Visualizing Text

Visualizing Text

This is the second post in a series on the basics of utilizing visualization, with focus on working with pen and paper. If you haven’t yet, I recommend starting with the first blog post.

Text is definitely the most straight-forward and in the majority of cases the most common element in visualization. Knowing how to make the best out of your text can have great impact on your flipcharts, sketchnotes and more. Without further ado, let’s jump into text!

What is the benefit of text?

Text is ubiquitous. Compared to the other elements of visualization (like images), we might not even recognize text as something put deliberately into a book, a flipchart, a sketchnote or a slide. Text is simply what we expect.

But still, text as a visual element has specific properties that define how we perceive information in the form of text:

  • Text is precise. An image can say more than a thousand words, but which of the thousand words did you actually want to use? We have a substantially more rigid understanding of the meaning of a word than the meaning of a symbol or an image.
  • Text is logical. It is processed in a different part of our brain than images. The part that processes text is responsible for logical, sequential and practical thinking.
  • Text is rather objective. Whereas several people tend to interpret the same image differently, information as text will much more likely create the same understanding in different people.

This gives us clear use cases in which text should be the “star of the show”: Whenever specific pieces of information need to be transmitted, text is the weapon of choice.

Sometimes text is all you need. If there should be little to no room for interpretation, pure text can be an excellent choice.

How to draw text nicely

Now that we share an understanding of the power and impact of text, let’s check out how we can put it into practice. If you are interested in the design-based approach on digital text, this comprehensive online-guide will give you a great introduction to typography. However, I won’t go more into detail here, as this post is about producing text on paper.

I would like to show you the basic tips & tricks that helped me writing legible text. I highly suggest not simply reading this. If you want to learn about visualizing text, grab a pen and paper and go for it! If you have access to a flipchart marker, I advice to use that instead of a traditional pen.

One thing I want to make clear before we start: Our goal is not to make the most aesthetically beautiful text. Our goal is to make text that is very easy to read. As I mentioned in my first post on visualization: Visualization is not art, it’s design. So don’t be afraid that your handwriting will not look beautiful, because beauty should not be our priority anyways! With that out of the way, let’s get to it.

Drawing, not writing!

The easiest and most effective way to improve your text on visuals can be summarized in a simple statement: Don’t write your text, draw your text!

We’ve been writing text since we learned doing that in school. When we stand in front of a piece of paper ready to visualize, the very first impulse can easily be “business as usual”. Visualization works better when we “shift gears” and use the paper in a different way from how we write in a school exam. This is how I see this difference:

  • Drawing happens consciously. When I draw text, I am planning ahead the lines I need to make. When I write text, the process is happening subconsciously. I am not really concentrating on how I will draw the lines. I “just do it”.
  • When writing, I don’t consider the page as a whole. I’m writing from line to line to line. When drawing I consider my text being part of a larger whole. I am aware of how much space I need to write my words and plan ahead when to make line breaks.
  • Drawing takes more time than writing. Drawing is slower and more deliberate than writing.

So in short, by simply spending more time on putting your text on the page and by concentrating on the individual strokes you’re making you significantly improve the outcome.

Yes, this will take more time than simply writing away. However, since we have two more crucial elements (Imagery & Structure) to use to convey meaning, we don’t need nearly as much text as we would if we were writing a consistent text flow.

What “Font” to choose?

When sitting in front of almost any software that enables editing text, we have a myriad of fonts to choose from to give the text we’re writing character. Of course this can also be done on paper.

Different ways to draw text and how I like to use each style.

I really believe that the image completely speaks for itself, but in case you’d like some more text with your text, here is a short summary:

  1. Simple Text
    The best font to compare this style with would be Arial or Helvetica. It is simple, every letter is written for itself (no connecting elements). The letters are drawn functionally, there is little space for anything extra. Because of the simplicity, this style is probably the easiest to read and draw and therefore my general choice for visualizing text. I only deviate from this style on special occasions.
  2. Fancier Text in the handwritten style
    This alternative style is more reminiscent of the way that I (and probably many others) have learned to write in school. It definitely looks visually more interesting. However, this more interesting look comes with a price: Generally speaking, this style takes longer to read and write. Therefore, I save it for the rare moments, when I want to highlight a specific word in a sentence that way. The different style contrasts the word/phrase strongly and stresses it well. The extra time spent “stumbling” over the different style can be used to make sure that the word is read very carefully. In my experience, this works well as long as it is used in moderation.
  3. Bold Text
    This style is different from the others as it contains a real area for each letter rather than only lines. To me this is reminiscent of some types of graffiti. The fact that this style can easily take up larger areas (and can be filled with color) means that it is great for catching attention right away. Because of that, I really enjoy using this for headlines.

I really don’t want to give you detailed instructions on how to draw any particular “font” in this post. These examples should serve as an inspiration for you to practice drawing. Once you feel generally comfortable and confident with drawing text, you might want to look at shaping “your own font”.

Of course, there are great fonts online that emulate the impression of a nicely done handwriting. The font of your choice is just a Google search away. I am happily using the flipchart font designed by Neuland. (In case you want to get it but don’t speak German, here is a direct download link)

Rule of Thirds

Do you remember how you learned to write text? When I learned to write I had these lines that guided me to get the different heights of the different letters right. These typically split the different “height levels” in equal sizes. If you check out some of the more popular fonts, you might find out that this “50-50-distribution” is not really followed.

Two different ways to distribute height between larger/smaller letters. The second example is generally easier to read.

Text Boxes!

If you want your text to really pop out, you can use the simple beauty that are text boxes. Just follow these three simple steps:

  1. Visualize your text
  2. Draw a box around your text
  3. Make your box fancy!

Or, in more visual terms:

Inspiration: Even Fancier Text Boxes

Of course there are a million other (arguably more creative) ways to make your text pop out by boxing it somehow. By combining your (sure-to-come) skills from drawing imagery you can get as crazy as you’d like:

And now go practice!

With all of these tips, there should be nothing stopping you from visualizing text in an effective and engaging way. If you feel a bit overwhelmed in front of an empty piece of paper, fear not. This is absolutely normal. The only way to really get comfortable with virtually anything is practice. I wish you the best of success in making engaging text happen.

Author: Michael

Creative Idealist, Whole-Minded Designer, Passionate Educator, Loving Artist

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