RSA Animate Helps Explain

The Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) is a 250-year-old English institution with high-minded ideals:

Our vision is to be a powerful and innovative force. Bringing together different disciplines and perspectives, we will bring new ideas and urgent and provocative debates to a mass audience. We will work with partners to generate real progress in our chosen project areas, and through our Fellowship we will be seen as a source of capacity, commitment and innovation in communities from the global to the local.

Best of all, they’re doing it through cartoons, at least in part. RSA Animate is a video series that couples RSA public lectures with wonderful illustrations that follow along with what the speaker is saying.

I found these via a Flowing Data post, which describes the videos a “a different take on the infographic.” That description and the name RSA Animate don’t quite hit the mark for me. The cartoons don’t really represent data or processes visually, and they’re not animated, for the most part. The studio that makes them, Cognitive Media, uses the term “Scribing,” which works well. The form is more like visual note-taking –the cartoons don’t explain things by themselves, but underscore particular points, helping those points to stick the landing in your brain.

I did something similar in school. In my margins, I’d make cartoons of pieces of art, historical North Carolinians, frogs, etc. to keep my mind from wandering*. I picked up the habit from Larry Gonick’s books, like The Cartoon History of the Universe, which have a lot in common with the RSA Animate series. In both, the cartoons are continually responding to the main narrative. It’s a highly effective mnemonic device, which makes it a great explaining tool– by pairing auditory or textual points with a related visual, you form more neural connections, which makes the ideas much stickier.

* I still do this in meeting sometimes, but more often, my doodling doesn’t relate to the subject matter. Brilliant scientists agree with me that this helps you concentrate.

Zap! Bang! Pow! Comics Explain!*

Comic Book Cartography is the sort of thing I like, of course. Curator Half Man | Half Static has picked an enviable blog beat: cutaways, maps, diagrams, aerial views and other explanation staples from old comics.



I found this in a recent post from Khoi Vinn, who makes a great point related to this page specifically:


Looking at examples like the one above, a cut-away diagram of The Fantastic Four’s futuristic corporate headquarters, I defy anyone to argue that our current fascination with information graphics doesn’t originate, at least in part, from the kinds of schematic graphics like this that old comics routinely dealt in.

I’d go along with that. And like a good infographic popping in your RSS stream today, this stuff interrupted you, in a good way. You stopped and lingered. I need to go down to my basement archives for some evidence, but I think Mad Magazine deserves some credit/blame for the infographics glut, too. I’m thinking particularly of the two-page spreads showing a huge scene, with labels and such everywhere.

Here’s one more, which belong on the Explainist refrigerator:


(* for you non-comic-dorks, this was the title structure of nearly every mainstream article on comics between 1985 and 1995.)

How New York Times Designers Explain

This installment of the podcast features some of the explainers behind New York Times’ award-winning infographics.

Not so surprisingly, the recurring theme of simplicity pops up:

At the Times, we generally err on the side of clarity, versus aesthetic. The simplicity we try to achieve is an aesthetic in itself.

- Archie Tse, Graphics Editor

[via vizthink]

Ira Glass Explains Storytelling

Last night, I finally watched season 2 of This American Life (the TV version), and it wrung me out good. I’m a longtime fan of the radio show, and I thought season 1 of the Showtime series was great, but even so, I was surprised by the truth and beauty of season 2. The finale, “John Smith,” is one of the most affecting and genuine films I’ve ever seen. It’s 17 E.T.s worth of humanity.

Here’s the trailer for season 2:

Anyway, during my great-TV hangover this morning, I was looking up This American Life stuff, and rediscovered Ira Glass’ explanation of the elements of great storytelling. This is more than two years old, so you might have seen it already, but I wanted it to be here.

Vonnegut’s Story Graphs

I love the way Kurt Vonnegut explained stories through graphs, described here by Derek Sivers.

Back in 1994, I saw Vonnegut do a version of this exercise in person, on a blackboard at Duke. In the lecture I saw, Vonnegut explained that Hamlet was the epitome of real drama, since unlike Cinderella, the story graph is pretty much a straight line. Essentially, Hamlet never learns whether anything that happens is good or bad and nothing is resolved, just like in life. Here’s the published version of the lecture, from A Man Without a Country (scroll down to the *):

Incidentally, Vonnegut made the best exit of any public speaker I’ve ever seen. At the end of his speech, he begrudgingly offered to take questions from the audience, as requested by the Duke speaker organizers. He answered a few fairly lame ones, including a teacher asking what one book should he get his students to read, assuming they would only read one (Vonnegut: “I suppose Genesis is a good place to start.”) Finally, he muttered, “I don’t think much of your questions. Goodnight,” and strolled off stage.

[via @gregg]

One Stop Shopping for Exploded Nerdware

Now that’s some nice ecommerce: The Exploded Store sells t-shirts with exploded diagrams of beloved machines. From the FAQ:

These are internals of actual equipment. We buy items, usually via eBay or Craigslist, and we take them apart. Sometimes this requires special tools. Then we photograph the pieces and meticulously render them in Adobe Illustrator. Troy Paiva and Garry Booth are two of the skilled artists who have ‘exploded’ designs for us.

This Mac design is great, but, as I’ve said before, I’d really like an Apple IIe shirt.


What Does the Decline of the Instruction Manual Signify?

Food for thought from Mark Miodownik, an engineer at Kings College London:

We now live in an age in which we feel that technology should be intuitive, which relegates instruction manuals to literature for the stupid.

In truth, most modern instruction manuals are not worth reading in any case, since they have turned into catalogues of health and safety advice, and instructions on how to dispose of the product once it breaks. We are not expected to spend much time thinking about who made it and how.

Instead, there is inevitably a “quick start” guide which is supposed to get us up and running fast. We are not encouraged to ask how a product works, or figure out how to look after it – and whatever you do don’t open the back, as it will invalidate the warranty.

We now live in a world in which curiosity and care are discouraged, and in which the instruction manual is slowly but inevitably becoming extinct.

Miodownik makes some good points, and I agree that manufacturers generally discourage curiosity. But that’s not the world we live in. As the first commenter points out, many people do take the time to understand how a product works; they just do it buy jumping in and figuring it out. My general impression is we are living in a golden age of technology curiosity and DIYism. We certainly have access to many more resources for figuring out tech products than we did 20 years ago.

But I do think the decline of manufacturer’s manuals points to a growing gap between technophobes and technophiles. If you’re not the sort of person that seeks out information on your own (a nerd, in other words), the default state is total ignorance. When there’s no packaged explanation, there’s no expectation that you should understand your machines. You have to come to that conclusion on your own.

[via Workplace Learning Today]