Aligning questions to visuals

If you align your design to the questions you’re asking, you can create powerful visual storytelling communications.

In journalism—or any kind of information gathering—questions establish focus and engage readers’ attention. Reporters learn to start with the “five W’s”: who, what, where, when, and why (plus how). But questions also act as signposts when designing a visual communication. Different kinds of questions relate to different types of visuals. So thinking about what question(s) you need to answer is a great place to start when designing visual communication.

It makes sense if you think about it. If someone is asking a “When” question, a timeline is a great visual. For a “Where” question, you might create a map. But some other corollaries may not be as readily apparent. In this post I’m going to explore some of those corollaries that exist between questions and visuals and how they can help create powerful visual communications.


The right questions

In order for this to work effectively, you need to make sure you’re asking the right questions. This is a matter of finding out what your viewers main issues are and really getting to the heart of what they need to know.

An infographic should be able to answer 3-5 key questions. But in order to come up with a visual framework, you need to know what your primary overarching question is. What’s the main thing your viewer is asking, or needs to know? Usually from the larger group of 3-5 questions you can establish the one primary question that frames the information.

Sometimes you know your framework right away. Boom, it’s a process map. But sometimes it’s not so clear. And sometimes you may think you need a process map but what will really highlight the story is a pain-gain. And that comes down to a) making sure you’re asking the right question; and b) aligning your communication to that question.

In my experience, there’s no one-to-one relationship between types of questions and infographic frameworks. And things can get more complicated when you start combining frameworks. But for now we’ll keep it simple. What follows are some general rules-of-thumb for six types of questions:



(e.g., Who’s responsible? Who does this affect?)

For “Who” questions, we’re usually talking about roles and responsibilities. In these cases we need to establish a way to easily distinguish between different roles in an organization. This could mean color coding, or could also be conveyed through grouping or different visual characteristics.




(e.g., What’s our vision? What’s our current state? What are the risks?)

The focus of “What” questions can range from specific (obstacles, for example) to the very broad (our vision). But in general we’re talking about a thing or group of things. So when we ask “what’s our vision?”, in a visual sense we’re asking “what are the components of our vision?”. For questions like these I try to find a metaphor that can accommodate various components such as a skyline or a cutaway of a building. Or it could be a set of icons arranged in a meaningful way.

brightspot - Planning the Museum of the Future



(e.g., Where are the risks? Where are we versus our competition?)

“Where” questions are all about location and distance. Where is X in relation to Y. What’s in the way. But distance in these cases is often metaphorical as in, how far are we from our competition? So here we want to show what’s in that intervening space. “Where” questions can also be a “What” in disguise. If you’re asking “where is our organization headed?” you may actually be asking “what is our destination?” A “where” question focuses on distance and relationships to other points whereas a “what” is about defining the destination.




(e.g., When will we reach our goal? When will we know we’re there?)

“When” questions are more specific in nature. Because of that, these are almost never a primary question, but can be supporting questions nested within a larger framework (or as a sidebar). The main thing here is the element of time. So here, a timeline framework is often appropriate. “When” will be a specific point (or range) on a timeline. In which case it becomes important to make sure it’s visually distinct from everything else on the line.

APS Swimlane Graphic



(e.g., Why do we need to change? Why is this important?)

When you need to convince people to change, you go for a “why.” If you ask “why should this happen?” you’re basically looking for a change of some sort. Why should X become Y? A great visual solution for this is the side-by-side comparison. The pain-gain, the before-and-after, the guy in the ad who uses two different kinds of shaving cream on his face. These all work to answer “why” questions.




(e.g., How does it work? How will we get there?)

How is probably my favorite in that it lends itself so easily to visual interpretation. How something works, how we get somewhere, how am I going to put this Ikea bookshelf together? This is almost always going to be a process. How implies action in sequence. How does it work, how did this happen? How visuals require a set of steps with a clear beginning and ending.




Aligning questions to visuals is really where the rubber meets the road when designing visual communications. It’s that “translation” point where words and ideas start to become visual structures. If you’re asking the right question, and using the right visual frameworks, you’re well on your way to clear, comprehensible visual communication.

Illustration by Christina Wang / Tremendousness