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Part 1 of 3 - Concept Visualization: Bring the intangible to life in your presentations

Welcome! This is 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!

What is concept visualization and why does it matter?

What is it - Similar to data visualization, concept visualization is the act of creating images that accurately communicate and portray, intangible idea that doesn’t involve numerical data.

What it's not - It’s not data visualization. It’s not just “flow charts” either. Data visualization is its own bag of beans. There are tons of rules and best practices that apply specifically to bringing data to life visually - but this series will not cover those. It will, however, pull from very useful design principles that are prominent in data visualization.

Why it’s important today - Our world is becoming increasingly intangible. With the rise of new technologies and ways of working, creating intellectual property has become a primary driver of employee and organizational differentiation. If we, as highly visual beings, are unable to describe an intangible idea or concept in a visually tangible way, others won’t be able to understand it. We will have failed at taking that idea and planting it accurately in the minds of our audience. If people don’t understand something quickly, the idea or concept has nearly all of its wind taken out of its sails. It’s dead in the water. This could mean that a critical decision was overlooked, a process not put into place, a new technology snickered out of the building. The list goes on.

In this example of visualizing a process for on-boarding a new client, I've created a linear, left-to-right flow and used brand colors very sparingly to call attention to the current stop (purple).

What happens when it goes wrong?

If we don’t understand, we don’t act - Why bother learning how to visualize concepts? For the exact same reason it’s important to learn data visualization: if we cannot accurately portray intangible concepts, people don’t understand. When people don’t understand, we don’t act. When’s the last time that you saw a confusing, highly complex (albeit accurate) diagram and said “hell yes, this looks amazing! Let’s put this into action right away”? I don’t think I’ve ever said that even when a visual is easy to understand. Just imagine what others are thinking when they look at a complex, messy, hard to read, visual that needs a voiceover to explain what they’re looking at.

What happens when it goes right?

Action stems from understanding – I’m not sure if there are any research studies out there that back this up, but I’m convinced that the secret getting someone to do something that you think is a good idea is to simply make them understand things the way you understand them. Presenting the information that you know is convincing in a way that is clear, simple, compelling, and easy-to-understand is the vast majority of the battle. The remaining 10 - 20% of the job is the person’s past experiences that perhaps are telling them they shouldn’t listen to you, or shouldn’t believe what you’re saying, or even should do the opposite of what you’re suggesting. This is what’s known as “going with your gut” - and sometimes, people love this way of making decisions. It’s actually proved to be a very effective decision making system. But, in today’s business world of overflowing with MBA grads and data-centric decision makers - the best course of action for making an argument is to make it logical with a splash of emotion (more on this later) and most importantly, easy to understand.

The only way to visualize a timeline is to visualize them as an actual timeline. A vertical, bulleted list for something that clearly should be represented left-to-right is no good! Use a timeline.

What makes a concept visual easy to understand?

Understood quickly, and on its own - To me, being “easy to understand” means two things: 1) can something be understood quickly (in a few seconds) and 2) can it be understood without someone else having to explain it.

1) Understood quickly - If a diagram or chart is placed in front of you and you don’t understand it within 60 seconds without someone to explain it to you, odds are you’ll get frustrated and move on. I’m guessing if this was researched, it would likely be a fraction of that. My recommendation is to assume that your audience has an attention span of microseconds. Visuals need to at least look like they’re simple and easy to understand. If they look simple, odds are your audience or viewer will think the concept is simple to understand. And if they think that, their pride will compel them to put more effort into understanding the visual. No one wants to themselves or anyone else that they can’t understand something that’s seems so darn simple!

2) Understood on its own - Documents and presentation decks today get passed around more than a joint at a Pink Floyd concert. The vast majority of the time, the document creator is not there to explain everything in it to the reader. This means the reader is left totally on their own to decide what the flippin’ heck the author or designers were trying to say when they created the document. Since this is the vast majority of circumstances, it’s important that we as professional document creators (which is what we all are) recognize this. Odds are, we won’t be there to guide that important decision maker through our document, answering their questions as we go. We need to make our documents work as hard as they possibly can without us actually being there when they’re viewed.

Whenever possible, I like to use basic shapes to represent individual elements. Here, I use circles to represent quantity and magnitude of a before and after state. On the left, we see more, smaller elements (or elements of less magnitude) and on the right, we see fewer elements of greater magnitude. Communicating with a few shapes what has taken dozens of words to describe.

