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Visual Narrative
by Juan C. Dürsteler [message nº 86]

Visual Narrative is entering in the business world, combining the virtues of conceptual diagrams with the coolness of comics. The work of XPLANE is an example of this.

Since the beginning of time we humans have been representing the stories of what happens to us in pictorial ways. Aural and visual narrative are interwoven in our past, from cave paintings to comic stripes and movie language, including shadow play.

For images can resemble what they represent becoming auto illustrative elements, while words, ideal for abstraction, are deficient for description. It’s not an easy task to describe a platypus using words and guaranteeing that the receiver of the message understands what animal it is.

In this sense the Xplane company (I’m indebted to Francesc Maña for the inspiration for this article) is performing pioneering work in introducing visual narrative in the field of business communication.

Xplane was founded in 1994 by Dave Gray, former teacher and graphic journalist in St. Louis, Missouri. Today it has 17 people on the team. Anybody that has browsed the printed version of the excellent magazines Business 2.0 and Wired will recognise the hand of Xplane in many of the explanatory graphics that usually occupy their pages.

Xplane produces what they call Xplanations, that are basically diagrams that explain in a comic like format complex processes like the sale of a particular product or technologies like that of the nanobots (see for example the diagram made for TIME magazine).

Xplanations are the happy outcome of the convergence between visual narrative and Internet connectivity. According to Xplane pictorial stories: 

  • are easy to understand due to their visual contents

  • can convey complex information due to their narrative form, without over simplifying.

  • can be mass produced and mass distributed without distortion 

An example among the many available at Xplane’s web site is that of Anheuser-Busch that wanted a visual narrative explaining the process of creating one of their advertisements. The result is a very clarifying diagram.

XPlaneAnheuserBusch.jpg (137170 bytes)
The Anheuser-Busch "Xplanation"  of the creation of an advertisement as seen in XPLANE.com. Click on the image to enlarge it

Image courtesy of XPLANE as seen in XPLANE.com, Xplanations by XPLANE.com

Another example is that of Heybridge, a company that offers e-commerce solutions and that wanted to explain why their solution was the most appropriate compared with other available ones. Both deserve taking a look at.

XPlaneHeyBridge.gif (97968 bytes) XPlaneHeyBridge2.gif (94919 bytes)
The "Xplanation" for the Heybridge case study as seen  in XPLANE.com. It's splitted into two parts: one showing the obstacles to cross into e-commerce and the second shows the Heybridge proposal to overcome them. Click on the image to enlarge it

Images courtesy of XPLANE, as seen in XPLANE.com, Xplanations by XPLANE.com

Visual narrative has been scarcely used until now in the business world. Maybe the most sophisticated things that we have today are the graphic presentations popularised by PowerPoint and other similar tools that are typically used with more will than success.

There’s no doubt that in the future internal and external communication between companies will use more and more tools of visual narrative. But are we prepared to use visualisation tools in everyday communication?

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