Getting the message across: art for communication’s sake

When you spend your days at a computer working on a wide range of communication materials (blogs, HTML email campaigns, magazine articles, brochures, booklets, learning materials, user manuals), several things are inevitable. Some are physical: tired eyes and a bad back are symptoms of the modern hack. Some are psychological side-effects of over-familiarity. As a ‘creative’, I’m probably prone to finding the clunky interface of PowerPoint less than lovely, but I suspect it’s as a human being that I’ve become horribly over familiar with its output. Even in skilled hands, it’s not a communication tool of choice, and we should bear in mind it was designed and marketed specifically for amateurs. We’ve had a pop at PowerPoint before, coming to the conclusion that “guns don’t kill ideas, bullet lists do”. And in the greater scheme of things, it’s not that big a jump from gangster rap to Brian Sewell …

Last weekend, I found myself unexpectedly being interviewed for a community radio station about a (stunningly good) exhibition of contemporary sculpture at Gloucester Cathedral called Crucible. I’m no sculptor – I’ve exhibited as an fine art calligrapher, but it’s a very different medium – but my art school and art practitioner friends have educated me patiently over the years: the deciding factor for interviewing me was probably that I was a) free, and b) originally from Thames Ditton, so I can ‘do’ Brian Sewell (pardoning the expression.) The reason for the interview was simply to encourage people to go to an extraordinarily fine – and completely free – exhibition, that includes work by the likes of Sir Eduardo Paolozzi, Lynn Chadwick, Antony Gormley and Damien Hirst (visit the exhibition website but note that the exhibition itself ends on Sunday): if you must, you can hear me streamed over the Net on StroudFM over the net between 5 and 7pm this Wednesday. But what struck me most as I merrily compared and contrasted Paolozzi’s Vulcan with Epstein’s Rock Drill was that words have limits. English may be one of the richest and most nuanced languages available to us as a species, but Tim and I were very much ‘dancing about architecture’. Maybe when I hear it back I’ll feel differently, but I suspect what I mostly managed to convey was the enthusiasm of ‘see this, it’s excellent’ rather than the actual art.

It didn’t make the interview, but there was some off-microphone banter about Paolozzi’s towering Vulcan sculpture and the way it’s been placed so that its monumental cubist figure is seen against a backdrop of the magnificent stonework of the cathedral. On the drive to Gloucestershire, the radio had been updating us with the latest on the UK economy (and thankfully lightening the load with The News Quiz). One or two of the phone-ins had seen the public mentioning manufacturing as the overlooked sector of the economy, and one that was in many ways outperforming rivals. It struck me if you wanted to say ‘manufacturing remains important’ you could do it in two very different ways, so I thought I’d try it.

The first would use our old friend, PowerPoint, and might look like this:


Or you can paint a picture (or be lazy and point a camera at one), that might look more like this:

Paolozzi's Vulcan

It turns out I’m not alone in thinking visual messages can convey more than words, particularly where the words are pruned to such rigid and reductive formats. (Whenever I’m asked to work on a PowerPoint presentation, I always remember those old-fashioned competitions where you had to complete a sentence to win a lifetime’s supply of something useful, like cat food or hair conditioner. For some reason, you always seemed to have 12 words in which to say it. Conversely, I can only remember once presentation commissioner ever commenting that ‘it’s so much harder to say something in 50 words than 500’. Oddly, her presentations were always among the most interesting – both to develop and to ‘receive’.)

A colleague at ASK pointed out an article in September’s Harvard Business Review – Vision Statement: Tired of PowerPoint? Try This Instead. – about the power of ‘graphic recording’, creating a multi-part picture that both summarises a meeting and captures key goals, processes and so on as pictures rather than bullet points or spider diagrams. While a 4’ x 8’ artist rendering of your marketing meeting by a professional artist won’t come cheap, the other points made in the HRB article suggest that saving money might be the pegagogically enhanced option in any case:

Professor Martin Eppler of the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland has studied how well visual representations boost recall. He found that graphic recording trumps PowerPoint slides, particularly if people feel invested in the drawings. “You remember best what you’ve created yourself,” Eppler says. With PowerPoint, presenters make the slides in advance; it’s not interactive or participatory. With graphic recording, all participants actively contribute ideas to the image, so they feel that their hands are in it.

However, Eppler’s research suggests that software programs that let participants create their own visual representations—Let’s Focus or SmartDraw, for instance—may be more effective than a pricey artist’s handiwork. (Experienced professionals charge from $1,000 to $3,500 a day.)”

As some of the dedicated blogs and websites on graphic recording explain, these are techniques that, when it comes to getting the message across, mean much more than using a bit of Blu-Tac when it comes to making it stick. If the aim is to evolve a map for a group of people that shapes their forthcoming ‘journey’ (to use the X Factor vernacular), is it better than one person delivers the map on a screen, or that everyone who’ll be getting their metaphorical yomping boots on contributes to drawing a map that is meaningful, clear and memorable to all of them?

A investment in flip-chart paper and marker pen manufacturers might not be such a bad long term option after all …

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