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When a picture is worth 119 words

Information Design

June 26, 2014

When a picture is worth 119 words

Storytelling and infographics are both popular, powerful and overused tools. Maslow's hammer theory – if all you have is a hammer then everything looks like a nail seems alive and well demonstrated in the overuse of storytelling and infographics. The key to being effective with these tools is to make sure you are using the tool that will best do the job.

If I want to explain something about family dynamics I can either tell you a story or show you a picture. In order to understand the story you need to be able to see the relationships in your mind as I tell it to you. If I show you a picture instead, you need to be able to read the visual language that I am using.

There is a role for both storytelling and pictures/infographics. Storytelling is a powerful way of sharing values, ideas and concepts. But in some instances the picture wins out - big time. It is easier to understand how one thing connects to another with a diagram that with a story. Imagine describing a flow chart with all its conditional content – uurgh! Family relationships are one of those times where a picture works better than a story because there is a special type of diagram designed to do just this job. Family relationships are best described using genograms which are little gems. I'll show you why.

If all you have is a hammer then everything looks like a nail
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Here's the story: Peter and Susan met and they fell for each other. Susan was two years younger than Peter when they met, and still is if I do my math correctly. Soon enough they were blessed with the arrival of Gemma, a bouncing baby girl. Four years later Sam came along, a bonny little boy. After a while things changed and Peter and Susan were no longer able to live under the same roof. So they split up. Peter found Emily who is seven years his junior and they set up home. Thirteen years after the arrival of Peter's first child Gemma, Michael was born to Emily. The part of this family we want to concentrate on is Susan and her children Gemma and Sam. Now here's the picture. It contains the same information that is in the story above.

Genograms show family relationships. The visual language in use is easy to work out by looking at the genogram: squares for males, circles for females, parents on the top line with children below and a double // for a broken relationship. Highlight the part of the relationship you are describing with colour and you are done. They are so simple, quite specialised in their use but are a very powerful way of describing a set of relationships.

Genograms are a specific type of infographic – they convey information in a graphic format. But, the basic structure of parent on the top line with children below, generally denoted by shape, can be used to describe and parent / child relationship whether the parents and children are human or structural. Infographics and storytelling are both powerful tools to use when they are used to maximum affect. The key is using the right tool for the job. Make sure you don't fall into Maslow's hammer trap!