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Part 3 of 3 - Concept Visualization: Bring the intangible to life in your presentations

Welcome! This is the final part in a three-part series on Concept Visualization. It's a ton of content - text, videos, and slides - but by the end of the series, you'll know how to bring to life intangible ideas with stunning, easy-to-understand, visuals in your next presentation. Let's get it!

If you haven't see Part One or Part Two - I suggest you read those first.

This one's a doozy - This part is much longer than the other two. I cover more design-related concepts here so it takes a bit of explaining. I highly recommend watching the video as well for a more concrete example.

What’s the process for creating a concept visual?

Understand it. Sketch it. Design it. Edit it.

Put simply, you need to try a bunch of different things and see what works.

I follow these steps:

  1. Understand what it is you’re visualizing

  2. Sketch it out on paper or with basic shapes first

  3. Get your basic design down

  4. Edit for our criteria of beautiful, simple, scannable, and directional along the way.

1. Understand It

It may seem simple, but it's easy to overlook this part. Let’s say you’ve done some research on various demographic segments and want to visualize your findings on how they relate to each other. First, you should be able to describe those relationships either in verbal or written form without any visual aids.

Not everyone has the time to write out the exact details of the concept they need to visualize - so often times, just describing it to a colleague is enough to help crystallize what it the concept actually is. If you find yourself automatically trying to sketch things out at this step, that’s okay too. Sketching at this early stage usually helps uncover knowledge gaps that you can then go back and fill in yourself before advancing to the next step. My top recommendation here is to write it out first.

Why? Describing an intangible concept in written word is hard! It’s easy to describe something like a baseball, but describing how credit card payment process works? Not so much. Also, writing it out helps get your mistakes out of the way and gives you content to pull from later on when you need to add in some text. Emphasis on the “some.”

In the video above, I walk through how I design a concept using an example from a colleague. These slides were among the source material.

2. Sketch It

“The first draft of anything is sh*t” is a quote often attributed to Ernest Hemingway. Why I love this quote is because it cuts right to it - often times the first iteration of something isn’t very good.

For concept visualization, this means that you need to iterate. Iterating with a specific set of questions in mind is even better. In general, these questions can be grouped into two overarching themes: what are the elements that need to be represented, and how do they need to be represented?

  • What - What are the elements of the concept or idea we’re visualizing? Can those elements be grouped into overarching macro-elements? Can those elements need to be broken down into micro-elements?

  • How - How do these elements need to be represented?Flowing inward to the center of a circle? Flowing outward from the center of a circle? Left-to-right horizontal flow? Top to bottom vertical flow?

  • Avoid: right to left visuals. Our eyes won’t naturally start at the right side of a page - they start either in the center, at the top, or on the left depending on layout.

Now that you’ve got these questions in mind, it’s time to sketch.

I recommend grabbing a pen and a few sheets of printer paper or a whiteboard if you’ve got one and just getting to it. Boxes, columns, arrows, circles, or whatever you need. The goal is to try at least three to five different ways to visualize the concept. Each time you create a new sketch, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is it simple? What elements can you eliminate or combine? Can you do with a few less arrows, boxes, or circles?

  • Is it accurate-ish? Does the directional flow of elements accurately represent the concept? Are the macro-elements fitting together in a way that is accurate?

In my first sketch using Powerpoint - I laid out the macro elements first in a linear left-to-right flow.

In my second sketch in PowerPoint, I used an expanding circle with a cycle representing the Consumer Journey. The macro-elements went around the outside according to their stage.

WATCH OUT - One major caution I’ll throw out is this: making something more accurate, often leads to a visual being more complex. If you are able to balance accuracy with simplicity, you’ve just aced your visual. Let’s say you’ve got two sketches to choose from: one is more simple, but slightly less accurate; and the other is much more complex, and slightly more accurate. In this case, always go with the more simple sketch. It’s okay to sacrifice a few minor details for the sake of simplicity. Would you rather have your audience understand the overall concept with a simple visual or have their eyes glaze over and not understand anything because the visual was too complex? I know which one I’d choose!

Would you rather have your audience understand the overall concept with a simple visual or have their eyes glaze over and not understand anything because the visual was too complex?

