The power of complexity in visual communication

Sarah O'Keefe / Opinion

One of the axioms of technical communication is to keep things simple. But sometimes, complex communication is the better alternative.

(This post springs from a discussion that took place during tekom in a Wiesbaden hotel lobby. I distinctly remember Tony Self being involved, and maybe Kyle Wiens? I’m forgetting the others, probably due to jet-lag-induced short-term memory problems. Joe? Ray? Larry? Curly? Moe?)

Many types of information have their own vocabulary along with conventions for visual communication. Consider the following:

Most of you probably recognize this as music, but can you read the music and identify the piece? (Here’s a recording.)

If you read music well, you can derive a huge amount of information from this snippet: notes and rhythms, phrasing, dynamics (how loud or how soft), what instrument to use (this excerpt doesn’t explicitly call for a piano, but it’s implied by the way the music is organized), fingering notation, and more. In this example, knowledge of musical Italian is helpful to interpret “sempre pianissimo e senza sordini” (always very quiet and without mute) and other phrases.

Here is a different example of specialized visual language (excerpt):

Here’s the result of the full chart:

Knitting charts, like music, use a standard set of symbols. But unfortunately for the worldwide knitting community, there are many regional variations. (The problem is even worse in crochet, where phrases like “double crochet” and “triple/treble crochet” have a different meanings in British English patterns than in American English patterns.) That said, it is feasible for a knitter who only speaks English to use Russian or Japanese knitting charts.

Tony Self contributed this “Aresti diagram,” which I had never seen before.

Any idea what this represents? Our group was able to figure it out with some hints. (Note the wind direction indicator at the top right.) Here’s an explanation of Aresti diagrams.

Jargon and industry-specific terminology is appropriate for some audiences, and can actually reduce or eliminate the language barrier presented by text descriptions. But to an outsider, they are completely unhelpful. All of these visuals assume a certain level of knowledge in the subject matter. The knitting chart, for instance, says that an empty box means “K on RS, P on WS.” That is, “knit on right side, purl on wrong side,” which makes total sense to knitters and nobody else. Abbreviations like k2tog (in knitting), dc (crochet), or mf (music) are obvious to the insider and incomprehensible to the outsider.

Once again, with feeling:

Know your audience.


Example 1

Example 2 (free registration required)

About the Author

Sarah O'Keefe


Content strategy consultant and founder of Scriptorium Publishing. Bilingual English-German, voracious reader, water sports, knitting, and college basketball (go Blue Devils!). Aversions to raw tomatoes, eggplant, and checked baggage.