Visual language for designers

visual_languageVisual Language for Designers: Principles for Creating Graphics That People Understand
By Connie Malamed

This is a great read for those of us who are harnessing the power of visuals to highlight our content.

Within every picture is a hidden language that conveys a message, whether it is intended or not. This language is based on the ways people perceive and process visual information.

By understanding visual language as the interface between a graphic and a viewer, designers and illustrators can learn to inform with accuracy and power.

In a time of unprecedented competition for audience attention and with an increasing demand for complex graphics, “Visual Language for Designers” explains how to achieve quick and effective communications.

New in paperback, this book presents ways to design for the strengths of our innate mental capacities and to compensate for our cognitive limitations.

“Visual Language for Designers” includes:
–How to organize graphics for quick perception
–How to direct the eyes to essential information
–How to use visual shorthand for efficient communication
–How to make abstract ideas concrete
–How to best express visual complexity
–How to charge a graphic with energy and emotion

About the author: Connie Malamed has a background in art and cognitive psychology, with a B.S. in Art Education and an M.A. in Instructional Design and Technology. She is a consultant based in the Washington, D.C. area in the fields of e-learning, visual communication, media design, and information design.

The book is available from Book Depository, Fishpond, The Nile and Amazon

Create meaning for your audience – be inspired by “The Beauty of Data Visualisation”


Images are becoming the new language of content communication.

As David McCandless says … “We are being blasted every day, all of us are being blasted by information design. It’s being poured into our eyes by the web and we’re all visualisers now, we’re all demanding a visual aspect to our information and there’s something magical about visual information.”

The fact that “a picture paints a thousand words” is now mainstream.

As speakers, we use them in our social media. We use them in our blogs. We use them in our presentations.

“By visualizing information, we turn it into a landscape that you can explore with your eyes, a sort of information map. And when you’re lost in information, an information map is kind of useful.” says David McCandless.

If you’ve watched this TED talk than you will know … if not, then watch right now, and know … that David McCandless inspires with his presentation style, and his amazing ways of designing infographics.

Be reminded of, and inspired by, the possibilities for you as a presenter, and renew your enthusiasm for creating graphics that will allow your audiences, the visitors to your websites and your social media peeps to understand that you have the power to create meaning for them.

Combine creativity and the visual to reinforce your speaker memory

creativity_visualNobody likes a mental blank; not the speaker, not the audience.

As a speaker you really would like to remember all of the points that you so carefully researched and constructed and that you designed to work together to get your message across.

We all have our own ways of remembering our presentations and speeches. Some are based on our preferences for sound or images or body language. Some are simply based on what works for us.

I am working, at the moment, with a client who is moving away from a script to presenting in natural, unscripted language. She is a very creative person, especially in visual media – creates amazing paintings, patterns, and rejuvenates a flagging spirit with what she calls “creative time’ which might involve painting, or doodling or setting significant messages in a beautiful surrounding. I made several suggestions based on using visuals so that she could remember her speech and create useful, unobtrusive notes, and it was like watching a light bulb glowing. She is now in her element.

So for those of you looking for ways to remember your speech or presentation and to create prompts for yourself, here are 5 ways that visuals could work for you.

1. I will call the first one “mind mapping”. This involves “mapping” the ideas for your speech. Usually people put the central message in the centre, perhaps surrounded by a circle or border. Then they connect the points of the speech to the main message as one would spokes to a wheel. From those points, then, further connections reach out to the supports for the points. You can use decorations, colours, pictures, whatever most represents the content of each part, and the connections between them and the order in which you will present them. This is a standard mind map.

You might, on the other hand prefer to draw waves that represent the more emotional flow of the speech, somewhat similar to Nancy Duarte’s spark lines, or curves that represent a new point, or a change in direction of the speech. So each wave or curve represents the points to be made, the climax of the point that will really hook audience response, or the points of the presentation that represent, say, problems and solutions. Write the main message beneath the waves, perhaps, and transition techniques between the waves.

I simply use the sort of note-taking skills I learned in uni – main message at the top, then bullet point system for points to be made and further indented bullet points . I don’t use this system to creating slides, incidentally – yuk, how boring that would be, but it’s the way I learned to organise content and it works for me, in conjunction with other memory techniques.