3. Design It

The Design It and Edit it steps are usually blended into one, mushy design phase. But, for instructional purposes I’m going to split these into two phases. Open up your design tool of choice. I prefer PowerPoint as not everyone has Illustrator and most would like the ability to adjust the visual after it's made. Here’s the design process I use:

  1. Decide on look and feel - A beautiful visual means making that visual match whatever branding you’re working with. Colors, fonts, and design elements such as lines, arrows, shapes, and icon styles all need to be taken into consideration. Odds are, we aren’t starting from scratch. There’s likely something out there we can pull from to mirror in our visual. Matching the visual branding of the documentation where our visual will ultimately sit alongside creates uniformity, and the human mind worships uniformity because it’s calming. And remember that a calm brain is a happy, open minded brain. The exact type of brain we want when presenting our visual.

  2. Block out macro-elements - Got four columns with elements inside each column? Make four vertical rectangles and space them out evenly, drawing vertical lines in between each so your columns are evenly spaced. Once you delete the rectangles, you’ve got four, perfectly even columns. You can use this same “blocking” technique for anything. Think of this process like creating the lines you’ll eventually be “coloring in” - or filling with elements in our case. Remember to use your sketch as a reference for this step.

  3. Lay in micro-elements - This step is different every time. Sometimes I start with icons, sometimes with labels. Sometimes I do one section at a time, sometimes I skip around. It doesn’t matter as long as elements are kept within the blocks laid out in the previous step and align with the decided look and feel.

The above four design iterations show my process of going from a first design through a semi-final.

4. Edit It

Now that the general design elements are all there, it’s time to make it look better. There really is no clear transition between this step and the previous, but generally speaking this needs to start once all of your elements on on the page. A few things to look for when editing:

Reduce outlines and shadows - Outlines are clutter. Shadows are clutter. A box with an outline draws our eyes away from what’s important: the content within the box. A shadow does the same thing. Ditch both of them. The only exception is using shadows on screenshots or when showing physical devices like a smartphone or laptop.

Use a limited color palette - More colors means more clutter. Stick to the color palette of your look and feel. This usually means a max of three or four colors, excluding a black. Tonal variation of the same color still counts as one color. So a light, medium, and dark red all count as one color. Using tonal variations is a great way to differentiate elements while still maintaining simplicity and keeping clutter as low as possible.

Use one font family - A font family, such as Helvetica or Roboto, always comes with multiple weights - or thickness of each character within that font family. For instance, Roboto Thin, Roboto Light, Roboto Regular, Roboto Semibold, Roboto Bold, Roboto Extrabold. Make your macro-element labels big and bold, while micro-element labels are smaller and use a lighter weight font face.

Use icons in the same style - The three major type of icon styles are filled, lineal (or outlined), and flat. Lineal and flat icons are considered more modern right now. Don’t use a combination of filled, lineal, and flat icons - stick with one. Varying the size of your icons based on whether representing macro or micro-elements is a good way to continue to emphasize that visual hierarchy and draw the eye to the most important elements first.

The chaos-clutter exception - The one exception to the declutter rule is when you need to portray something that is complex, or chaotic and you’re looking to convince your audience that it’s a bad thing. Showing a complex and chaotic visual of a process that is actually complex and chaotic is a killer way to put a bad taste in your audience’s mouth surrounding that process.

Check for visual hierarchy - The most important elements need to be seen first. How do you know what’s most important? Think of your visual hierarchy like an organizational chart. At the top, you’ve got your leadership. These are the key faces of a company. If someone is learning about the company, they are the most important people to be introduced to first. In concept visualization, these would be macro-elements; big, overarching themes that a lot of micro-elements fall into. Creating a heavy elements means making it large, bold, and contrasting in color to the background. Micro-elements need to be “lighter” on the page than our macro-elements. Smaller fonts, less bold, more subtle colors.

Check for consistency - Since we’re also going for uniformity, similar elements must be kept graphically similar, such as macro-element labels. For instance, if we’ve got four text labels for four macro-elements, each of our four labels should be exactly the same typeface and font size. This same concept applies to everything else on our page - arrows, icons, boxes, etc.

Here's the final version of the concept visual I landed on. The big white shape to the left immediately draws our attention to the services. Our eyes then drift naturally to the right to view the output and how they map to the Consumer Journey.

Here are the slides Part Three:

And lastly, here's a big deck of examples:

Wrapping up.

Hopefully this series has been useful and you've got some more killer tools to use in your next presentation.

If you enjoyed this content series - follow me on LinkedIn for more.

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