Many Audiences

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I came across an excellent talk that Jonathan Corum, science graphics editor for the New York Times, recently gave in Copenhagen called “Design for an Audience.” The whole presentation is so thrillingly good from start to finish that I hate to quibble even a little, but “an” audience isn’t quite right. Because the talk is really about how there are multiple audiences that one has to consider during a design process.

For Corum, his ultimate audience is the readers of the New York Times. But before his visual stories hit the streets, the information contained in them has to be presented to several different groups. First, the scientists whose research forms the basis for the story have to address members of their own fields in scientific journals. Then Corum, who isn’t a trained scientist, takes on the task of understanding the findings in layman’s terms. At this point, he is trying to explain the research to himself: he is his own audience. Next he takes that understanding and some rough visual ideas to a different audience: his team, a group of people who come from different academic backgrounds. Finally the team works together to produce graphics that tell a story that a reader can understand and appreciate in a few minutes. All of these audiences have benefited from having their unique need to understand addressed by design.

Here is an example of what he's talking about.

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A diagram of an emerging language. Audience = linguists.

Here is another diagram of an emerging language.

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The same information, redesigned for a different audience (NYT readers).

Both diagrams contain the same information, but the second clarifies the graphic elements, shows hierarchy, and provides context for a lay audience. It tells a story in a way that the first one does not.

This idea of “many audiences” is important to the work we do at Fat Pencil Studio as well. Often when a lawyer first considers working with us, she is thinking of her ultimate audience: the judge and/or jury. Certainly compelling visual stories are a great way to communicate to that audience. But here’s the thing: as Corum shows us, visual stories are a great way to communicate to any audience, including the audience of the lawyer herself, the audience of her client, the audience of her legal team (including experts), and the audience of her opposing counsel.

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Why are visual stories such an effective means of communicating ideas and information? Because the process of creating the visual stories—commonly known as “design”—is the process of making thought visible. When thoughts are made visible they become clear, accessible, and invite engagement in a way that writing and talking might not.

Over the course of a case, a lawyer might end up telling the story of her case hundreds of times. If the repeated telling of that story doesn’t advance understanding, then that’s simply time wasted. But if the thinking behind that story can be made visible, then understanding increases both for the storyteller and her many audiences.

Adrienne Leverette started work as an illustrator at Fat Pencil Studio in 2011, and ultimately became a Principal before leaving the company in 2018.