Let’s work more visually

Why visual clarity is so important for engineers

Engineers are mostly focused on technology but they could reach more when they change the way of communication.

Jan Wokittel


„Make things clear“, Source: www.HolgerNilsPohl.de

This week I had a very interesting workshop on the topic of “visual clarity”. What does that mean? Almost every day we are all confronted with the situation of presenting ideas, sketching processes, or visualizing elements of a conversation. But what is the best way to do that?

Holger Nils Pohl is one of the leading experts when it comes to the topic of “visual clarity”. For the first time, he taught us the most basic basics of clear and visual communication. What makes good sketches? How do I present my ideas visually? What techniques and methods are there? These were all questions we discussed with Nils.

I was so enthusiastic about the way it was presented that I absolutely wanted to write a post about it. In my daily work, I often notice that people find it difficult to communicate visually. Especially we engineers often fall for the temptation to present technical connections in a complicated way. Of course, it’s fun, but we can’t “sell” our ideas that way.

After the workshop, I had the opportunity to test a new technique of presentation. I had to explain the difference between process thinking and product thinking using simple self-drawn icons (if you are especially interested in that, just write to me). The method behind it was especially well received by the audience, as it differs from the typical PowerPoint slides: On the iPad I installed the app Procreate. After drawing the different icons on individual layers, I simply placed a completely white layer over everything. During the presentation, I slowly erased one icon after the other with the eraser. This way a nice story was created beside the spoken word.

Visual I created to demonstrate the difference between process thinking and product thinking.

Why visual clarity is so important

Steve Jobs already knew that good design is fundamental to the success of products. A product is not always a physical element. A product can also be an idea or a process. Nils’ workshop was all about learning how to “visually formulate” products to make them easier to understand for other people.

“Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”
Steve Jobs

Many people think they can’t draw but they are wrong. There are many free sources on the internet that are an inspiration for typically used visuals and icons:

  • Free Hand-drawn visual set
  • FontAwesome (typical Icons are created to break down a special message/context, so they are perfect for usage)
  • Icons8 (free source for different icons)
  • Pinterest: I created my own pin-walls to collect cool ideas and visuals I found online.
  • Google: Just use the Google Picture search and type in something like “checkmark icon png”. The *png is recommended because then you mostly get icons with transparent background. Because of copyright just use that when you have something internally.
  • Tip: Holger also have a daily draw session on LinkedIn which is very cool for learning
First just learn some basic visuals like people, buildings, etc.

Most processes can be made much more understandable by using simple icons. Especially in presentations you should take care not to use too much text (e.g. 20–30 words per slide). It is sometimes frightening to see that many presenters think it would be a quality feature to put as much text information as possible on the slides to show how smart they are — they are not! If you are really good, you can explain a problem on a slide with little information. Here I always recommend the “grandma test”: If you can simplify a problem in a way that your grandma understands it, then you are on the right track.

Visuals are just right because the listener will independently find an explanation for the icons in his brain. On the soundtrack, further information can then be told.
Especially in workshops, you should pay attention not to let the time span of your speech become longer than 15 minutes. Otherwise, you will lose the attention of the audience. Then builds in further exercises in which the participants become active.

Of course visual can be used especially for personal presentations. If presentations are sent to an audience and the requirement is that the presentation is self-explanatory, it is, of course, necessary to add further textual information. For this, you can either use the note field or you have to add further text. BUT: the less the better also applies here. Nobody will read a small novel. I’ve never seen anyone being praised for it because there was a lot of text on presentations — on the contrary: you get praise when a message is simple and clear.

The power of colors

Besides visual, the use of text is another area enormously important for visual clarity: color. We, engineers, have probably never dealt with colors in our education, but here is my personal experience. It is much better to attract the attention of the audience if a consistent color scheme is used — it is not for nothing that many companies put a defined color scheme into their PowerPoint templates. Really limit yourself to a consistent color scheme. If you want to think “out of the box” or need a good tool to create color schemes, I can recommend the Adobe power wheel. Generally, valid color gauges are already preset there and you will get great combinations. Personally, I like the complementary scheme a lot.

Use defined color schemes to highlight your bullet points and headlines

As an engineer, it is especially important to me to point out that too often we still don’t communicate clearly enough. Our listeners are often not familiar with the details - especially with technical solutions we have to communicate even more easily. We are often too much in the technical solution and forget our actual message. As a result we don’t reach our listeners in a way that would be good for us. We could achieve more if we communicate and present more clearly and easily.

I hope I could help you a little bit, so you can sell your ideas and concepts better in the future.



Jan Wokittel

✦ Helping Visioneers to shape the digitized future and bring their ideas to life. As an engineer and entrepreneur I would like to inspire and generate sparks. ✦