Category Archives: good explanations

It Takes a Village of 100

Over the past few years, I’ve run into several articles and email forwards presenting a hypothetical village of 100 as a stand-in for the entire world population. For example, “if the world population were a village of 100 people, 61 people would be Asian, 15 would be malnourished, 20 would be overweight, etc.” Apparently this idea dates back to a 1990 piece by Dartmouth professor Donella Meadows. Snopes cautions that some versions in circulation are inaccurate.

Miniature-Earth.com features this short movie version:



This is a neat trick, as it accomplishes a few impressive explainist feats instantly:

  • It makes very big numbers comprehensible.
  • It lifts you out of your local/religious/ethnic perspective to consider the composition of human race as a whole.
  • It makes you imagine other people in the abstract as actual people that you live with (which they are).

We’re just not wired to imagine 6.7 billion people, but 100 is well within our grasp.

Illustrator/designer/photographer Toby Ng ran with the idea and created a series of village-of-100 posters.



The posters are sharp, but the metaphors within a metaphor are a little mind-bending (“if the human population were a village of 100 people, which comprised slices of a pizza…”). Is it too obvious of me to picture posters showing the hypothetical villagers themselves?

[via FlowingData]

Better Product Pitches Through Stop Motion

In a post on Open Forum, Guy Kawasaki sings the praises of Atelier Transfert’s stop-motion-loaded product videos. As Kawasaki points out, many Web companies fail abysmally at explaining what exactly they do. The Canadian studio’s masterful pieces quickly and clearly define the problems to be solved and the way the products solve them.



Email Center Pro from Atelier Transfert on Vimeo.



Alltop.com Tutorial Video from Atelier Transfert on Vimeo.

Incidentally, according to an online French dictionary, the company name translates to “Transfer Studio.” French speakers, please correct me if I got that wrong.

Here’s a behind-the-scenes peek at how they made the Email Center Pro piece:



A Making-Of: Email Center Pro (the Breakdown of A Sequence) from Atelier Transfert on Vimeo.

They also do recipes:



Startcooking.com Chocolate Chip Cookie Recipe from Atelier Transfert on Vimeo.

Mmm… cookies.

It took me a minute to realize that a big part of the appeal of these is the classic Sesame Street vibe:





[via How to Change the World]

Fascinating Jobs Explained

McSweeney’s has a new installment in their growing collection, “Interviews with People Who Have Interesting or Unusual Jobs.” The writers do a great job eliciting clear explanations, and the subjects have some fascinating stories.

The newest addition is an interview with a 911 dispatcher. The “keep him on the line so we can trace the call” movie cliche drives me nuts, so I cherished this exchange:

Q: Can you trace where people live based on their phone number?
A: Assuming it’s a land line—a regular home phone—the screen shows your address and the phone number the call is coming from.
Q: And how about cell phones?
A: For all cell phones that are phase-2 wireless, we should be able to get a hit within 50-foot accuracy.

If you have or have had a fascinating job, McSweeney’s wants to hear from you, at unusualjobs@mcsweeneys.net.

This American Life vs. Financial Jibber Jabber

This American Life recently broadcast the third installment in their fantastic series of shows explaining our current financial mess. All three episodes are available for free online:

  1. The Giant Pool of Money
  2. Another Frightening Show About the Economy
  3. Bad Bank

This article from the American Journalism Review notes that the series impressed even government big wigs. Montana Senator Max Baucus and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner apparently sang its praises during a congressional hearing last week. Baucus would like government officals to follow T.A.L.’s example and explain themselves better. Hear hear!

The article also quotes Alex Blumberg, the producer who spearheaded the series. This insight sure rings true to me:

Blumberg thinks part of the formula’s success is not getting caught up in the jargon. “We have outsider status. We are not a business program, and we were never a business program,” Blumberg says, admitting that before he started the project he was as ignorant as the next person about the intricacies of high finance.

“The one thing I do have expertise in is figuring out how to tell a story. All these storytelling tricks we have learned over the years we have brought to bear in the same way,” Blumberg says.

When you’re breaking down a difficult subject for a general audience, a non-expert storyteller is usually the best explainer for the job. If you’ve just learned something yourself, you’re better able to relate to the audience. You know what they know and don’t know, and where the most confusing hurdles are.

Dave found the story via @jayrosen_nyu, who is wondering why the established press isn’t capturing the market for good news explainers. Excellent question.

A Communications Primer

Okay class, we have a movie today. Somebody get the lights please.

This 20-minute 1953 film from renowned married designers Ray and Charles Eames falls into one of my favorite genres: contemplation of a familiar subject as seen from a removed vantage point. In this case, the subject is communication, with a focus on binary information.


Frame from A Communications Primer

The film may not teach you much you didn’t know already, but it’s a showcase of ways to build an explanation with engaging imagery. It’s also a prime example of an excellent explanation trick — illuminating multiple subjects by casting them as different versions of the same thing. The film shows how painting, speech, telegrams, printed images, text, computer programs, etc. all have the same core components: information source, message, transmitter, signal, receiver, and destination. Focusing on the fundamental similarities cuts through potentially confusing details to give you a solid model for understanding each one.


