Explainers often have lofty goals in their subject matter, but we know that different people have different styles of learning. Explainers utilize many tools to break down complicated subjects beyond just a block of text, and we’ve collected eight of the best. Some of them are visual, interactive, or entertaining, but all of them help users easily digest intricate topics.
Infographics are visual representations of data. They can be as simple as a bar graph, or may contain complex interactive elements. In any case, infographics can render information that might seem esoteric in its raw form into something much easier to grasp. One great example is Naming Names, a visual chart of “he said, she said” political games that is visually pleasing, informative, and interactive. Whereas many infographics are merely supplements to larger stories, this manages to have its own unique narrative.
Whether you use After Effects, Flash, or good old paper and pencil, animation can be one of the most successful tools for visual explanation. Sometimes, the simpler the better, as is the case with CommonCraft, which uses basic stick figure drawings to describe a wide array of topics from “Saving for Retirement” to “Augmented Reality” in a way that is basic, direct, and most of all, elegant.
As Google Maps and its competitors continue to evolve, and location-specific data becomes more readily available, the applications for mapping are growing. Mapping is integral to the art of explanation because it allows us to relate pieces of data that exist on a global, national, or community scale. A great example of explaining a national trend is this map from Slate that tracks the location and number of job losses in the U.S. The fact that it is also animated and time sensitive adds a chilling element to the data; as you watch, the red circles representing job loss grow consuming bigger portions of the map.
Just as mapping allows you to relate data between locations, timelines allow you to plot out distinct moments in time. Since explanatory journalism is, at its core, about providing context and background, timelines are an essential component to this practice, describing when news stories began, showing they progressed, and suggesting where they are headed. What makes this timeline by Nigel Holmes so great is that it can be understood by a lot of people in a short amount of time. It not only gives us what happened, but also key definitions, metaphors, and analysis. In other words, it’s not just when, but a bit of who, what, and why.
Like animation, music is a primarily entertaining medium, but it can also encourage the retention of information. How many of us have learned songs in school as nmenomic devices for the quadratic equation or the 50 U.S. states? This is something that children’s programs like Schoolhouse Rock and Sesame Street have done well for years. And for explanatory music that describes something a bit more elaborate, check out this rap that describes how CERN’s Large Hadron Collider works.
The comic strip is a vibrant and exciting art form full of opportunities for innovation. But most importantly for our purposes, its paneled style makes it perfect for step-by-step, sequential explanation. Howtoons, a “do-it-yourself” blog that teaches how to make a variety of cool gadgets from household objects, is a great example of this.
But comics can also be used to more serious ends. Take this strip about stoning from the National Post News: the use of drawings allows for visual representation where photos or video could be far too graphic for most users. Additionally, paneled structure lends the proceedings a chilling sense of formality that contrasts with the horrifying scene it depicts.
Games and quizzes that supplement explanatory journalism make the process more fun and interactive, and the data gleaned from user responses can be enlightening in their own right. For example, the Pew Research Center quizzes are not only a great way to test your knowledge of current events, but they also provide powerful insights into the knowledge of their audience across age, gender, and education demographics. For our purposes, we can also use quizzes to determine the base knowledge level of individual users and cater our explainers accordingly.
In addition to quizzes, games can be an extremely powerful form of explanation. A great example of this comes is the New York Times’ Budget Puzzle which allows users to balance the budget by cutting programs and adding taxes from an itemized list of options. It’s fun and challenging, but above all it offers users a unique hands-on perspective of the budget situation.
A slideshow’s most important element is visuals; there may also be text, music, or audio narration, but none of these components are absolutely necessary for a successful slideshow. For example, Slate’s “Today’s Pictures” feature contains no sound and minimal captions, but powerfully evokes the feeling of a specific time or place through its striking images. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the BBC piece about the history of an abandoned war-torn village called Imber. It’s a multimedia feast that contains sound effects, narration, and music.
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