in their thinking or communication use line drawings to do so. Info-graphics, graphic facilitation, and even mind mapping all use line as a key element to get ideas across. Therefor, it is an important element to not only understand, but to develop the skills to use it effectively.

    Line is a very versatile and important part of visual language. If you can see it and work with it, you can utilize it for a whole range of expression. This is the realm of the cartoonist, a mastery of line brings the work to life. Yet it is quite challenging to figure out just which line, how much of it, and what quality of line will get across the essence of what you want to say.

    Here is a screencast showing some of the ways you can start to explore line.

    The parts

    LinesYou can spend more time looking at the photographs of the process I went through to explore line on the computer by clicking on the image to enlarge it. I will note that it took quite a bit more time to do this on the computer than it would have taken to draw with a pen on paper. Of course, now that it is in digital format I can make versions and alterations much quicker. For me that’s why I often draw on the computer after doing a few preliminary sketches on paper to make sure I have a general understanding of what I am looking at. Once I have done the basic work of getting the image in digital format, I find I am more willing to try a number of different variations.

    Practice drawing something simple. At first you may not be aware of what the important lines are that need capturing. A bit of practice will help you and soon you will begin to see how emphasizing one line over another changes the focus or meaning of your drawing.

    I wrote another post on a different aspect of line, Are your visuals saying what you want? Part 1

    Do you have other ways of exploring visual language? Some other way that has given you insight?

    VizThink: Wrestling with the monster named Fear

    Even professionals struggle with creative anxiety

    Fear Monster

    Meet my Fear Monster. Lovely fellow, eh? What’s he got to do with visual thinking? I’d say a lot. Because he’s the one I let torture me when I think about putting my drawings and images out where people can see them.

    Does his cousin live at your house?

    Now, you might think this little devil wouldn’t come visiting, or if he did, I’d know how to control him by now. After all, I’ve had many opportunities to wrestle with him. For those of you who have not been to art school, a large part of what happens there is staying up very late at night slaving over some piece of artwork. The next day you bring it to class and pin it up on the wall. Then the class shreds it with help from the instructor. At the end of the semester you have the opportunity to face an entire panel of critics with a pile of your best work. I don’t remember a lot of compliments, but I do remember crying in the alleys outside. I must have done something right since I did graduate. (Rhode Island School of Design)

    My Fear Monster is quite arrogant and laughs at my silly little attempts at cleverness. And I know he is poised to bite me with those poisonous pointy teeth as soon as I turn around.

    Keys, keys, and more keys

    SketchesI have been doing exactly what I suggested you do in my earlier post. I’ve been exploring the visual aspects of my keychain, by doing quick sketches while I’m listening to webinars or conference calls. I’ve also been taking photos of it to illustrate some of the visual language aspects I want to show you in subsequent posts. I’ve been thinking about what might be the best way to show you what I’m thinking about and have been looking at tools like screencasts and video which seem promising.

    Mr Fear Monster has been rearing his ugly head because I’m thinking about posting unfinished ugly drawings, and using new tools I am not expert in. Now, I know one of the points I am trying to make is that unfinished ugly drawings are part of the process of visual thinking. Does the Fear Monster care? No.

    So why am I feeding his ego by writing a post about him? Because I am trying to make the process of creating visible for you, and wrestling with him is part of it. He doesn’t stop me from doing it. But his toxic voice talks in my ear and I have to tell him to be quiet, go away, and refuse to give in to him. Even deciding to tell you about him has got him laughing.

    Do you have a Fear Monster that keeps you from creating? How do you handle creative anxiety?

    VizThink: Does it have to be attractive to be effective?

    VizThink is a conference being held in San Francisco January 27-29, 2008. I will be one of the facilitators. This series of posts is designed to explore the topic of visual thinking, how it is taught, and how you can learn.

    The series of posts was originally inspired by Tony Karrer’s, VizThink and Visual Thinking . It evoked responses from Tom Crawford, Brent Schlenker, and Dave Gray, who are all involved in the VizThink conference.

    As a visual communication resource I often suggest Horn’s book, Visual Language. In the ongoing discussion, Tony Karrer asks:

    Interestingly, Christine, Tom and Dave Gray from Xplane all point to Bob Horn’s book as a great example. I’m a bit worried if that’s the example. I’m even more worried when I went to Bob’s web site. Dave Gray has always done incredible graphics that really help me to quickly understand a topic. Bob’s web site violates a lot of what I would consider to be good design. Please, tell me that I won’t think that’s good design by the end of this crash course? I can’t imagine that anyone thinks that good design?

