Jan 312014

I recently came across a link to this infographic by Julian Hansen.

Infographic by Julian Hansen

I don’t see most infographics as a job aid. They usually aren’t intended to guide you through a task, and don’t usually serve well as reference job aids (my term for information that’s been organized for quick reference). I don’t think this would serve as a true job aid for most non-designers–it’s really busy, and the criss-crossing paths could easily confuse someone.

As this Fontfeed article states, though, that wasn’t really Hansen’s goal.

 Instead of simply browsing through type specimens, Julian wondered if he could come up with something more rational, a systematic approach [to choosing typefaces]. His project took the form of a flowchart on a poster. Studying different type finders made him come to the conclusion that selecting type really could be a matter of taste…. This made Julian decide that his poster should not only be useful, but also be light-hearted and make fun of stereotypes. This made him throw in options like “is it an Italian restaurant?” for instance. His ultimate goal was to show that typefaces convey a whole lot of meaning that “ordinary” people just don’t see.

Assuming that’s true, I see the chart as one way to demonstrate understanding: here’s what I think about fonts and when to use them. This is part of what I think Jane Bozarth means when she says, “We learn by doing, and by telling what we’re doing, and by watching others do things, and by showing others how we did something.”

Personally, I’m not much info fonts.

That’s not the point, though. Work like Hansen’s has the potential to trigger further interest in people.  For example, after reading his chart and the Fontfeed article, I happened to see a tweet by @MizMinh linking to an article on The Next Web:

The Science Behind Fonts (and How They Make You Feel)

Personally, all my working out loud lately has been done on site, in my new job. I’m not unhappy about that; I’m working on an engaging project and I have collaborative colleagues. But I’ve been neglecting other avenues, and this post is one effort to overcome that neglect.

Nov 122013

Between the corporate and academic worlds, the borderlands are wide and mostly ill-defined, but you can always rustle up a ruckus by asking, “What’s the difference between training and education?”

I’m not that big a ruckus-rustler, and nearly all my career has taken place in the non-academic world–at least since a Certain University bounced me, and other unworthies, from its adjunct faculty because we lacked what it referred to with a straight face as “the terminal degree.”

But even in the efficient system of a corporation (which, as Voltaire might have said, is at times neither efficient, nor systematic, nor corporeal) you can spark a decent-sized ruckus by asking about the difference between training and learning.

The main difficulty is that many people who’ve worked in what used to be called training and development have come to see that training as it’s been practiced can be:

  • Narrow in scope (the task, maybe the job, rarely the function)
  • Limited in timeframe (this week, this month, this quarter)
  • Modeled on the dreariest aspects formal education (classrooms, lectures, the semester contact hour)
  • Posited on the transfer of skill–and even more so on the transfer of knowledge

I think all of those are generally true, though I don’t think they’re generally evil.  For example, I see “transfer of skill” as a metaphor for a process through which someone who lacked a skill comes to acquire it.  I do not equate that phrase with “content dump,” though I’ve sat through more than one training class that held strictly to the knowledge-as-freight approach.

Still, the traditional (albeit diminishing) approach to training is a kind of freight train. There’s no steering wheel; someone else controls the signals and throws the switches.  To further overextend the metaphor, the suboptimal form of learning is–I don’t know, some solar-powered, personal flying car, powered by your innate desire to learn.

I’m all for learning, and in particular for learning the things that interest me, but I’m not delusional enough to think that I can necessarily maintain the standard of living I’d like to maintain solely through that.

The drawback, at least in the most extreme forms of this point of view, is that somebody’s got to value your ability to learn what you want, when you want, enough to provide you with a means of making a living. I’m sure people manage that, even a few people I know, but I have no clue how to pull that off myself.

And that’s okay. Especially since I have a new home (Victoria, British Columbia) and a new job–working for a crown corporation in BC. (It’s roughly the equivalent of a not-for-profit corporation, established by the province to administer public-sector pension plans.)

I’m a curriculum designer, which means I work with stakeholders and subject-matter experts to figure out how our people can master new or changing conditions in order to better serve members of pension plans, as well as satisfying the requirements of the plans themselves.

The job search that led to this move is one reason I haven’t posted here for so long: I’d hit a slow period in terms of consulting, and I was ready to make a change. Moving 3,000 miles to another country seemed to have accomplished that.

Years ago, my first professional experience with social media was as part of the original TRDEV-L listserv begun by David Passmore of Penn State. (If you have no idea what a listserv is, then you have some idea how long ago that was.) Many participants wanted to make clear that they spoke for themselves and that their opinions were not necessarily those of their employer’s. My own email signature for TRDEV-L included “My opinions, not GE’s.”

Tthat approach still holds. I’ve missed my blog and want to resume thinking out loud about the interests, ideas, and notions that I see as relating to learning and performance in the workplace. None of this should be taken as necessarily reflecting any policy or program of BC Pension Corporation, or the province of British Columbia, or the government of Canada, or anything other than something that held my interest long enough for me to write about it.

