Show don’t tell

PR people are quick to embrace the new – whether it is social media or something else in the past (like the fax machine) which became the banes of the lives of the people they were targeting with promotional material.

At RMIT under the then head of the Media and Communications School, Lauren Murray, there was growing emphasis on understanding design as a crucial part of communication and in some courses today there are preliminary attempts to introduce students to infographics. Lauren is a great fan of Edward R. Tufte whose book The Visual Display of Quantitative Information is one of those astonishing books which metaphorically and literally changes the way you look at things. He also produced a pamphlet, The Cognitive Style of Power Point: Pitching out Corrupts Within, which points out why all those endless Power Point slides are not only boring but also often misleading and a source of mistaken thinking.

A Melbourne-based design studio, Hothouse Design, is also doing really creative work in infographics making significant contributions to everything from road design and public transport timetabling to the training of train drivers. Details of their work can be found at

One of the Hothouse principals, Deirdre Wilson, has a regular blog which promotes – among other things – the all important ‘show don’t tell’ principle. Fred Chaney, former Liberal Senator and Senior Australian of the Year in the same year Adam Goodes was Australian of the Year, once talked about it at a PRIA conference. He recounted being retained by Lang Hancock in a legal case. At the end of a client conference discussing the brief Hancock asked if Chaney was going to look at the place in dispute. Chaney, like many a barrister would, replied that he didn’t think that was necessary. Hancock then replied that if Chaney wasn’t going to look he would find another barrister. Chaney looked and, at the conference, talked about the virtues of showing not telling. The Hancock principle could also be applied to the time when daughter Gina was on the back of a truck with a megaphone shouting about ‘axing the tax’. What it showed and told is another question altogether however.

Deirdre Wilson has now looked at the show don’t tell principle through the prism of parking sign design. See

As she said: “Be still my beating heart! Finally, parking signs redesigned as a timetable. Yes, I know that sounds incredibly dull but they are a perfect case for a graphic representation of the data they are displaying. Of course, there are issues of real estate – text takes up less space.” In another blog, , Deirdre outlined some of the key guidelines for displaying information.

“When computers were new and dinosaurs roamed the earth, we used the expression GIGO – garbage in garbage out. It reminded us that computers were only as good as their users. It is time that GIGO came back into regular use. Presenters are plaguing us with pretty looking garbage because they have forgotten about GIGO. We are in an era of style over substance. This problem is aggravated by the multitude of tools now available that create beautiful, or at least pleasing, output of your input. Just look at most collections of infographics to see heaps of GIGO presentations,” she said.

“So, to help avert the flood of dumb data, here’s a quick back-to-basics lesson:

* Numbers need context to make sense

* People don’t understand numbers, they understand stories – read the previous point

* If you are presenting numbers then you are endeavouring to create understanding. Understanding requires that the numbers have context – back to the first point again

* Numbers need to be presented in a context that is familiar to your audience, otherwise they have to learn the context as well as trying to understand the numbers.”

For much of the PR industry using Power Point effectively is a big enough challenge in itself, along with numeracy, let alone the mysteries of infographics. But, while the vast majority of PR people like the blog, will never be able to do infographics as well as designers like Lauren Murray and Deirdre Wilson they can begin to understand just how important it is; resist the temptation to fiddle with it themselves through some cookie cutter IT design program; and, learn which experts to trust. The end result will be much more effective communications.

…and while on the subject of Fred Chaney. Perth was the last link in the national network of offices established by the blog’s firm. To celebrate the event we had a function at King’s Park at which Fred was one of the guests. The blog spoke at the function and said “Many people have wondered why we took so long to establish a Perth office. At the risk of offending someone, or perhaps everyone here, the delay was caused by two things: finding someone we trusted; and not particularly wanting to do business in a town where people thought Fred Chaney was a dangerous socialist – even if that is just the view of the West Australian Labor Party.”