So however you visually represent the flow of your speech or presentation, you can memorise that image, and the connections between its parts and that will be with you when you need to remember what to say next when you actually present. It will also be there with you, should you need to change the flow of the speech in response to the audience or the environment, and the logic will allow you to make the changes in a way that works for you and for the audience.

2. Visualisation. This is a technique used in many areas where performance is focused and adrenalin-driven, particularly in sports. And while it certainly involves the visual and imagery there are so many other aspects involved – training your subconscious to store what I call “muscle memory”, injecting positive emotion to reinforce the memories. For the purposes of this article, though, the visualisation involves using the mind’s eye or imagination to “watch” yourself as you present, your body language, how you appear on the “stage”, how you are interacting with the audience, and what you are saying. It also involves “seeing” how the audience is reacting to what you are saying, how the equipment is functioning, how you are using the particular setup in the room. I used it from the beginning, I think, of my speaking, long before the word became such a large part of our language, “visualising” successful presentation, and visualising overcoming the possible hurdles to successful presentation. It’s a way of committing the presentation to memory, and ensures that much of the presentation can be put into a state similar to auto-pilot while the front of your brain deals with interacting with, and customizing for, this particular audience.

3. For many people the simple act of writing something is a memory aid, but it can be combined with the visual memory. You can commit the look of the writing to memory, having simply written on a normal blank page. Or you can use the ubiquitous, totally indispensable sticky notes. Use colours, create patterns of shapes and colours, use diagrams on the notes, make diagrams with the notes, write a word or words for each point with points in one colour, supports in another, transitions in another. Lay out the whole speech, in point form, and that process alone may just be enough if you have a photographic memory. Or you can then transfer the whole thing onto a sheet or folder or series of cards to use as a prompt. Take a photograph of it, and use that. Your creativity comes into play, here, to learn, by trial and error, just what works best for you.

4. Maybe it is images that work for you. After all, ‘a picture paints a thousand words’, and our minds remember information better if that information is combined with an image. So you could use an image as a prompt. The storyboarding process that can be so useful for creating a PowerPoint presentation would work well here. One idea – one image, with maybe a word or two to reinforce the memory. Again – perhaps the creation of the storyboard will be enough, if the photographic system works for you, or you can use the board as a prompt. Or you can rehearse the presentation and when you know the points that will cause you grief, just use images for those. It’s all a matter of finding, through practice, what works for you.

5. And, of course, the logical extension of this thought is to use the PowerPoint slides themselves as a memory aid. I know people do this and can make it work for them. It takes practice. I watched a speaker use this system recently. She was a dynamic presenter, with a fluent presentation and had the audience captivated. She had no remote for the slides, so had to ask or signal to the computer operator to advance the slides. When that operator made an error, then the whole speech ground down as the speaker had to wait to find out what was supposed to happen next. Her dynamism saved the day, but it was a glitch that could have been avoided.

Each of these 5 is a way of using images to remember your presentation. Each allows you to be creative in producing a visual to memorise and guide your presentation. Each will need your constant creative attention in honing its success, and maybe you will go even further and combine them.

Perhaps you are already using one or more of these or have your own way of using the sense of sight in memorizing your speech, ensuring there are no blank moments and that it progresses as you dreamed it would. I would love you to share them in the comments below.

[Quick Public Speaking Tip] Is your audience illiterate? And does it matter?

You must know your audience. As speakers, we must know our audiences.

It’s key to our success – to design our presentations to their needs, their wants, their physical, energetic and mental presence.

audience_illiterateAnd perhaps design for their literacy level.


Well – handouts for a start. There’s no point providing written handouts if your audience is illiterate, is there? So what is your design Plan B for that scenario?

Where else would literacy level matter?

Slides. Of course!

Put words on slides and literacy becomes an issue.

If the audience is illiterate, you will need to read out everything you have written on the slides, won’t you? Otherwise it was a waste of time writing words there, wasn’t it?

Obviously …

But seriously, what about some other, different, aspects of literacy?

What about the fact that your audience can read way faster than you can speak?

If you read out what you have written, they will be way ahead of you visually and then there is that awkward lapse while you are still speaking.

