Communicating Beyond Words

By Wayne Sebastian Pereanu
Release Date : 2019 Q3

"Anybody can do visual design," said Yael Fitzpatrick, as she opened a workshop on visual communication at DCSWA's 2019 Professional Development Day. Fitzpatrick, consulting art director and brand manager of Gazelle Design Consultancy, shared over a dozen visual design tips in her talk "Communicating Visually: Sharing Science Beyond Words". Participants then got a chance to get their hands dirty by designing visual imagery to help share stories.

The first principle covered was that visual communications starts with the same two questions as written communication: Typography matters. After admonishing the use of Comic Sans (which was described as "the sweatpants of fonts"), Fitzpatrick advised sticking to non-flashy typefaces. She also recommended limiting works to two typefaces, or maybe three at most, to provide a sense of cohesion.

Fitzpatrick emphasized the importance of using metaphors as a way to make content approachable and memorable for an audience. She shared a childhood memory of receiving a subscription to Omni magazine and reading an article about black holes. The article described the pull of a black hole as hanging off a bridge with the population of Canada pulling down on your ankles. Fitzpatrick posited that the imagery evoked by this metaphor made it memorable for her, and that it's stuck around over the years because of it. She encouraged us to similarly find metaphors to help connect with our audiences.

An assortment of specific suggestions were sprinkled throughout the talk. These tips ranged from avoiding word clouds (described as "the equivalent of 100 people talking at once in the same tone and volume") to remembering to take into consideration that your audience may include those who are color blind. The importance of simplicity and humor was demonstrated with Randall Munroe's description of the Saturn V rocket (aka "Up Goer Five") using only the 1,000 most common words in the English language.

After a twenty-minute crash course into the nuts and bolts of design, workshop participants split up into groups of three or four to practice what had been taught. People were encouraged to share stories they might want to tell. For the next hour, each group discussed how to best visually depict a handful of stories. Questions such as "What is the message you want to convey?" and "Do you have a metaphor you could use to show that?" echoed the lessons that had just been taught. The workshop concluded with each group presenting one of their stories along with the visual component that they had developed.