All posts by Tom Harris

Here Be Dragons

Learning is surely one of most rewarding experiences life has to offer, but it can also be deeply unpleasant — even terrifying. Tackling a new, complex topic can feel like setting off on a voyage across treacherous seas with no map or guide. You don’t know what you don’t know, and the unknown lurks ominously like the menacing dragon showing uncharted waters on an old map.

Image of the Carta Marina map, featuring a variety of sea creatures
Portion of the Carta Marina map, published in 1539. Wikimedia Commons.

I know there are people who jet-ski into difficult topics without a care in the world. More power to you. But the rest of us are often intimidated, or at least hesitant to get underway. Learning is one of my favorite things, but I still find myself procrastinating when I need to dive into something especially challenging. 

What am I wary of? Simply put, I don’t like feeling stupid. And I know that’s what’s coming. 

You’d think you would start feeling smarter as soon as you start learning about something. After all, you’re already chipping away at your ignorance. But in my experience, that’s not how it works, at least for tougher subjects. When I start researching something, the first thing I learn is just how truly ignorant I am. Every new concept, every unfamiliar term, every insider reference shows me how much I don’t know. One big dragon on the map turns into dozens and dozens of dragons. 

Of course, you are learning a lot during this stage, but it doesn’t always feel like it. There may be many setbacks and few rewards for a while. Ideally, you’ll keep going, knowing you’ll enjoy the knowledge on the other side. But it’s not learning as advertised on library posters — happily riding a magical book over castles and rainbows.

I think this is a big reason so many kids turn against school and even learning in general. If you’re struggling, it’s natural that you might start to feel stupid. And it’s natural you would want to avoid feeling that way. If you pile on negative feedback like low grades, punishment, and public shaming, it’s no wonder so many people want to walk away from learning.

All of this is top of mind when I’m trying to explain something. If I’m writing an explanation, I want to map out unfamiliar topics for the reader, and I want to acknowledge those areas are unfamiliar. As much as possible, I want to avoid introducing new dragons, like unexplained concepts, mystifying jargon, and impenetrable acronyms. I want to describe each new thing I bring, so the reader can put it on the map. A thoughtful explanation is like a reassuring guide taking the audience out where they’ve never been, steadily building up their knowledge. You’re helping your audience create their own map of the unknown.


Aside: While old maps did include maps and other creatures, it turns out they didn’t include the phrase. “Here Be Dragons” (or the Latin “Hic sunt dracones”). The famous phrase does appear on one globe — the Hunt-Lenox Globe, which was made in 1510 — but no other examples have been found. It’s not clear how it entered lore, but this article in the Atlantic includes a possible explanation. 

Art History Comes to TikTok

It’s great to see explainers showing up on TikTok, while staying true to the anarchic spirit of the place. Australian art historian Mary McGillivray has mastered the form. On _theiconoclass, she’s tackled how to identify art movements, the real art history behind the Harry Potter films, art history himbos, and many things in between.

[via Open Culture]

NYT Rebuilds Greenwood, Before the Massacre

A century ago, white supremacists killed hundreds in the Tulsa Race Massacre. Yuliya Parshina-Kottas, Anjali Singhvi, Audra D.S. Burch, Troy Griggs, Mika Gröndahl, Lingdong Huang, Tim Wallace, Jeremy White and Josh Williams at the New York Times have created something extraordinary — an interactive virtual model of the Tulsa neighborhood of Greenwood as it was before terrorists destroyed more than 1,250 homes and brought an end to the thriving African-American community.

A screenshot of the New York Times virtual model of Greenwood. Text: "J.B. Stradford, shown with his wife, opened the posh 54-room Stradford Hotel at 201 Greenwood Avenue in 1918. It was considered among the nation's best hotels for African-Americans at the time. "

Visit the streets of Greenwood.

Teaching with Comics

I really enjoyed this webinar about teaching through nonfiction comics. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve loved comics as a medium for explanation — it’s right up there with documentaries for me.

I heart about the webinar through Scott McCloud’s Twitter feed. His book Understanding Comics was a huge influence on me as a young explainer, and it was interesting to hear about his process and philosophy on comics that teach. I wasn’t familiar with the other panelists, and it was a treat to see how they’ve tackled a wide range of subjects through comics.

Malaka Gharib has created some great comic explainers for NPR, the Nib, and others, such as this guide to coronavirus. She also wrote a graphic memoir of her experiences growing up as a child of immigrants in the United Stats.

Whit Taylor is a contributing editor at the Nib and has created nonfiction comics on public health, social science and other topics. I’m looking forward to her upcoming book, Harriet Tubman: Toward Freedom

Kriota Willberg has an extensive, varied background as an artist, educator, and massage therapist. Her book Draw Stronger is a guide to self care for cartoonists and other visual artists.

Veteran cartoonist R. Sikoryak — who’s primarily known for literary adaptations and satire comics — hosted the evening.

Even after decades of amazing work, explanatory comics feels like an excited frontier. There’s so much untapped potential.

How Should We Talk to You?

A couple weeks ago, I went to post something here and found the chilling white screen of death – no blog, no admin dashboard, just the sound of wind whistling through the PHP. Many thanks to Steven D. and David H. at Dreamhost for helping me resurrect the site. The crash wasn’t their fault (it was the tragic final act of an aging WordPress theme), but the always terrific Dreamhost crew came to the rescue anyway.

Making a help request, I noticed a nice bit of explaining:

With the range of expertise among their customers, I bet over-explaining (starting off too rudimentary) would be just as big a risk as under-explaining. What a clever solution.

Strategist. Content Strategist.

My job title these days is content strategist, and one of the consequences of that is I often have to explain what I do and why it matters. In the interest of honing my own spiel, I’ve read and collected many other spiels. This take on the subject, excerpted from the new book The Elements of Content Strategy, is my favorite to date.

Here’s a taste:

Let us meditate for a moment on James Bond. Clever and tough as he is, he’d be mincemeat a hundred times over if not for the hyper-competent support team that stands behind him. When he needs to chase a villain, the team summons an Aston Martin DB5. When he’s poisoned by a beautiful woman with dubious connections, the team offers the antidote in a spring-loaded, space-age infusion device. When he emerges from a swamp overrun with trained alligators, it offers a shower, a shave, and a perfectly tailored suit. It does not talk down to him or waste his time. It anticipates his needs, but does not offer him everything he might ever need, all the time.

Content is appropriate for users when it helps them accomplish their goals.

Content is perfectly appropriate for users when it makes them feel like geniuses on critically important missions, offering them precisely what they need, exactly when they need it, and in just the right form. All of this requires that you get pretty deeply into your users’ heads, if not their tailoring specifications.

Can’t wait to read the whole book.

[via Extraface]