    In the comments of this post, I assured Tony I wasn’t recommending the book for it’s beauty. And I didn’t call it out for it’s design. Its brilliance is in it’s articulation of the elements of visual language. I am no fan of clip art, which illustrates this book, yet I understand it’s use in this instance.

    It also raises a deeper question.

    • Is there a difference between effective visual communication and effective visual design?

    What we discovered developing VisualsSpeak images

    When we were developing the VisualsSpeak process, we started out by cutting out photographs from books and magazines and laminating them. We tested about 10,000 images. Watching how people responded, adjusting the process to maximize the results. We were looking to deepen communication, spark insight, and give people a method that would aid in complex strategic thinking.

    At first we weren’t sure exactly what the qualities were in an image that were going to make it effective. Since we were chopping up magazines, the collection included famous photos, breathtaking photos, and the work of some of the best photographers in the world. But we started to notice that when people would select many of those photos they would say things like I just liked it, it was pretty, I just like National Geographic. Or they would describe what they thought the photographer was saying. We weren’t hearing a lot of deep insight.

    In contrast, the images that were more generic evoked all sorts of deep insights. It seemed almost like the more vague or ambiguous, the better they worked. This was independent of content. We tracked those factors separately. Technically, we used professional cameras and lenses, and when we printed we used high quality offset printing and good color.

    HandsWhen we started photographing, we had a sense of the type of images we were looking to capture. We took about 20,000 photographs to select the 200 needed for the VisualsSpeak ImageSet. So we had lots of stacks of similar images. We didn’t always pick the ‘best’ image from a design standpoint. Or the prettiest, or the most dramatic. Some of them are almost weird. And they work really well to deepen communication, spark insight, and aid in complex strategic thinking.

    From the results we are trying to achieve with our visual tools, often it is NOT the prettiest picture that yields the greatest impact. It is the quality of the insights those images inspire in our clients and how all of the images interact with each other.

    What are you trying to do?

    As I mentioned before, I am no fan of clip art. I appreciate good design. However, I find myself compromising more and more when my focus shifts to effective learning, effective communication, and the relationship of cost to value. There is even a joke around our office about my RISD degree being revoked.

    The questions are similar to the ones I ask when I begin designing a training or an organizational intervention.

    • What is the impact I am trying to achieve?
    • How am I going to measure it?
    • How am I going to insure it makes economic sense?

    So you have to ask yourself what are you trying to accomplish with your visuals. For us it means choosing the photos that enhance communication processes the most. At times we have to consciously get out of our own way to not choose the most aesthetically pleasing images from an art point of view. You may want to choose WOW kind of visuals, because they serve your purpose. Bob Horn chose to use clip art, because it helped illustrate the points he wanted to make.

    What do you think? Do you find yourself struggling to define the line between good design and effectiveness in other areas?

    I do hope you will join us at the VizThink conference. If you use the code FCCM1 you can get $100 off your registration fee. I will be writing more about learning to think visually soon.

    VizThink: Where do you start with visuals?

    vizthinklogoTony Karrer wrote a post the other day wondering about the connection between visual thinking and e-learning. His questions were in relationship to the VizThink conference which will be held January 27-29, 2008 in San Fransisco.

    The post has generated some very interesting conversation, and Tony asked some questions that I wanted to answer here, where I had more space and ability to add links and visuals.

    Visual LanguageI suggested Bob Horn’s book, Visual Language as a resource Tony might consider to learn about visuals. Xplane recently republished it and you can purchase it from them. The book is written in visual language, yet it uses clip art. Dr. Horn wanted to show how visual language works, but he wanted to make sure it was accessible ie: didn’t require drawing. I have heard people dismiss the book on the basis of it not being aesthetically pleasing enough, but I think they are missing the point. Not using fabulous visuals keeps the focus on the theoretical construction of the visual language components. This is a book I read and study over and over. There is an incredible amount of information on every page.

    Here are some resources where you can learn more about the book.

    Reading and writing visual language

    In the comments on Tony’s post, Dave Gray says:

    We “read” visual language all the time. It surrounds us, in the form of billboards, TV, road signs, car dashboards, internet screens, etc.

    But how many of us can “write” visual language? I submit to you that visual language is not, and should not be, the province of designers, but is a core skill as we enter the coming century, maybe THE core skill.

    So, reading Robert Horn’s book on visual language will help you read visuals better. And I believe you have to be able read, and SEE in order to effectively write.

    Creating Visuals

    We all know understanding something does not necessarily translate into an ability to do. And I think there must be a guild of mean parents and art teachers out there somewhere who have traumatized a huge number of people when they were young by telling them trees aren’t purple and to color inside the lines. So you do need to put all that early childhood trauma aside and be willing to try again. I KNOW you can do it, we all can.