What are a few best practices?

One visual per concept - If you have a concept you need to visualize, keep referring to the same visual whenever you refer to the same concept. Got a process that has five steps and a document that talks through those five steps in more detail? Introduce the overall process visual first, and then include that process visual at the beginning of each section that talks through a different step; bonus points for highlighting the specific step you’re about to talk through.

Max three different visuals per presentation - Too many complex visualizations and our brain gets overwhelmed. Three generally seems like a good number to cap concept visuals at. Let’s apply this to a complex example - image you had to give a presentation to talk through all of the components of a train engine. Lots of parts means lots of visuals, right? Nope. There’s only one engine! The parts, when put together, make up that engine as a whole. So instead of creating dozens of different visuals for each part, introduce the engine as a whole first, and then highlight the specific parts on your engine visual as you talk through each of them. Before you say it, yes I’m aware that certain parts are inside the engine - since that’s the case, you’ll need a visual that shows different layers of the engine itself. This way of thinking is the beginning of starting to think like a concept visualizer.

Use it like crazy - Once a visual is made, it’s important to use it as much as possible. Repeat the visual several times in the same document, reuse it across multiple documents, make a smaller version of it and put it in the corner of each page. A great visual can be an incredible anchor to remind others about something like a process, a strategy, or a business model.

Avoid multiple versions - Having many different visuals floating around an organization of the same concept can be very confusing. Which one is it? Version control and keeping others updated is incredibly important. Try not to make lots of smaller tweaks that are distributed en-masse. Instead, only send out a new visual once it’s been finalized and blessed by whomever needs to bless it.

Use it as a reference - My favorite thing to do when I’ve visualized a concept for a presentation is to show the visual as a whole when introducing the concept, then as I walk through the informational elements that make up that master visualization, I grey out the areas I’m not talking about. This is done by putting a shape that is the same color as your background over the areas you’d like to grey out - then reducing the opacity to 80% or so. This is a really easy way to draw the eyes to a specific section of your visual.

What program should I use to actually create my visual?

There’s no right answer, but I’ve got some suggestions.

PowerPoint - I live and breathe PowerPoint as it’s still the industry standard for presentations. So, naturally, it’s my go-to choice for visuals. A critical tool for visuals that most don’t even know exists in PowerPoint is the Merge Shapes tool. It’s found under the Shape Format tab and is clickable when you have more than two shapes selected. This handy tool can merge and slice overlapping shapes to create more complex shapes. Let's say you need a triangle in the middle of a circle. This series of shapes looks like a triangle in the middle, with three, semi-circles on each side of the triangle that make up the circle. Overlapping a triangle with a circle and then using the Fragment option within the Merge Shapes tool breaks each of these shapes out into its own, customizable shape. You can make each semi-circle a different color, and then delete the triangle in the middle so the background shows through.

Illustrator - If you’re a graphic designer, you likely have Adobe Illustrator. I shouldn’t have to tell you that it’s a much more powerful tool than PowerPoint - but keep in mind, if your end user needs to update that visual, they’re going to need your help. Your visuals will ultimately end up looking better, but that comes at the cost of editability.

Web-based - Draw.io is an okay, free alternative if you don’t have access to either of the above tools. I also haven’t used it much, so I can’t fully vouch for its functionality. But, hey, it’s free.

While simple, this visual describes four core values of a company - while at the center of those values are two distinct types of people. All other values revolve around them and stem from them.

What if I have to visualize concepts a lot?

Build a visual library - As a creative strategist in the ad world, I needed to visualize new concepts pretty much every week. Having a “visual library” to pull from comes in really handy. A visual library is a collection of concept visuals that you’ve seen and want to remember for later. This can be either a digital library, a physical one, or a mental one. A digital library could be a Pinterest board, a folder on your laptop, or a collection of Evernotes. A physical one could be a bunch of sketches in a journal, or a book or two you’ve purchased on visualization. A mental one is the easiest - just remember great graphs you’ve seen. But, if you’ve got a bad memory, then you should document visuals you admire. Borrowing from these collected visual could mean using a similar directional flow, macro-element stylings, or even just the way an arrow is designed

Here are the slides part one:

Next up: Part 2 - What makes for an effective concept visual?

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