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Pluck yourself from the learning desert, where lost travelers search for wisdom among dunes of data and mountains of meaninglessness to discover a once-lost oasis—understanding.
Blending ancient communication methods with modern design ingenuity,, a visual design firm based in St. Louis’ historic Soulard district, designs learning products and interfaces that take you from zero to understanding in seconds. One snowy day in December, I took the epic journey to learn their secrets by speaking with founder and President Dave Gray. I soon discovered we cross the learning desert on camels, when we could drive Ferraris straight to the oasis.
Indeed, this oasis must be seen to be believed. Putting in words what I have seen was difficult, so I used some imagery and imagination. Have you ever tried to explain how search engines work? Even if you have a gift for analogies and your hands communicate with the grace of a hula dancer, the task can be daunting. Check out Xplane’s approach to see what I mean.
In laymen’s terms, here is the basic concept: Xplane will arrange any information into a concise, eye-catching visual display of graphics, words, and colors. The visual story-map, called an Xplanation, can be rapidly understood by just about anyone.
Put the camel out to pasture and take a few minutes to read up on the finer points of the learning Ferrari.
Sikes: How did you come up with the idea of blending art and information as a vehicle for more rapid understanding?
Gray: It started from the realization that learning is a lot of work. Most of us agree, today people have more to learn and less time to learn it. Our world is increasingly complex, and as a society, we need to commit ourselves to learning as a life-long discipline. So how do we keep up?
Traditional education tends to present information based on the easiest way to teach, as opposed to the easiest way to learn. This approach transfers the bulk of the learning work from the teacher to the individual learner. The question for me then becomes, “How can we do more of the learning work, so people can learn more rapidly?”
When you listen to a teacher or read a book, your imagination draws you a picture of what you are reading or hearing. Your brain is attempting to construct an image or mental model of the concepts. It’s trying to help you learn.
More than half your brain is used for processing visual input. This imaging process is constantly going on, bridging the gap between information and understanding. If you can be presented with a picture when you sit down to learn, 80% of the work of learning can be eliminated.
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Sikes: How do you create an accurate picture, especially when we’re continually mapping information to our own personal experiences?
Gray: This is key. For the Xplanation to work, we have to create a true picture. Creating this true picture involves a variety of perspectives and teamwork. When we explain the value proposition of a company, we might speak to an engineer, a marketer, a CEO, and a salesperson. A true picture must take multiple perspectives into account. This is where bringing an outside viewpoint can be extremely valuable. But it isn’t enough to have a variety of perspectives. You also have to think like the person who will ultimately be the consumer of the information. Start the story from where the end-user starts.
The value of a visual display increases as it becomes more relevant to the end-user. Ask yourself: If I were an end-user, what questions would I ask and where would the story start for me? One of the best questions I think of is, “Why should I care?”
Make sure you get everyone’s perspective, start your story at the beginning, consider your audience, and then simply tell the truth.
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Sikes: Truth in marketing and mass communication pieces? This could be a pronounced differentiator in an era known for spin-doctor.
Gray: I believe marketing is about presenting a true picture and then trusting the reader to make their own decisions. I hope to raise the bar for all marketers to a point where they are forced to communicate more clearly.
Sikes: With your work displayed in such respected media venues as Business 2.0, Harper’s Magazine, Scientific American, and Time, and an equally impressive corporate client list, you are certainly on your way. Why do you think the concept you’re building appeals to clients and end-users alike?
Gray: For learning to be effective, it has to be compelling, engaging, and respectful of people’s time. We design with all of those requirements in mind. High quality and care for accuracy are critical if meaningful learning is to occur. Well designed visual displays respect people’s time. Good designers force themselves to be concise in small spaces.
There’s a tendency to put technology on a pedestal when you are trying to communicate its value. You have to show how it is relevant to people. Put people in the story, even when you are focused on the functions of a network. It makes a connection that you’ll never get with a drawing of a network cloud and a bunch of servers.
If the end-user values the information, feels a connection, and finds the design visually appealing, they might pin it up on the wall next to their desk to serve as a reminder. At the very least, they file the visual display away for future reference. Maybe we are going back to hieroglyphics or paintings on church walls. You can learn while being visually pleased and entertained.
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One of our clients recently told me about a customer who came into his office with a bent, worn-looking, year and a half-old graphic map. When the customer received the map, he had not been ready to buy, but because it was useful and appealing to him, he kept the map. The customer clearly understood the information and saw how it could apply directly to his future needs. He kept the picture around to remind him. He had already decided to buy, should certain conditions arise. They did, and he did.
It’s similar to the pizza coupon flyers. What do you do with them when you get them?
Sikes: Put them on the refrigerator!
Gray: Exactly! And when you’re hungry, you go to open the refrigerator door and see the pizza coupon. It is very utilitarian. In most offices, though, utility is only half the equation. You need to make a human connection and appeal to peoples’ eyes and minds, if you want them to hang your map like a piece of art in their office.
Think about it; how often have you received an inch-thick packet of information in the mail from a company who interests you? You might leaf through it, but when you clean off your desk, you probably save one page from the packet, at most. Or you might just throw it all out because you don’t have time to search for that one key page you really want. A picture can communicate the key contents of the packet without taking up the file space.
Sikes: When do you think a visual map should be used?
Gray: Any place where you are unwilling to take the risk that someone might misunderstand you or fail to come away from an encounter with the necessary information. You may have a value proposition that cannot be communicated easily. You may have a disagreement within your company on a key issue or set of issues. You might want everyone in your company to understand a new strategy or vision.
Sikes: There you have it! You can cross the desert on a camel, spending 80% more time to reach the oasis of understanding or… Ferrari anyone?
Dave Gray, founder and president of Xplane, has a zeal for helping people learn and a recognized talent for visual design. His work has been recognized by Print Magazine, the Associated Press, and the Society of Newspaper Design. He can be reached online at email@example.com.
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