What you get can be what you see.

Data visualisation, infographics and iconography can all be categorised as ‘visual literacy’.

When people talk about literacy they usually mean words not pictures. Being ‘literate’ means being well-read. As in formal education, it’s easy to measure literacy with the traditional yardsticks of form, structure and textual comprehension.

Whilst literacy generally refers to the written word, it’s in pictures that we think, act and remember. From cave paintings to the ‘head-up’ displays in a fighter aircraft, the capacity for imagery or symbols to impart information is far more effective than the written word.

Professor Edward Tufte—the ‘Leonardo da Vinci of data’—describes how using visual symbols is a better way to communicate, because it “gives the viewer the greatest number of ideas in the shortest time with the least ink in the smallest space.” 1

This visual communication of information is a key component in improving knowledge, perception and understanding. The so-called ‘technological revolution’ owes more to a re-think of how information is communicated, than the gizmos that deliver it.

Until Apple broke the mould in 1984, data processing was the domain of IBM programmers in air-tight, sterile rooms. The introduction of personal computing, a ‘language’ of icons and visual shorthand and a new intuitive way of working meant that, for the first time, a computer could be as valuable to an artist as a scientist.

Infographics: improving data communication in bite-sized chunks

The last decade has seen brands adopting an ‘infographic’ presentation of their data, in many ways to keep up with a faster pace of life. Data visualisation saves on words; it compresses information into bite-sized chunks. But most of all, it presents information using visual memory-hooks, recognised symbols and metaphors—which are proven to increase recall, comprehension and deepen understanding.

Data that is visualised, laid out hierarchically and uses graphics that resonate with its target audience is more likely to improve response.

How data visualisation will improve your presentations

It’s worth remembering that being brief, on-point and clear should be top of mind if you’re in the habit of making business presentations. The ubiquitous PowerPoint remains a very effective presentation tool, but quite often the presenter uses it in a visually illiterate manner, filling each slide with paragraphs of copy and lists of bullet points. Far better to present that same information using photographs, visual metaphors, film, audio clips and animation.  Visual literacy involves visual thinking and intelligent ‘mind-mapping’ techniques to present information in the most memorable way. A good example of the use of a visual metaphor would be the roots and branches of a tree to illustrate concepts of production line working and interdependency.

A study by Professor Martin Eppler showed that managers who worked with visualisation tools experienced a 30% greater understanding and recall of a topic than those who did not.2

In today’s visual age, successful communication is personal, visual and informal. Jay Cross has concluded that 80% of learning is informal 3; that is, outside the traditional business presentation environment. Today’s learners can ‘live’ in gaming environments, challenging their emotions and decision-making skills to the full. They have far more advanced visual thinking capacity because of vast increase in the volume of visual stimuli they’re exposed to.

Add in the positive proof of neuro-scientific studies of brain function related to design and visual stimulus and it’s easy to understand why designers and marketers are turning to more visually-led ways of communicating their messages.

Use data visualisation to get your message across with impact

Putting data visualisation to work creatively is fine in theory. In practice it is rarely used to maximum effect. For example, just select a random global brand’s corporate website—particularly those operating in a business-to-business environment—the infographics you find will invariably be in the generic ‘clip-art’ style. The message may be being presented using data visualisation, but in a staid, forgettable way.

Data viz has become so expected that its original impact is waning. The challenge now is to create visualisations that have character and personality and are unique to the brand or message. Nicholas Fenton, in his book Photoviz: Visualising information through Photography 4, has looked at how brands are telling stories using powerful photographic images correlating the same data as a flat graphic might, but in a more engaging way.

It’s in the arts and in visual literacy that we develop our imaginations, exercise our visual skills and emotional creativity. It’s where we find our most innovative thinking and entrepreneurial ideas. Designers and marketers can capture the imagination of their clients with a more creative use of data viz.

If you are struggling to visualise your message, give us a call and we’ll see if we can improve things. You might find that your customers thank you for it.

Rowan (Creative Marketing) Ltd.

Think. Design. Deliver.

01829 771772


1 Edward R. Tufte, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information

2 RoCC Management Insights, Prof. Martin Eppler on Visualizing Knowledge for management

3 Jay Cross, The Real Learning Project.

4 Nicholas Fenton, Photoviz: Visualising information through photography