Sunday, August 1, 2010

Building a Visual Vocabulary, Or Drawing in readers

I'm presently rewriting a course with a large number of graphics in it...which I'm replacing. I'm not sure that if it isn't just ego driving me because, quite frankly, the original graphics were good. The original graphics were very structural: generally speaking, a set of nested boxes with lines--which sounds dismissive and I don't mean to be. Boxes-with-lines are excellent tools when you're trying, for instance, to show people the structure of concepts (e.g. organizational charts, which show a very abstract concept: relationships). And that's what these graphics did and did very well. There was at least one box-with-lines graphic that I left in. In fact, I repeated it three or four times showing it in bits and pieces (and I simplified its first appearance).

So why am I replacing the existing graphic? I looked at what I was replacing them with: By and large I was putting in pictures of people, computers, scrolls--any physical analog that I could come up with. I realized that I was trying to do two things.

First, I was providing physical representations of material that I was concerned was going to be too abstract for our participants. This is a business course around software architecture to I wanted to suggest that the course material is very practical, very realistic. In addition, many of the course participants are business/management types rather than programmers: I wanted to link the topics we were talking about to things they would recognize from their world.

But I also realized that I wanted to create distinctive graphics that participants would remember and associate with concepts. The problem with box-and-line graphics is that all boxes and lines look alike (only colour and size provide any variation). I was replacing labeled boxes with (I hope) memorable images...and then repeating those images on many pages. I realized that I was building a vocabulary of images that participants would come to recognize. With a vocabulary built in early parts of the course, I could mix and match those images later in the course to explain new things (very much the way we mix and match known words to create new explanations).

This vocabulary, in addition to providing a parallel visual explanation to the word-driven explanations, also helps tie the course together. When I introduced a concept on one page, I would also introduce a corresponding image. When the concept cropped up on a later page, I also added the image. To (mis)quote T.S. Eliot, I was creating a "imagictive correlative" for the ideas in the course that I could use to reinforce the course's points and coherence.

I had another more nefarious point to using these images. At the end of each chapter there is a chapter summary that repeats the key points from the course. On that slide I also repeat the items from my graphic vocabulary that were introduced in that chapter (in miniature). At the end of the course I have an (graphic only and unreadable) slide that repeats all of the graphic vocabulary from the whole course (still in miniature). If nothing else, this slide--put it up just before the participants fill out their evals--sends the message that we've sure covered a heck of a lot of material.

That still leaves, of course, the question of whether or not the participants think it's valuable material.

Reading or read:

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