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From child’s play to rocket science - The power of visual communication

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/violetkaipa)

When I say that technical specialists at some of the world’s largest manufacturers and engineering companies communicate like children, I’m not being rude. These are some of our top customers, and I would never want to offend them.

In fact, it’s a great compliment, because children are the most effective communicators there are; particularly in the pre-speech phase when they cannot rely on words. Anyone who now has, or has had, young children will back me up on this!

The way sighted children learn to communicate is instructive. They begin to recognise things they see before they begin to conceive of those things having names. Their understanding of the world is visual before it is verbal. They acquire meaning through what they can see, not what they can read.

In the complex, adult world of the enterprise, particularly where technical visual communication is involved, we are often reminded that our experience of learning to communicate never actually leaves us.

We have all heard the old adage that ‘a picture is worth a thousand words.’ At Canvas we have heard a slight variation on this from many customers and end users: Pictures tell a story more efficiently than words.

Across many sectors, the ability to translate complex ideas and data into effective, communicative images is a crucial skill. It may be that specialist technical illustrators are on hand to provide the capability, or it may be that people in adjacent roles take on the task themselves, sometimes it may just be a drawing on a white board. 

Consider for example being a project manager and team leader orchestrating critical maintenance work on a nuclear reactor. You’re presented with a printed maintenance schedule running in excess of 100 pages which you must ensure your team of engineers can digest, easily follow, and refer back to throughout the project.

Time-effectiveness

How can you make this possible in the most time-effective manner while ensuring a level of understanding which risks no compromise on safety and security? A customer of ours in this situation took a highly innovative approach. He actually condensed that scheduling document into a single visual image that everyone in his team could access.

This meant that, with just a single glance, anyone involved in this particular maintenance project could see precisely where each team member was at any given time, what they were working on, when each phase of the project began and concluded, and other critically relevant information. This approach was so successful, in fact, that the same visualisation was requested by the management team at the nuclear plant to they could stay updated on progress. It ended up being displayed throughout the complex on 65” monitors.

In a different but equally high-pressure environment, we’ve seen how technical visual communication plays a vital role in supporting and managing the maintenance work carried out on military aircraft. We have a lot of users at one of the world’s largest aerospace companies, for example.

One of these technical illustrators heads a team preparing the documentation which communicates the processes required for support and maintenance for these planes. He explained how keeping these aircraft fit for use requires the front-line maintenance and repair staff to have absolute clarity of understanding when it comes to the service programmes set out by the engineers responsible for the products - right down to the angle at which it is best to hold a pair of pliers when adjusting wires in the aircraft electrical systems.

These two sets of people - the maintainers and the engineers - tend to have contrasting backgrounds. PhD Engineers with eight years of university education have an entirely different lexicon from high school graduates who have joined the military and trained as service personnel. This latter group have great visual skills, great manual dexterity, and they’re highly adept at executing instructions. But they need to understand what has to be done.

Reminder of power

At the centre of this are those technical illustrators, who have long been the liaison between the two groups. Here, visual communication is literally a form of translation, a means of enabling two separate but interdependent groups to function effectively as part of a larger, distributed team.

It is just the same for automotive and heavy manufacturing industries. Wherever you have complex products which require ongoing service and maintenance over the course of their life (and we’re talking about products that last many decades) giving someone a picture that explains how to do the job gets that job done accurately and efficiently. 

Another of our users, this one at one of the leading aeronautics and space research agencies, designs electrical systems for space machines. He creates drawings to visually represent electrical and mechanical information about spacecraft design for a broad audience of engineers and management teams. When you consider that some of the spacecraft being designed today cost billions of dollars and must maintain communication over distances as great as 400 million miles, the need for absolute clarity is paramount.

The level of detail and dedication this can involve is truly extraordinary. The latest wiring diagram this engineer is working on, for the largest, most powerful and complex space telescope ever built, which will be launched next year, has been in production for the last two decades. It contains almost 30,000 individual items in a software document that, in real terms, is almost 70 square feet in size.

These real-world examples are, for me, a great reminder of the remarkable power of visual communication. This was the first form of understanding for the great majority of us and still informs how we process information today. It is, at once, child’s play and rocket science.

Patricia Hume, CEO, Canvas GFX