Visual Descriptions blog post image-01-01

Visual Descriptions

Einstein said that, “if you can’t explain it to a six-year old, you don’t understand it yourself.” That’s not easy. Short attention spans, limited knowledge of the subject matter, other things on their minds. That not only describes six-year olds, but the average colleague, client or customer.

Pictures Speak Louder Than Words.

Think about any six year old you know, (or have known) and their preference for drawing and doodling. That’s a fancy psychological term for this in adults —  the picture superiority effect. Humans are far better at understanding and retaining information if it comes with a picture.


Which is easier to understand and remember? The definition on the left, or the picture on the right?

What if you could simply explain your complex subject? Your fresh new business model, brilliant product idea, or creative marketing concept?  That’s where a great visual description comes in handy.


What is a visual description?

A visual description is less than an infographic and more than Clipart. It can appear as part of a larger piece (an element in an infographic, or a slide in a Powerpoint deck). Or you can use a visual description as a stand-alone item in a Twitter or Facebook stream.  It’s different from photography or imagery in that it doesn’t capture a scene or a moment, it captures an idea. It’s different from Clipart, which at best would echo your idea. The visual description can illustrate it, add nuance to it, commentary, explanation, or emotion.

Visual descriptions works in part because they capture the essence of the idea, and convey it in a compelling way. In this sense, they’re the visual equivalents of proverbs or common expressions; “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” You may never have had a bird in your hand while two were in a nearby bush, but the phrase is so visual it sticks. It’s likely you have never thrown an actual baby out with actual bathwater; but the expression works because it is so visual and shocking, so intensely powerful, that it works.

Let’s be clear. Mastering verbal literacy (being able to write good) is hard enough. Building your visual literacy muscle is difficult as well. To get you started, here’s a collection of different types of visual description.


Use A Visual Description As A Definition. (Process)

2The definition of sublimation from high school chemistry is relatively complex, but the visual above makes it easy to grasp (more easily than the definition alone).

Tip: Think about showing process. What comes before what?


Incorporate Data Into A Visual Description.


Data visualization is on the rise. Try to use your data in a clever way in your visual description. This is a great example from (ht* to Stephanie Evergreen). One small visual description captures the whole point of their position paper.

Tip: Presented in the right way, data can be powerful, but don’t overdo it.


Put Nuance into a Visual Description.

4Your visual description can contain nuance, and therefore bias. Take these two examples on rhetoric. One might describe rhetoric as the art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing.  That’s what the lower figure would imply, rhetoric as the art of words. A more negative view would be the upper figure, which focuses on the persuasive power of rhetoric.

Tip: Think about how you want someone to feel about your subject.


Abstract Visual Descriptions.


I particularly like this one from Hugh MacLeod, (you can purchase his business cartoons here) commenting on the intersection of social media and business, and the inability of companies to control the conversation anymore.  It’s a complex idea, captured in a very simple, (if abstract) way.

Tip: It’s sometimes easier to think about relationships and connections.


Use A Comparison In Your Visual Description.

6Comparisons are a powerful way of explaining complex subjects.  This example of culture, and comparing it to cult, is a comparative visual description from zen master of this type of stuff, Dave Gray.

Tip: Compare your subject to something else.


Describe Outcomes In Your Visual Description.


You will often have to describe something that is very difficult to describe.  If you’re stuck, don’t think about the thing itself, think about the outcome and describe that. For instance, pain isn’t visible, so could be difficult to draw. You have all seen a great example of that — the Wong-Baker faces pain scale rating.

Tip: Think about the effect or outcome of what you’re trying to visualize.


Stages Or Phases In Your Visual Description.


Very complex subjects can often be reduced to their essence by thinking about phases or stages. It could be as simple as a timeline, or the classic “evolution of man” visual above. Similar to thinking about outcomes, you can think about the stages of growth, the waypoints on a journey, or the phases in a project, and visualize them.

Tip: Does your subject evolve, change or grow? Think about stages.


Use Ingredients In Your Visual Description.



What you’re trying to describe is often made up of other things.  Think about the parts of the whole as a way to help you describe the whole. This famous coffee visual above (I couldn’t find the original author of this one) is a great example of using ingredients to describe the whole.

Tip: If you’re stuck, think about what makes up what you’re trying to describe.


More Complex Visual Descriptions.


It’s not always easy to reduce something down to its essence. There are times when you have to show a few pieces of information together to make up a whole. Think about the information hierarchy of what you want to show. What is most important in the visual? In this case, a visual description of a service system, it’s the siloed nature of organizations, and the tangled mess it sometimes leaves for customers.

Tip: For more complex diagrams, think through the information hierarchy.


The Literal or Realistic Visual Description.


Sometime you just want to show what you’re talking about. Often that’s a photograph. If you have the skill, it’s a drawing or rendering. I was brought up with Alfred Wainwright’s pictorial guides to the lakeland fells. They made great use of visual descriptions, describing routes and capturing scenes along the way like the example above.

Tip: If you’re talking about a place or object, a picture is worth a thousand words.

Hopefully this breakdown of different types of visual descriptions are a thought starter for you. What other types can you think of, or examples that you can share?

*HT means “hat tip”. A visual term if there ever was one.


Gavin is a founding partner at fassforward consulting group. He blogs about PowerPoint, Presenting, Communication and Message Discipline at You can follow him on twitter @powerfulpoint.

More at Google+Facebook and Pinterest. Comments are welcome, links are appreciated. If you’re interested in writing guest posts for this blog, please contact me.

Leave a Reply