It’s good to be back.

Mar 112013

I’ve been doing a little self-directed learning lately. And it came about because someone told me about Larrivée guitars. Although I hadn’t heard of them till a couple of months ago, I can assure you they’re out of this world–one has been on the international space station for years.

I play guitar, not very well. Mostly I strum chords, because I like to sing. But in that conversation I mentioned, my friend encouraged me to think about getting a quality instrument. That suggestion came at a good time; although I’m not quite ready to spring even for a used Larrivée, I did start picking up the somewhat battered classical guitar I bought when I was in college.

For much of that time I’ve kept a couple of books on fingerpicking. Every so often I’ll work through one or the other, and when I sense some improvement, I feel pretty good. In addition, because I’ve been on a Zachary Richard kick lately, I’ve been trying to learn a couple of his songs, like Travailler, c’est trop dur (link to a video and an English translation on my French-language blog).

larrivee forumThat was one track: doing more with my own guitar. A second track was to find out more about Larrivée guitars, and there seem to be few better places than the Larrivée online forum.

When I enter a new community like this, I wander around for a bit and don’t say too much too soon, unless I can contribute something positive, if only to my experience with a guitar-tuning app for Android phones.

I saw that someone on the forum was selling some DVDs–tutorials for fingerpicking. Turns out they feature Happy Traum, a prolific and popular guitarist and instructor. In fact, one of those instruction books I’ve hung onto for so long is his.

Even if you don’t play an instrument, you can get a sense of Happy’s relaxed, encouraging approach:

That sealed it for me, and the DVDs arrived last weekend. As Bill Deterline said, “Things take longer than they do,” so I’m not fooling myself about how quickly I’ll pick up the techniques in the DVDs.

I can’t help but notice the interplay between what’s essentially a lecture–Happy Traum on DVD, explaining and demonstrating–and the invitation to not simply practice, but to actively modify your practice in order to expand you abilities.

Fundamentally, this is a tightly focused relationship. In effect, Happy’s done instructional design around a specific topic: not just “fingerpicking styles” (content alone) but “how to help a beginner learn to fingerpick.”

He can’t see you or hear you, and he probably doesn’t have enough time in his schedule to work with every student one-to-one. Instead, he starts by slowly and carefully demonstrating and explaining fundamentals.  It’s show-and-tell so you can hear-and-do (or at least hear-and-try).

The first thing we should work on is your steady thumb… Keep a bass going relentlessly, so that you always have that pulse underneath your picking… The ability to keep that thumb going while you’re doing whatever else… You have to develop the facility for doing that. It’s kind of like reprogramming your brain…

First thing we’ll do, just do it on one string… Do this with me…

Within a few minutes of that, he adds:

  • “The most basic melody note” — add a treble note by plucking the first string on just the first beat
  • Switch the treble note to the second string, still on the first beat
  • The second string on the first and the third beat
  • “Now let’s try putting a note on the first and second beat, but leave the third and fourth alone.”
  • Same thing, but with the second string.
  • Alternating between the first and second string (first string on the first beat, second string on the third beat).

I don’t want to keep quoting from the DVD, but I do think that attendees at more than one learning conference could profit from seeing how deftly Happy  introduces complexity at a rate that challenges but (mostly likely) doesn’t frustrate the beginner.

(As for badges–when you’re able to get through “Skip to My Lou” at a normal pace, with the steady thumb-beat and the melody in the upper strings, you’ll have all the badge you need for attaining that particular level.)

Probably some people could figure this out on their own, but I suspect that as with so many other fields, beginning guitar players can feel overwhelmed, not knowing what to pay attention to or what’s an optimal way to proceed. Brownie McGhee certainly didn’t learn guitar from a DVD — but Happy Traum learned from McGhee, and depending on your access to an in-person teacher and your interest in guitar, you can learn from Happy’s DVD.

To emphasize the variety of things that people mean when they say “learning,” I often talk about learning a language. Does learning mean mastering basic grammar? Reading literature in that language? Watching movies without subtitles?  It depends on context.

And that’s true with “learning the guitar.” There are some areas that most people would agree on–you probably need to know what standard tuning is, and probably need to know the basic fingering for chords. So there’s explicit knowledge as a foundation for tacit knowledge (it’s one thing to know what the tuning is, it’s another to actually tune). Beyond such fundamentals, there’s the melody or song you want to play, and there’s the integration of all this into a performance.

I’m not performing much yet. One of my mid-term goals is to improve enough that I could try a Larrivée in a store without completely embarrassing myself. We’ll see how that works out.

Mar 072013

My French isn’t that good: I can hold a conversation (sometimes) but I couldn’t hold a job. One way I try to get better is to read more and listen to more in French. I recently came across the Langue Française section of the TV5Monde site, which has an almost overwhelming range of features.

