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The Importance of Story, Part 4: Visualize, Visualize, Visualize

April 14, 2015
I’m going to finish up this four-part series on story building by exploring one of the most important concepts we can use as communicators: visualization.

What do I mean by this? Think of it this way: the entirety of human communication has been one giant move toward visualizing what we want to express. We started with cave paintings, and we’ve progressed through books (often with pictures), to photography, to television and film, and now to various forms of computer entertainment (like video games or Web sites). Because it’s true: A picture is worth a thousand words.

In philosophical terms, it’s what known as semiotics, or the process of meaning – mostly in a visual (sign-system) sense. Think, for example, about a flag. Though simply cloth, it represents a shared history, generations of sacrifice and a belief the peoples of a nation are connected by a common purpose. It, like all symbols, comes loaded with all sorts of personal and shared meaning.

What’s neat, though, is that we can use this tendency for our brains to attach meaning to images to make our communications stronger, more penetrating, and stickier in the minds of our residents. We can take a complex idea or concept, boil it down to a few pictures, and tidily accomplish our task – often with less effort than traditional methods like reports and presentations.

I’ve recently been experimenting with the concept in Milton’s communications. One example was last month’s interactive budget. Another is this release about four court-ordered billboards installed in Milton’s densely populated areas.

As many of you know, billboards simply aren’t popular with residents. However, they are protected speech, and Milton, along with other North Fulton cities, found itself on the losing side of a Georgia State Supreme Court decision allowing them along state routes. When they started going up (after roughly seven years of litigation) residents were understandably dismayed. The backlash was huge, and it was aimed squarely at the very City Council members who fought so hard to keep the billboards out.

So here was our task: Explain to residents their City Council fought the billboards but was mandated by the highest court to allow them. Boil down seven years of unbelievably complex litigation into a few simple images or sentences. And, most importantly, make it easily shareable in a social sense.

First, we used a good amount of words with our images. We had to. It was simply too important, and our audience too intelligent, to water down too much. But, with proper placement, we could make everything simple and logical.

So we start with facts about the billboards. Notice they’re all topped off with little billboards so it’s made clear to what this information pertains. Then we highlight important facts in bullet format with color.

Then we build a timeline. Notice we identified key players by image. So a billboard means the applicant, a government building means the county, a horse means Milton and a gavel means judges. Simple, effective – unmistakable. And, you’ll notice, built so that Milton maintains its pastoral image (as represented by a horse) while the other players represent those aspects of commerce and government unpopular with most Americans (billboards, big government buildings, authoritative courts).

The result? Hundreds of e-mails, phone calls and social media messages thanking City Council for their efforts. They weren’t the bad guys any longer (they never should have been – but, as the closest symbol of government, they bore the brunt of the fury). Instead, they fought for the common good, as played out by pictures, the earliest and most potent form of communication we learn.

We didn’t invent any of this – we just tap into it. And you can too. Just give it a try sometime.

That’s it for this month. Next month I’m going to start talking about maybe the most powerful form of communication we’ve ever invented – film – and the ways you can use it to synthesize meaning. 
Jason Wright is Communications Manager for the Georgia Tech Research Library. Up until November 2015, he was the Director of Innovation and Engagement for the City of Milton where he oversaw all aspects of the city's branding and communications efforts, including transparency, automation, design, photography, printing, web services and social media and public outreach.

Prior to Milton, Wright spent seven years working in the magazine and newspaper business. Most recently he was editor of both the Milton Herald and Alpharetta–Roswell Revue and News, where he wrote, edited, photographed for and oversaw design of the weekly papers. Prior to that, he worked as a writer, editor, designer and photographer for local, regional and national publication.