    Tony asks:

    For me, once I start to go after the visual (ugly as they are), then I find myself changing the diagram, adding, etc. I’m never happy with it. So, I tinker. Pretty soon that visual depiction falls apart. So I wasn’t clear on what it should have been at the start.

    Or maybe it’s not that simple? It’s more iterative?

    You might stop too soon. I have produced FAR more really bad ugly stuff than things that work. It’s all part of the process. Have you heard salespeople say they have to get 10 (or 100) no’s for every yes. Sometimes we have to create a lot of yuck. Every so often, you hit right away. Hopefully over time, you hit sooner more regularly.

    Sometimes it’s more like a focus group. You keep gathering the data until patterns emerge and you can distill the kernels that are most important.

    Try this

    If you really want to learn to work with visuals, you have to do it. Yes, I know the mean parents and art teachers who told you trees aren’t purple and your masterpiece didn’t look like your dog are whispering in your ears again. You’ve got to put them aside and decide to reclaim your ability to work with visuals.

    KeychainTake an ordinary object from your daily life, say your keychain. Start to look at it, and begin to record the visual qualities of it. All of them. When you run out, keep going and find more. Aim for 100. The first 20 or 30 may be pretty easy, but keep going. I assure you if you do, you will see that keychain in a totally new way. And most likely everything else in the world also.

    Visual Qualities you might look for include:

    • Line
    • Shape
    • Texture
    • Highlight & Shadow

    Don’t worry if you don’t know what all of these mean. I’ll be talking more about them in later posts.

    How do you do this? Anyway you want. If you really want to challenge yourself, do it with just a pen or pencil on pieces of paper. You can also do it with photography, painting, or the computer. Whatever works, it’s not about the media.

    It’s also not about Art. This is quick, maybe even ugly stuff, that only takes a few minutes. Keep your keys on your desk, look over between tasks and see what you notice. Scribble something down. These ugly sketches of mine took less than a minute.

    Why might you want to make a whole series of ugly drawings? Well, if you were a musician you might play scales to build your skills. If you’re a novelist you might write several drafts. This is a visual version of these types of processes. It’s not about the result, it’s about the process of looking, looking again, and continuing to look to discover new things way beyond when you think you’ve seen it all.

    I do hope you will join us at VizThink. If you use the code FCCM1 you can get $100 off your registration fee. I will be writing more about learning to think visually soon.

    VizThink: Can you learn to think visually?

    VizThinkTony Karrer wrote a post the other day wondering about the connection between visual thinking and e-learning. He had been talking with Tom Crawford, who is the new CEO of VizThink in relationship to the conference which will be held January 27-29, 2008 in San Fransisco. I will be one of the facilitators at the conference. Tony wondered;

    So, again, I highly respect Tom and the conference. And maybe it’s as simple as the fact that a lot of what we do in training, learning, education is try to crystallize the important points, and turn it into an engaging, meaningful learning experience. So, maybe it’s a parallel and very useful skill. But I have this sense that Tom thinks there’s more to it.

    And, I just am still not sure I get what he’s seeing? What am I missing here?

    I wanted to say, a whole world. But that isn’t very helpful.

    The beginnings of the conversation

    First Brent Schlenker dropped by to comment on Tony’s post and talked about the importance of design, and noticed that very few instructional designers are trained with these skills. I know when I speak for groups of e-learning professionals, they often are unaware of visual communication basics. But Tony then asked if visual thinking and design were the same skills?

    I don’t think so, but often people who have learned one have also learned the other so it becomes difficult to separate at times. I do know in e-learning in particular, I often see programs that may be well designed from a graphic perspective while they show no understanding of how visual language could have made their learning better. I left a comment about this, and Tony came back with another round of questions

    • I wonder though how teachable it is?
    • And can I learn it from a conference?
    • Without going to the conference, how could I get a sense of whether I could learn it (whatever it is)?

    I answered these simply, and you can go over to Tony’s blog to see the short answer. But his questions really helped me see an opportunity for a series of posts that speak to this in more depth.

    • Yes, it is teachable.
    • Yes, you can learn parts of it at a conference
    • Yes, there are things you can do to learn

    Tony came back with some other questions which I will address in subsequent posts.

    Dave Gray from Xplane stopped by next to comment, and opened with

    I have so many questions and thoughts for you that I don’t know where to begin.

    Me too. Which is why I decided I better write a series of posts. Dave has some great thoughts about the assumptions built about communication, the screen being visual and lots more that make it worth going over to read the comments. He will be one of the pre-conference and main facilitators at the VizThink conference.

