Challenging ideas? Try communicating visually.


I wish I could convince everyone just how useful it is to put complex ideas in visual form. Not everyone deals well with abstractions, and even for those who do, it’s a lot more work, and hence a deterrent to learning. Gonick’s Cartoon History of the Universe is excellent for that reason—I don’t know that it’s a particularly excellent history, but it’s likely to engage and educate far more people than any text-only equivalent.

I say this as a writer myself—I believe in the power of words to explain, convince, inspire, and engage. But when you have controversial, difficult, or off-putting material at hand, you need to use every available tool to engage the reader’s attention, and connect the abstract and general with the concrete and particular.

Given 100 people you’d like to understand (say) climate change, would you rather end up with one expert and 99 completely uninformed people, or 90 decently well-informed people and 10 uninformed? (There’s a hard core of wilful people you’ll probably never reach.) I’d like to see more instances of the latter, myself, but it’s hard to argue that approach, because it gets mixed up with mass-media approach: dumbing down the ideas so far that you get one angry expert, fuming at the stupidity, and 99 who know nothing, but confidently believe they understand the issue much better than the experts.

Try to pitch accessible, engaging, entertaining explanations, and the aforesaid angry experts denounce you for pandering. Understandable, but counterproductive. So, by way of evidence, here is a startling and fascinating take on the issue of drug addiction, in cartoon form—carefully fact-checked, expert-reviewed cartoons, you understand—by an impressive Australian artist.

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