“What is it about animation, graphics,
illustrations that create meaning?”

This is the question information designer, Tom Wujec, asks as he embarks on an exploration of how our brains visualize the world. In this TedTalk, How the Brain Creates Meaning from Images, he makes a very compelling case, not only for the use of imagery, but using interactive imagery.

What does this mean for those of us who wish to engage our audience in ways that not only enhance the understanding of information, but also inspire action?

I invite you to hold this question in your mind as you watch this fascinating presentation on how our brains not only make sense of the world, but also bring meaning to it.


“A good graphic invites the eye to dart around and to selectively create a visual logic. So the act of engaging and looking at the image creates the meaning.”

He also goes on to say, “We make meaning by seeing.”

What I find notable is that he did not say our brains create meaning from hearing or reading. Inviting people to see what you are saying is what makes a message stick. Each of us will bring our own unique experience and flavor of meaning to a presentation, and to me, this is where story comes in. Allow people to find their own connections, and their hearts and minds will resonate with what is being presented.

Before creating your next presentation, I suggest pausing at the very beginning and asking yourself one all-important question: What do you want your audience to do as a result? If the only goal is to hurl information at them,  it’s likely your presentation will suck.

But I want your presentation, your website–all your visual communication–to be suck-less. Really. But suck-less generally doesn’t happen by itself. Anything worth doing requires additional thought and preparation.

How important is your message? How badly do you want to succeed? Which is better–quickly throwing together some slides which are ineffective, or working toward excellence?

Just a quick note: cheesy stock photos and sophomoric clipart images do little to inspire interaction. And before I hear the Powerpoint Whimper… it goes something like, “Oh, Susan, I can’t afford expensive, high-end Getty images!” Take a look at the simple, yet highly effective typography and images in Mr. Wujec’s talk:


Feel free to imagine a flat illustration of a human brain in profile above, and you will notice just how basic the design approach is. What makes this work is the style is consistent. There is nothing fancy here, it’s just plain, simple and easy. Do your eyes dart back and forth from the brain to the hand-drawn illustrations? Mine do.

And the image below? Technically, the three text boxes along the bottom should be centered better within the screen, but the slide demonstrates an understanding of visual hierarchy…


“Make Meaning” holds precedence, followed by the brain illustrations (the red draws the eye up), followed by the descriptive text at the bottom. It’s just basic, simple, logical design which enhances communication, rather than bombarding the audience with visual vomit. If every element on the screen held the same amount of visual weight, viewers would have to determine which one held the most importance, and if an audience is trying to make sense of a slide, you’ve lost engagement.

What do you think? Have I been staring at my computer screen for too many years in a row, or does this make some sense to you too? Truly, there is an art to design, and sometimes, the simplest, most straightforward approach can trump slicker, more decorative approaches.

If you have a worthwhile story to tell, communicating effectively should be the highest priority. When each element on the screen has a justifiable and logical place in the visual hierarchy and you’ve taken the time to find images which impart meaning, you’ll be well on your way to hitting the ball out of the park with a kick-ass and suck-less presentation.


Taos web designer Susan J PrestonCreative Director, Susan J. Preston, began freelancing as a web designer in Washington, DC in 1996. Her presentation design has appeared in animations, webinars, presentations for The Pew Foundation, iovation, Bloomberg BNA, Eli Lilly and The Discovery Channel. Since 2010 she has resided in Santa Fe & Taos, New Mexico, creating websites for creative professionals and entrepreneurs with a focus on clear and effective visual communication which clearly communicates and inspires audience engagement.

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