All posts by Tom Harris

How New York Times Designers Explain

This installment of the Gestalten.tv podcast features some of the explainers behind New York Times’ award-winning infographics.

Not so surprisingly, the recurring theme of simplicity pops up:

At the Times, we generally err on the side of clarity, versus aesthetic. The simplicity we try to achieve is an aesthetic in itself.

– Archie Tse, Graphics Editor




[via vizthink]

Ira Glass Explains Storytelling

Last night, I finally watched season 2 of This American Life (the TV version), and it wrung me out good. I’m a longtime fan of the radio show, and I thought season 1 of the Showtime series was great, but even so, I was surprised by the truth and beauty of season 2. The finale, “John Smith,” is one of the most affecting and genuine films I’ve ever seen. It’s 17 E.T.s worth of humanity.

Here’s the trailer for season 2:



Anyway, during my great-TV hangover this morning, I was looking up This American Life stuff, and rediscovered Ira Glass’ explanation of the elements of great storytelling. This is more than two years old, so you might have seen it already, but I wanted it to be here.



Vonnegut’s Story Graphs

I love the way Kurt Vonnegut explained stories through graphs, described here by Derek Sivers.



Back in 1994, I saw Vonnegut do a version of this exercise in person, on a blackboard at Duke. In the lecture I saw, Vonnegut explained that Hamlet was the epitome of real drama, since unlike Cinderella, the story graph is pretty much a straight line. Essentially, Hamlet never learns whether anything that happens is good or bad and nothing is resolved, just like in life. Here’s the published version of the lecture, from A Man Without a Country (scroll down to the *):



Incidentally, Vonnegut made the best exit of any public speaker I’ve ever seen. At the end of his speech, he begrudgingly offered to take questions from the audience, as requested by the Duke speaker organizers. He answered a few fairly lame ones, including a teacher asking what one book should he get his students to read, assuming they would only read one (Vonnegut: “I suppose Genesis is a good place to start.”) Finally, he muttered, “I don’t think much of your questions. Goodnight,” and strolled off stage.

[via @gregg]

One Stop Shopping for Exploded Nerdware

Now that’s some nice ecommerce: The Exploded Store sells t-shirts with exploded diagrams of beloved machines. From the FAQ:

These are internals of actual equipment. We buy items, usually via eBay or Craigslist, and we take them apart. Sometimes this requires special tools. Then we photograph the pieces and meticulously render them in Adobe Illustrator. Troy Paiva and Garry Booth are two of the skilled artists who have ‘exploded’ designs for us.

This Mac design is great, but, as I’ve said before, I’d really like an Apple IIe shirt.



[via Kottke.org]

What Does the Decline of the Instruction Manual Signify?

Food for thought from Mark Miodownik, an engineer at Kings College London:

We now live in an age in which we feel that technology should be intuitive, which relegates instruction manuals to literature for the stupid.

In truth, most modern instruction manuals are not worth reading in any case, since they have turned into catalogues of health and safety advice, and instructions on how to dispose of the product once it breaks. We are not expected to spend much time thinking about who made it and how.

Instead, there is inevitably a “quick start” guide which is supposed to get us up and running fast. We are not encouraged to ask how a product works, or figure out how to look after it – and whatever you do don’t open the back, as it will invalidate the warranty.

We now live in a world in which curiosity and care are discouraged, and in which the instruction manual is slowly but inevitably becoming extinct.

Miodownik makes some good points, and I agree that manufacturers generally discourage curiosity. But that’s not the world we live in. As the first commenter points out, many people do take the time to understand how a product works; they just do it buy jumping in and figuring it out. My general impression is we are living in a golden age of technology curiosity and DIYism. We certainly have access to many more resources for figuring out tech products than we did 20 years ago.

But I do think the decline of manufacturer’s manuals points to a growing gap between technophobes and technophiles. If you’re not the sort of person that seeks out information on your own (a nerd, in other words), the default state is total ignorance. When there’s no packaged explanation, there’s no expectation that you should understand your machines. You have to come to that conclusion on your own.

[via Workplace Learning Today]

A Cartoony Healthcare Reform Explanation (& Possibly Another on the Way)

Here’s a snappy doodle-based explanatory editorial on America’s favorite fightin’ words, from Dan Roam’s Back of the Napkin Blog:

(Incidentally, Roam’s book The Back of the Napkin is a great guide to explaining and problem-solving through simple sketches.)

If you liked that, you might want to fund Health Reform: A Visual Explanation. Chicago artist Ray Noland is seeking investors for a series of animated infographic movies to explain the issues:

We are asking to raise 5k to get started on this project by the time Congress is back in session in September. Ultimately, we will need a bit more to complete the series. As we produce more we are hoping to garner additional support to continue. Our goal is to explain the minutiae of the forth-coming Health Care Reform bill for ourselves and for YOU.

[via Information Aesthetics]

Explainers Playing With Their Food

Here’s another terrific explanatory video. This one meshes stop-motion animation with infographics to explain the importance of eating local food (in this case, Canadian local food).

