About being sensible

Missives from Hothouse Design

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How unfettered creativity makes you look stupid

Deirdre Wilson – Monday, May 01, 2017   


Use the visual language that matches your audienceI found the example for this post on a blog from a company that was all about providing the mechanism for you to explain stuff to your audience. I am not going to reveal where I found it because that is just pointing the finger at someone’s poor performance.

Instead I want to use this to explain the trap that they fell into because I have seen a few organisations fall into this trap recently and some of them should have known better.

The key to not making a complete cock-up of explaining stuff is to understand that all audiences will have an existing visual language that they already understand. More than just understanding that this is the case, you need to respect that visual language. Just the same as you respect the language spoken by people in Mykonos and don’t attempt to speak to them in Mandarin, so you need to respect the visual language understood by your audience and not attempt to make them understand a different visual language.

From an utterly pragmatic point of view, think of it this way: you need to communicate something to an audience and you want to do it quickly. Then the best approach is to do it in the language they already understand.

Use the visual language that matches your audience

It is entirely different if you are training an audience in a specialist discipline. In that case the audience needs to learn the language of that discipline. For example: you are teaching people how to communicate between ships and the convention is to use flags. You wouldn’t train that audience in smoke signal because they wouldn’t be understood.

So, to the example I have for this story:

The deconstructed donut graph. This is a layer cake of madness that no-one should have to attempt to understand. Donut graphs are bad enough before they are deconstructed (more about that particular bit of insanity here). Pie charts (of which donut graphs are a subset) rely on the angle created by the shape of the segment – like the arms on a clock face. They trade on us being able to read time on an analogue clock and 'see' the divisions of ¼, ½ and ¾. And they work best when the first segment starts at the topmost 12 o’clock position because that matches how we read time. This is our existing visual language for understanding segments of a total or how 100% of something is made up of bits.

Deconstructing the pie chart by taking out the centre removes the angle that the clock arms would make which that is the first bit of madness, but it is still possible to 'read' some basic, big chunky numbers like ¼, ½ and ¾ see below.

So you could create a shape that looks mostly like ¾ (because ¾ = 75%) and label it with 70% and your audience will understand.

Now to the example I found recently - this odd orange diagram. Here the designer has taken a segment out and flipped it to face the opposite direction which has removed every visual clue available. The result relies completely on the addition of the numbers to explain it. It distorts the visual language to a point of being unreadable. What’s more, it is a stupid thing to do because if there is already a visual language that is understood then the smarter move is to work within that visual language and use it to transport your content to your audience.

Not only are you making it hard for your audience but you look like you are trying to make it hard. That puts you in the position of appearing to either be hard to get along with or to be disrespectful of your audience’s time. But if that is the image you are going for then you know how to achieve it!

Be careful of people wanting to do something fresh and new, or something different. You have to decide if this is the right place to make changes and what the impact of that change will be. Being creative should not be the end, it should only ever by the means to the end.

And this is the trap: most people get tired of their own stuff and want to change it because they are bored. But think about your audience – they are unlikely to be seeing you stuff as often as you see it. So don't make changes just to entertain yourself.

This post is by Deirdre Wilson, Director of Hothouse Design in Melbourne Australia.

Why am I writing these blogs? Because experience transforms information into knowledge even when those experiences aren't your own. So we share experiences that we have collected over a long time to help readers transform information into knowledge.

We have a passion for process and explanation and we are really good at helping people explain stuff. Information design is the skill of presenting data in context that is relevant to an audience so that they can transform it into knowledge via experience.

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