Writing, visuals, and Wonderful Life with the Elements

Wonderful Life with the Elements - cover One of the most difficult writing tasks is to combine visuals with words. And I’m not just talking about writing scripts. I’m talking about writing documentation and tutorials.

The difficulty goes beyond melding diagrams and flowcharts with your text, too. How about using visuals and words to present complex material? While it’s been done for decades, the results have varied from being quite effective to not quite hitting the mark. And if you’re not a very visual technical communicator (it’s OK, I’m not incredibly visually oriented) doing the job well can be challenge. To say the least.

If you’re willing to take the time to learn how to effectively meld words and images, then you’ll want to give the book Wonderful Life with the Elements by Bunpei Yorifuji a look. It’s described as:

an illustrated guide to the periodic table that gives chemistry a friendly face

And the book also, whether the original intention was there or not, provides a solid template for explaining a complex topic by melding text and visuals.

Let’s take a brief look at Wonderful Life with the Elements.

Step by step

Each chapter of Wonderful Life with the Elements builds on the previous one. It starts out by introducing a number of common elements, then illustrates how those elements have been used through the ages. Not just by humans, but by nature as well. As I mentioned a few paragraphs ago, it’s not a new idea and has been done before. But what Yorifuji has done is use the visuals to tell a story and not just illustrate what the reader is (or should be) learning.

That storytelling approach makes the subject matter more accessible and relates it to the reader’s everyday life. Going back to the first couple of chapters, showing how elements have been used by people over the years makes the idea of the periodic table a bit more relevant. It sure beats looking at a bunch of arcane combinations of letters – like Fe, Ra, and Uus – in a table and trying to figure out what they all mean.

A picture is worth a thousand words, but …

But unless that picture has context, it’s meaningless. Yes, text is also important. Wonderful Life with the Elements, as I mentioned earlier, combines text and visuals. But the text melds with the images that it supports – there’s just enough explanation to complement the images, but it doesn’t distract too much from them.

Here’s a sample page out of the book, which explains how some elements can combine to do harm:

Sample page

Lessons for technical communicators

Wonderful Life with the Elements is a solid guide to how to use visuals to teach and explain. Again, the technique used by the book is nothing new. Illustrated, and sequential art, manuals have existed for decades. But the book also adds the element of story to explain a complex and difficult subject.

And the emphasis of Wonderful Life with the Elements is simplicity. The drawings are simple, the text is easy to read, and it makes dealing with the subject matter – in this case, the periodic table – a whole lot easier. While many, and not just academics, will scoff at using these techniques, at no time does the book talk down to the reader. Quite the opposite. It starts from the premise that the reader is intelligent and is looking to learn the periodic table quickly and efficiently. Wonderful Life with the Elements helps them do just that, in a novel way.

Yea or nay?

I say yea. I found Wonderful Life with the Elements to be a refreshing look at a subject the vexed me in high school. On top of that, I saw the potential for the book’s approach to be applied to technical communication.

Admittedly, an illustrated guide like Wonderful Life with the Elements isn’t suitable for all technical topics. It might even alienate some readers. But if done properly, an illustrated guide can educate, and help make that education stick.

If nothing else, this book is worth studying to learn a new wrinkle on an old approach to teaching complex topics in an easy-to-understand and easy-to-follow way. And isn’t teaching what technical communication is all about?

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