Election Day!

By Nancy Duarte

After costing us more than the GDP of a small developing nation, election day has finally come and gone. A political cartoon seems in order. After all, cartoons have been used for persuasion and visual story telling for centuries. In my humble opinion, the best cartoons need the fewest words. The best ones are also laugh-out-loud funny and don’t need a lot of explanation.

In many ways, cartoons are the ultimate visual metaphors. Using hardly any words, a good cartoon can convey humor, emotion, and complex information about a scenario, at a single glance.

Political cartoon of tic tac toe and the faces of Barack Obama and John McCain
Copyright 2008 Daryl Cagle – All Rights Reserved. www.caglepost.com

Here’s one I thought had genius in its simplicity and clarity of meaning.

No words are used but the meaning of the cartoon is clear to anyone who’s ever played a game of tic-tac-toe: Obama is going to win.

Now picture this version:

Obama holding a sign that says “Winner” and McCain standing next to him holding a sign that says “Loser.” The meaning is the same but it seems stupid and uninteresting when presented in that way. What’s the difference?

Instead of simply stating the facts in an obvious way, the illustrator used a visual metaphor.

What’s a visual metaphor?

Like a verbal metaphor, it tells a story. It compares one subject to another in an indirect way. We gain greater insight into the primary subject because attributes of the secondary subject are assigned to it.

Visual metaphors work the same way. Typically, two different subjects are combined into a single image, thus creating a new meaning and giving us greater insight into the original subject.

We must first comprehend each subject separately before we are able to derive a new meaning from them when they are combined. This is why it is important to chose images that are unambiguous in their meaning and have a clear and established cultural symbolism.

In this case we recognize McCain and Obama (primary subject) and we know they are engaged in an election contest. We also recognize a game of tic-tac-toe (secondary subject) and quickly assess that McCain has no way to win. Discovering the new meaning is gratifying for us as viewers. It engages us in the learning process and makes the information more compelling.

Another reason this cartoon is effective is that as humans, we are constantly drawing conclusions and projecting outcomes. Picture the tic-tac-toe cartoon with all the spots filled in and Obama with three-in-a-row win. Is seems flat and dull and pointless, doesn’t it? Again, the meaning is the same but the experience is a lot less satisfying because there is no narrative and no conclusion to be drawn.

What about this cartoon?

Political cartoon of a piano with "U.S. Economy" written on it, hanging over presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama
Copyright 2008 Wright – All Rights Reserved. www.caglepost.com

This example demonstrates the energy created by incorporating narrative and by building expectation.  Would this have been as powerful if the cartoon was drawn showing the scene 10 seconds later, when the piano had already dropped? Of course not. The meaning, that the US economy threatens both campaigns remains the same, but the tension and excitement is gone. When we look at this cartoon we see a scenario “in progress” which has more energy than one which is resolved and has already come to an end.

Food for thought:

  • How can you use visual metaphors more effectively in your communication?
  • Are you spelling everything out for your audience and depriving them of the joy of discovery?
  • Do your images and data presentation show the piano as about to drop… or already fallen?
  • Do you build tension into your images (and thus inject energy and expectation) or do you show everything resolved?
  • How can you give your audience enough information to help them draw the right conclusion for themselves without shoving it down their throats?

(This, by the way, is the secret of successful fiction writers. They tantalize you with hints to get you guessing at how the book ends. Then they give you the ending you want but in a way you didn’t expect. The book is satisfying because you and the author went on a journey together and arrived at the same destination.)

Do you set your audience up to track with you and then reward them with unforgettable “Aha” moments?

Topics Covered

Communication, Visual thinking

Written by

Nancy Duarte

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