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Make the Complex Understandable: Show, Don't Tell

by Patti Shank

February 14, 2011


by Patti Shank

February 14, 2011

“[V]isual representations, when well designed, often have the power to do what words alone cannot: reveal what is hidden, make the complex easier to understand, and make the obscure more observable. They concisely summarize complex information into attractive visuals.”

Imagine you’re reading an article about the lack of scientific evidence for the most popular dietary supplements. Folic acid, probiotics, green tea, resveratol, aloe vera, zinc, vitamin D, and so on. But you’re confused. “Wait,” you think, “Didn’t they just say there’s strong evidence for fish oil? Now they’re saying the evidence is only slightly promising.” Well, which is it?

Now imagine this same information delivered as a visual representation showing the strength of the evidence for various supplements for a variety of health problems (Figure 1). The stronger the evidence, the closer it is to the top. You see that fish oil is near the top, showing that there’s strong evidence for its use for high blood pressure and secondary heart disease. But look. There’s a line from fish oil down to another bubble a tad north of the “worth it” line, meaning that the strength of the evidence for fish oil for general health is much less than it is for high blood pressure and secondary heart disease. Ah, that explains the confusion. The strength of the evidence is different for different conditions.


infographic showing different food types and how they are as dietary supplements

Figure 1. Strength of scientific evidence for dietary supplements infographic (Source:


The problem with many text explanations is that words get confusing when conveying complex relationships. And there are many complex relationships to explain in instruction. How things work. What’s related to what. How varying circumstances affect outcomes. And the explanations of these relationships too often become muddied or downright incomprehensible in a wall of words.

Concise, understandable, memorable, and fun

Enter visualizations or information graphics (commonly called infographics), stage right. Visualizations or information graphics are visuals specifically created to represent, instruct, or to disseminate information in a visual format. Traditionally, visualizations have included charts, maps, or diagrams. But there are many other types of visualizations and infographics in wide use today and you’ll see a bunch of examples in this article. For the rest of this article I’ll be using the term infographics to mean a wide range of visual representations whose goal is to inform and explain in a concise visual format.

You see infographics all around you and you use them without even thinking. For example, look at Figure 2 for a split second and tell me what it is.


map of NYC subway system

Figure 2. I’m not telling you what this is but I bet you know.


When you looked at Figure 2, I’m betting you knew immediately that you were looking at a subway map. This particular subway map is for the Washington D.C. subway (Source:

We often see infographics used in news, science, and business communications but we don’t see too many of them used in instruction. And that’s a shame, because they can be very powerful for learning. Here’s why. These types of visual representations, when well designed, often have the power to do what words alone cannot. They can reveal what is hidden (where the transfer points are along the subway), make the complex easier to understand (where the stations are located and what “lines” they are on), and make the obscure more observable (how you can transfer to bus lines to get to local airports). They concisely summarize complex information into attractive visuals.

Well-designed infographics have perceptual, motivational, and cognitive characteristics that make them exceptionally valuable for instructional content, including improving:

  • Clarity and conciseness

  • Ability to make sense of complex information

  • Focus on key information

  • Engagement and ease of remembering

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One of the best articles I read in this magazine.
Great article, examples and resources.
Thanks for the comments!
I agree with the comment below. A fantastic article. I loved how Patti made it so actionable.
Wonderful article. Oh, and as a resident of Washington, D.C., I immediately recognized our beloved metro map! -:)
Great article. I am sharing this with my co-workers.
Excellent article! Thanks so much.
Joe, I used the DC metro because I'm a long time DCer. ;-) (Even though I'm in the wild west these days...)
Nice article - but it omits one important point. Not everyone can see graphics. Some people have limited or no vision, or have difficulty distinguishing some colours. It is important to make information available in text format as well. The simplest way to do this is usually with a well-thought out 'alt-text' description that goes with the graphic. Or you might make the data behind the graphic available in tabular or text format. This will help people with vision loss, and people who really want the actual numbers.
Information Graphics... really an interesting thing I had not given much thought to... until now..
Very grateful to Bill Brandon for sharing this article on LinkedIn on the ASTD National group there. I have always loved when people express information in a compelling way, whether through fine arts, graphic arts, writing, or even music or dance.

It seems to me infographics have taken off in a way that conveys information so completely, succinctly, and often beautifully that they have almost become an art form in themselves.

What a great summary of the variety of ways they can be used, and an expanded definition of what they are and can be. Patti, congratulations on a keen and informative collection. I look forward to sharing with others in a wide variety of disciplines who will appreciate it.
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