The Canadian creative houses Oglivy Toronto, CRUSH, and Sons and Daughters created the spot for the Hellman’s Mayonnaise “Eat Real. Eat Local” campaign.

CRUSH creative director Gary Thomas explains what was involved in creating the video here:

We have done other interactive pieces, but this was far and away the biggest single project. For a start, it’s nearly three minutes long, involved a twenty hour shoot with two sets of stop frame animation, a month of CG pre viz where we literally built every shot in CG ahead of time so that everyone could be a part of the process. The schedule had a really tight finishing schedule so we really needed to have all the nuts and bolts worked out before the shoot.

We had a lot of Crush on this project at various points. Stefan Woronko and myself were initially responsible for the creative direction on the Crush side, taking the hard dry statistics and finding different ways to present them in our “world” (a family dinner table). We then added Yoho Yue and Gav Patel who added design and animation elements. The CG team consisted of department head Aylwin Fernando (who didn’t sleep very much), and a team four other animators. We also had four Flame artists led by Greg Dunlop who tracked cleaned roto’d and composited all the shots. We had Kim Knight at Crush Cuts as our editor so we were able the process streamlined.

[via Information Aesthetics]

Explaining Lessons From the Front Lines of Dog Rescue

My wife and I spend many of our Saturdays helping out a with a dog rescue group’s adoption events. Volunteers bring 25 or so adoptable dogs to a Petco in a busy strip mall, line them up in crates outside, and meet the public.

It’s quite the spectacle, and it attracts a diverse crowd. At one extreme, we talk to potential adopters who have researched dog breeds extensively and browsed our Web site to make a list of specific dogs they want to meet. On the other end of the spectrum, we talk to shoppers strolling by who’ve never even heard of dog rescue.



Dog explainists at work. The “Low Prices!” are on dog food, not dogs.

I’m fascinated (if occasionally frustrated) by the people on the confused end of the scale because they’re such perfect explanation test cases. If you don’t know anything about rescue, the sight of two dozen yapping dogs in crates on the sidewalk must be bizarre. I imagine you don’t even know where to begin to make sense of things. Meanwhile, the only explainers around — the volunteers — know so much about dog rescue that it’s hard for them to empathize with your confusion. There’s a huge understanding gap.

Typically, the confused people dive right in with questions. Occasionally, someone will ask, “What’s going on here?” but more often, the first question is something specific like “How much does that dog cost?” or “How do I get a dog?”

When I first started volunteering, I would just answer the questions as they came. But pretty soon I realized some people were only getting more confused, and more convinced I was nuts. My answers didn’t make sense to the questioner because the questioner wasn’t starting with a blank knowledge slate. They had already filled in a few key gaps with assumptions, based on their own guesses.

In the case of dog rescue, confused people typically make one of two incorrect assumptions:

  1. We are operating a business, and we make a profit by selling these dogs.
  2. We are trying to get rid of these dogs as quickly as we can. (i.e. we are a “free puppies” ad on a larger scale.)

If you believe either one of these things, our policies are going to seem counter-intuitive. Adopting a dog from our group involves filling out a six-page application and going through a rigorous week-long screening process — not exactly the behavior you would expect from a money-making venture or a “take my dogs, please” operation. And our adoption fee is more than you would expect to see in a Craigslist puppy ad. When you start with a misconception, it seems like we’re going about things all wrong.

So, I learned to drain these assumptions before pouring more information in. I learned that just about everything I say will be misconstrued unless I explain my motivation first.

In other words, I learned to answer the ideal initial question, instead of the actual initial question. No matter what the actual question was, my opening spiel now goes something like this:

“We’re an all-volunteer non-profit group, and our mission is to find homes for dogs in need. Many of these dogs come from overcrowded county animal shelters or shut-down breeder operations. Some were abandoned by their original owners. We spay or neuter them, give them all their shots, treat any problems and care for them until they are adopted. Since these dogs have had a rough start in life, we spend a lot of time making sure the adopters and dogs are a perfect match.”

If there’s still head-scratching, I may get into statistics on how many dogs have to be euthanized every year because of overpopulation. Despite Bob Barker’s best efforts, a lot of people don’t know anything about this.

Once someone understands what our motivation is, the details of our process and policies make much more sense, even if the whole thing still seems kooky.

This principle applies to most explaining situations. For example, if you’re pitching a business idea, the details are likely to be confusing unless you thoroughly explain the basic purpose of your business first. Your audience is likely to fill in their own rationale for the business, which may not line up with the actual rationale. The details and baseline assumptions won’t match, and confusion will flourish. Or consider how you explain technology. Unless you lay out a machine’s function, details of how the various pieces operate won’t make much sense.

It’s a handy rule. Before you dig in to the specifics, scrub away all incorrect assumptions and clearly explain your motivation. First, answer the best question an audience could have asked, then answer the questions they did ask.