Frame from A Communications Primer

On top of that, it’s loaded with the warm, warbly woodwind music of classroom films (in this case, composed by the late great movie score composer Elmer Bernstein). If you were a kid in the 50s through 80s, you probably know this as the music of education. Or desk naps.

[via Kottke]

Crisis of Credit Visualized

I’m a little late on this one — I missed it when it popped up on BoingBoing and elsewhere a couple weeks ago. Designer Jonathan Jarvis put together this super slick animation explaining the credit shenanigans that got us into this mess.



The Crisis of Credit Visualized from Jonathan Jarvis on Vimeo.

This is part of Jarvis’ thesis work at the Art Center College of Design. According to the site, his thesis work is related to “exploring the use of new media to make sense of a increasingly complex world.” Sounds like my kind of thesis work.

[via Scott McCloud]

Vintage Hate for Corporate Speak

On Writing Well, William Zinsser’s excellent classic writing guide, has a great chapter on the pitfalls of institutional writing. My copy is the 1982 edition, but it reads like it’s hot off the blogosphere:

But just because people work for an institution they don’t have to write like one. Institutions can be warmed up. Administrators and executives can be turned into human beings. Information can be imparted clearly and without pompous verbosity. It’s a question of remembering that readers identify with people, not with abstractions like “profitability,” or with Latinate nouns like “utilization” and “implementation,” or with passive-verb constructions in which nobody can be visualized doing something (“pre-feasibility studies are in the paperwork stage”)

Zinsser refers to even older hate, George Orwell’s 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language.” To make his point, Orwell took this famous passage from Ecclesiastes:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, no yet riches to men of understanding, no yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

and institutionalized it:

Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account”

Most of the chapter describes Zinsser’s adventures teaching a roomful of school principals to stop sending incomprehensible, “formal” notices home to parents. Good stuff.

Zinsser concludes the chapter with an earnest plea, which I enthusiastically second:

“If you work for an institution, whatever your job, whatever your level, be yourself when you write. You will stand out as a real person among the robots…”

Last minute Explainy Gift Idea: The Way We Work

I’ve been enjoying David Macaulay’s new book, The Way We Work: Getting To Know the Amazing Human Body. As in his 1988 classic The Way Things Work (and revised 1998 edition, The New Way Things Work), Macaulay explains his subject through well-crafted illustrations and text.

My parents bought me The Way Things Work when I was 12, and it turned out to be one of my favorite books of all time. So I’m very happy to see Macaulay at it again. And sheesh, what a subject. I’ve explained aspects of human physiology before, and it’s a killer. It will be great to have this master explainer’s effort on the reference shelf.

Way We Work Respiratory and Circulatory Coaster

There are many things to love about Macaulay’s work. Just a few:

  1. He uses witty and helpful visual metaphors, but never lets them take over. Some of the machines in The Way Things Work are giant-sized, with little people and mammoths operating them. This subtly makes very small things less intimidating and makes explanations more memorable. But Macaulay doesn’t bend over for the metaphor by tacking on a story-line or the like. The new book sometimes uses the same small-people technique (sans mammoths), but Macaulay resisted the urge to cast the whole thing as a Fantastic-Voyage-style tour of the body. Instead, he deploys a metaphor only when it works (for example, the above drawing showing the circulatory and respiratory systems as a roller coaster). For some body parts, he draws straight-forward anatomical pictures.
  2. He starts with the core components and works his way up. In The Way We Work, he opens with an explanation of atoms, so he can explain molecules, so he can explain proteins and acids, so he can explain cells, so he can explain body parts and functions. Lesser physiology overviews jump straight to labeling the parts of the body, in “the hip bone’s connected to the thigh bone” style. But if you don’t understand DNA and cells first, knowing terminology won’t help you understand anything significant about the body. It’s nice that he lays a foundation of fundamentals.
  3. He respects expertise but is not an expert. His extensive research included consulting with several physiology experts, and even observing operations. He also brought a science writer, Richard Walker, as a co-author. This is an ideal combination — as a reader, you can count on the book’s accuracy, but the explainer can relate to your layman’s ignorance. Macaulay went on a six-year journey to understand the body, using only standard-issue, non-doctor knowledge, and this is his report on what he found out.

I noticed there are some lukewarm reviews from Macaulay fans on Amazon. The main two complaints so far are that the colored illustrations fall short of his past work and that the text is too advanced for kids. There’s something to both of these points, but I think Macaulay had good reason to make these choices. I do like the aesthetic quality of the hard ink lines of The Way Things Work better than the fuzzier colored-pencil style in The Way We Work. But biology doesn’t have the hard lines you see in machinery, so his approach makes sense to me. Here’s artwork from each, side by side:

The Way Things Work and The Way We Work

As for the age-appropriateness, I expect Houghton Mifflin is responsible for marketing this as a kid’s book. Macaulay told NPR that he didn’t have any age in mind for his audience, but wrote it for himself (adding “I don’t know how to do it any other way.”) To me, it seems like his priorities were to be explicit, thorough, and accurate. In any case, the book will certainly be tough for younger readers, but that’s inherent in the subject matter. Better to challenge some readers than dumb it down, I’d say.