    I do hope you will join us at VizThink. If you use the code FCCM1 you can get $100 off your registration fee. I will be writing more about learning to think visually soon.

    Are your visuals saying what you want? Part 3 Texture & Pattern

    Create more effective training materials, blogs, websites, etc. by understanding how to use visuals that reinforce your message not detract from it.

    The series

    This post is the third in a series about visual elements in images. Part 1 Visual Elements is about dominant lines and shapes. Part 2 Color and Contrast looks at how color affects emphasis. Here we will look at texture and pattern.

    Texture and Pattern: The slippery slope

    Why do I think texture and pattern is a slippery slope? Because while they greatly affect the overall impression of a webpage, blog, or presentation slide, it isn’t always considered carefully. And the tools we use to create these visuals often give us the ability to make choices that are unfortunate. Slide backgrounds are an example. They often are somewhat generic patterns or textures, but overlaid with yet another pattern created by bulleted text, it becomes a visual war for attention.

    Presentation Zen has a great post on Learning from Bill Gates and Steve Jobs with a perfect example of this. Bill Gates is using a template that does absolutely nothing to enhance his message, and in some slides leads the eye to areas of no content. Notice how this frame (left) leads your eye to the bright yellow area and the woman’s back. It’s hard to read the title when it is submerged in the dark brown.

    Steve Jobs uses a simple gradated background. The images and words are not competing for attention with the background. Your eye can easily take in either the words or images. Jobs’ slides are a lot easier on the eye and make it easier for the audience to maintain attention to the presentation. Enough said, visit Presentation Zen for great insights into how to use design to enhance the effectiveness of your presentations.

    Let’s look at blog themes

    Most Downloaded ThemesAs I was thinking about how to illustrate this point, I went over to the WordPress Theme Viewer. A theme is like a template, in that it controls the look of your blog. The top ten downloaded themes provide a wealth of examples of strong patterns and textures created by the templates’ headers, headings, and sidebars.

    I have ordered these themes in terms of pattern and texture, from ones with very strong dominant elements, to ones where the headers create strong banded patterns, to more subtle themes.

    I’ve intentionally put these up as thumbnail-sized images, because it is easier to see the visual patterns when you can’t read the words. Our eyes focus on one area at a time, so it is really easy to forget to look at the overall effect. Yet our eyes do pick up on those elements, and often they distract us. Advertisers use patterns, textures, contrast, and bright colors all the time to get us to look at their ads.africa


    In the first two, you can barely see there is dummy text in the post area, because the backgrounds are so dominant.narutotalian


    The next three themes have strong, dark horizontal bars, which attract the eye, even before any word content is added.cutlinelosemymindnetworker


    The last four templates are much more subtle. They don’t demand that your eye be drawn to the visual patterns of the template as much as the first six themes do.

    Any of these themes might work quite well for your specific purpose. Just be conscious of why you are choosing them and ask yourself if they will service the needs of what you are trying to accomplish. And perhaps most importantly do the visual patterns serve your audience’s needs.

    Don’t forget when you are looking for a theme or template, that you are often seeing it loaded up with simple nondescript filler text. How often does our content look that way? Seldom, if at all. We’ll take a look at content next.

    Let’s visit Google Reader

    I went over to my Google Reader to see what real content looks like without the visual components of a blog template. When you read blogs in RSS readers, you see the content separate from the template. Here were some examples:


    Often the text in a blog contains links, subheadings, and bold text for emphasis. This creates its own kind of texture and pattern. Seeing your blog text in a reader is a good way to study the visual effect you are creating with your content.

    Did your mother ever tell you not to wear stripes and plaid together?

    There are fashion designers and models who can pull off wearing different patterns together. The average person looks a bit silly. Yet, we create clashing patterns with our templates and content all the time.

    How does this happen? Let’s look at the window I am writing this in right now and what it looks like on the blog. Not the same. Yes, I can go back and forth between writing the content and previewing how it will look, but even then, it often looks different on my Macintosh than it does on a Windows machine.


    What can we do to be more

    What is effective?

    The first thing is just to be aware that templates and backgrounds can have strong patterns and textures that effect the overall look of your presentation. Noticing and paying attention to the overall as well as the details helps a lot.

    Carefully consider the templates you choose. You can use a strong design if you are conscious about the effects it will have. If you aren’t quite as confident in your design skills, pick something a bit simpler.

    Remember that subheadings, bold, and links create texture and pattern in your content.

    Clashing content can be very effective for some designs. But think about your audience. Are you trying to scream to get attention? Is your audience apt to like lots of visual noise? Or is your audience new to your topic and really needing to focus on the content? Your choices add to what you are saying. Or detract from it.

    Do your visuals say what you want them to?