One of them is 7 jours sur la planète (7 Days on the Planet). It’s a regular feature  with three segments from the week’s TV news. For each segment, you can watch the video clip, read a transcript, and then test your comprehension with three levels of questions (elementary, intermediate, and advanced).

7jours exercises

I watched the first clip in the grid above, about fish fraud (one species of fish passed off as another). I got the gist, then brought up the transcript to spot words I didn’t know, or catch meanings I might have mistaken.

That’s when I discovered Alexandria. TV5Monde’s site is set up so that on a page with a special icon (red circle with a question mark in the upper right of the following image), you can double-click any word to bring up a multi-language dictionary:



In this example, I clicked on l’étiquette. Alexandria popped up with a French-language dictionary, which reminded me that une étiquette is a little card or tag with the price, origin, or instructions for some product or item of merchandise.

You can set the dictionary to translate into any of more than two dozen languages:


(“Choose your target language.”)

What impresses me about this approach is that TV5Monde doesn’t have to create specialized hypertext for certain words. As far as I can tell, Alexandria’s dictionary works with any word on the page.

If you don’t know any French, of course, this would be a terrible way to learn it. You wouldn’t have any background to decide between one meaning and another, and a dictionary can’t tell you much about syntax or context.  The title of the segment in French, La fraude  aux poissons passe à travers les filets, could be read as “Fish fraud passes through the nets.” But even my paperback French-English dictionary has 27 main entries for passer,  and given the subject, I’d translate the title as “Fish fraud is slipping through the nets.”

If  you’ve got a low-to-intermediate level of ability with French, this is a powerful tool to help you understand more of what you read on the TV5Monde site

It looks like there’s a lot more to Alexandria–more than I can spend time on this morning. I have the impression you can link any web page to the dictionary’s features. I haven’t tested that yet, but I will.

Feb 272013

A priest, a minister, and a rabbi walk into a bar.

The bartender looks up and says,
“What is this, some kind of joke?”

No matter how you reacted to that, it’s a lot like how I react to infographics.

Most of them are more about the graphic than the info, I think. In fact, I’d been planning to write a post contrasting infographics with job aids, because I think many people confuse the former with the latter.

Instead, thanks to Mark Oehlert, I came across Desmond Wong’s post, Infographics to Teach You How to Create Infographics. Wong talks about them as a marketing tool, then goes into the details of constructing them using PointPoint, and of harnessing layout and graphics to achieve your goal.

What’s that got to do with those folks walking into a bar?

Infographics are like jokes.
(This is a different statement from “infographics are a joke.”)

Infographics are situational.

People enjoy jokes, but enjoyment (usually) hinges on context. What’s funny at work isn’t always what’s funny at the game; what sparks conversation at the coffee shop can put off someone reading online.

If you’re uninterested in the context, reading an infographic can sometimes like work–the kind of work you’re glad you don’t have to do.

If the graphic elements are well-done, though–when they engage us, the way a good joke-teller does–we’ll at least take time to find out what happens next. We might not stay long, but we didn’t pass by

Infographics rely on patterns.

I haven’t read enough Jung to be sure, but I’d bet he thought about “walking into a bar” as one of his archetypes. It’s really the framework for a pattern: “I’m going to arrange some ideas here and play with them.”

Not every pattern shows up in every good joke, any more than the same cards show up in a good poker hand. Like music, though, jokes and infographics are subject to their version of Duke Ellington’s test: “If it sounds good, it is good.”

X-walks-into-a-bar is a stage for a virtual performance. For infographics, that stage is set, as Wong points out, with strong visual elements: blocks of color, distinctive shapes, headlines, callouts, hand- (or cherry-) picked data.

Even the overall shape is a pattern. While I’ve seen exceptions like Randall Munroe’s graphics on money and radiation, most infographics embrace a long-but-not-wide format. My hunch is they’re following the online convention: people scroll down, but not sideways.

Infographics are an invitation. 

People tell jokes for all kinds of reasons, but they don’t tell them to themselves. Telling is only the start of the process. A joke is an invitation to share.

Maybe you’re sharing silliness or mockery. Maybe you’re sharing stereotypes to ridicule them–or to signal that you’re on the same side. Two-way sharing can be a kind of camaraderie: “Okay, how many accordionists does it take to change a lightbulb?”

Through wordplay and juxtaposition, jokes invite you to take up a different viewpoint. The unexpectedly funny jokes engage us with their contrast and make us feel good because we got them.

A good infographic invites you to look at its content in new ways. Whether polemical or political or even poetic, the infographic is saying, “Did you ever think…?” 

I do have some misgivings. Some people seem to think that any collection of text, shapes, and colors doing time together is an infographic. I suspect they’re the same sort of people who think “outtake” is a synonym for “hilariously funny.”

Still, if somebody wants to follow Desmond Wong’s tutorials and come up with his own infographic, I think that’s great. He’s got some design fundamentals and a set of templates as a fast start. The real learning begins where the infographic leaves off.