And even if you respect their needs in that department, what about your audience’s ability to read and listen at the same time?

It is extremely difficult for people to take in two different streams of words, one from the slides and one from you.

So perhaps it would seem that you really should care about literacy when you design slides.

So what is the Plan B in this case?

You can stop caring about literacy and it really doesn’t matter if you put a power-packed, insidiously subtle or glaringly obvious graphic there, along with a single word, a short phrase or no text at all, all of which support your content. You have covered all of your bases – all of those three permutations of literacy, haven’t you?

— Text is superfluous, though it can add to your speech and the graphic. So everyone who can’t read it is covered.

— People can certainly look at images and listen at the same time – pretty much from infancy.

— And the only reading they are doing while listening is minimal so you have minimised the distraction factor.

Now … about that Plan B for the handouts ….

[Public speaking quotation] Value in visuals

“Presenters using visuals conduct meetings in 28% less time, increase audience retention as much as five times, and get proposals approved twice as often”

~ Claire Raines and Linda Williamson

Prepare and choose your visuals so they work for and not against you

Visuals can provide you with powerful support in your speeches and presentations … if you let them.

If you allow it, visuals are a wonderful way of keeping attention, because they add another element of variety and change.

If that attention, however, is aimed more at how you are dealing with an object or if it is more on the object itself than on your message, then it has failed in its duty. If the PowerPoint slides are more interesting in themselves than what you are saying about them, then they have failed in their duty.

These visuals have to be used to support, not detract from, you and what you are saying.

You need to prepare, for this to happen. Think about how you will use them in terms of your own physical presence and stage design. It is you and your message that the attention needs to be aimed at.

Practise how you will handle your objects, how you will display them so that the process is seamless and amplifies your message – at all times. Turn off the screen if you want the attention to be on you. Keep the slides simple if you want people to listen to what you say rather then read what is written. Design your presentation so that the visual aids are just that – aids – and they can be a powerful source of attention and engagement.

If you allow it, visuals can also work as a powerful multiplier of the impact of the words you use. Your audience’s brains are tuned in to pictures and images. So an image will multiply the point and the message that the words deliver (“a picture paints a thousand words”), and will reinforce what your audience is hearing as they look.  

Keep the slides simple with as little text as possible to allow the images to do their work.

You will certainly lose engagement if your audience thinks you are treating them as stupid – needing you to read to them something they can read for themselves.  

You just need to remember that the image needs to support the message of your words, so choose it wisely. 

Choose, too, where and when in your presentation to use visuals so they will create their most impact and support.

Choose them, too, so that your audience relates to them, so that they support your credibility and support your authenticity and support your brand.

Visuals really can do all of that – build credibility, authenticity and brand, build engagement and maintain audience attention. If you plan, prepare and strategize their use they are powerful allies in your presentations.

© Bronwyn Ritchie … If you want to include this article in your publication, please do, but please include the following information with it: Bronwyn Ritchie is a professional librarian, writer, award-winning speaker and trainer. She is a certified corporate trainer and speech contest judge with POWERtalk, a certified World Class Speaking coach, and has had 30 years experience speaking to audiences and training in public speaking. Get her 30 speaking tips FREE and boost your public speaking mastery over 30 weeks. Join now or go to

Public speaking tip: Aid and abet

The most important things you need to get across to the audience are your message and your image. Any other aspect of your presentation (and there are many – visuals being just one) should be secondary to, and supportive of, getting the message and the image across – and certainly not distracting from those. 

Visual communication – how to create and use charts for successful executive presentations

Say It With Charts: The Executive’s Guide to Visual Communication

Gene Zelazny

Look to this comprehensive presentation encyclopedia for information on: how to prepare different types of charts – pie, bar, column, line, or dot – and when to use each; hands-on recommendations on lettering size, color choice, appropriate chart types, and more; and, techniques for producing dramatic e-Visuals using animation, scanned images, sound, video, and links to pertinent websites.

‘Say It With Charts, 4th Edition”, shows you how to put your message in visual form and translate information and ideas into persuasive, powerful charts, visuals, and multimedia presentations – holding your audience’s attention as you communicate exactly what you want, with no confusion.

Bring In Some Quiet Achievers To Ensure Your Presentation Is A Success

Quiet achievers. Unobtrusive. Professional. There to make sure your presentation gets the results you want. These are your visual supports. They support your presentation, underscore its impact, give power to your points.

It may be that in the culture of your organisation or of your audience, impact will be created by your visuals. If the message of your speech means nothing, your speech means nothing, and your image beyond the ability to create those visuals means nothing, then you will need to develop a high level of competency in creating those visuals and in presenting them. Invest in courses in construction and invest time in becoming competent with their operation.

If, on the other hand, your results will come from your message, or from your presentation skills, then the visual supports need to be just that – supports – unobtrusive in themselves. They need to be professional, yes, excellent, yes, to support your credibility and image, but they should be seamlessly supporting your message, not announcing their presence.

And if you want them to be excellent, work on your design skills. Try to be unique if you can, especially where you want to make an impact. Using the same old clip art and graphics that everyone uses will not be noticed, but originality will.
In creating visual supports, be sure that your material can be seen by everyone in the room. Make your words large and uncluttered. Five or six lines on a slide, flip chart page or transparency is adequate, and they will create far more impact that a mass of written material. The same applies to images.

Objects should be large enough to be seen, too. You can pass the smaller ones around, but know that while people are looking at the objects, they are not looking at you, and you have lost their attention. It may be better to have a display that people can look at after the presentation.

Using the “equipment” has to be as unobtrusive as possible. The first step here is being prepared. If you can practice beforehand, do so. Organise all the physical objects so that you can reach them when they are needed, without having to search, and without having to fumble. This may mean arranging them in the order in which they will be presented. It may mean practising the presentation so that you know automatically where to reach for something. This can apply to objects you want to display, the remote control for projecting equipment, the pens for flip charts or overhead projectors or a whiteboard, or to slides or overhead transparencies.

During these practice sessions, work out how you will move around the visual supports and equipment. Where will you place the objects you want to pick up – on a table, or another piece of furniture? Where will this, or the equipment, be so that you can move around it and communicate most easily with your audience – in front of you, beside or behind you? Always consider the least distracting way of accessing your material and the greatest ease of movement.

If you are using projection equipment, visualise its placement. Think about how you will work with the laptop or the overhead projector – standing beside, or behind? Do you want your silhouette projected on the screen as well as your visuals? Walking in front of the screen will also obscure them.

If you cannot organise the positioning of your equipment, then try to become familiar with it before the presentation and then visualise how you will use it best.

Plan to use visuals so that they support your message and do not detract from it, or overtake the attention. You need to be able to use the visuals easily. Turn the pages of a flip chart from the bottom corner. If you can find the remote control for your PowerPoint, use it, or be familiar with the keyboard shortcuts to use. Practice the way you will pick up, place and put down your OHP transparencies. These operations are all meant to be as unobtrusive as possible, not part of the message.
Please do not treat your audience as illiterate. If your words are on the screen or sheet of paper, then let the audience read for themselves. This will have enormous impact, especially if your audience is used to presenters slavishly following the test on their visuals.

You are presenting your message verbally, and visuals are just that – images or groups or words that support your message They are the quiet achievers, and are certainly not the message itself. If necessary, you may have to explain this, first, because many audiences have been trained by presenters who cover their inadequacies by using their visuals as the message. And this is why you will make an impact if you can present without using this method. You will be different. You will be seen as so much more confident and competent as a person. And this confidence and competence will be the underlying basis of the power of your presentation.

© Bronwyn Ritchie If you want to include this article in your publication, please do, but please include the following information with it:
Bronwyn Ritchie is a professional librarian, writer, award-winning speaker and trainer. She is a certified corporate trainer and speech contest judge with POWERtalk, a certified World Class Speaking coach, and has had 30 years’ experience speaking to audiences and training in public speaking. In just 6 months time, you could be well on the way to being admired, rehired as a speaker, confident and sucessful, with the 30 speaking tips. Click here for 30 speaking tips for FREE. Join now or go to

Visual aid – The Swinging Ball of Death

… a wonderful example of using a visual aid – Who needs PowerPoint?!! Watch the language he uses, and the use of pause