Make It Clear and Make It Matter

David Macaulay, Author of "The Way Things Work"

Friday, November 2, 2012, 3:30pm

Spanos Auditorium

This seminar is part of the Jones Seminars on Science, Technology, and Society series.

The New Way Things Work

This is a complex world and you are all engaged in complex undertakings. As long as you stick together communication is easy. You all speak the same language, share the same jargon, rely on the same shorthand. But what happens when you have to explain what you do to people on the outside, possible funders perhaps, members of the Nobel prize committee, or God forbid, the general public. How do you reach people who either don’t think they are interested in or affected by what you have to say or who believe they could never understand it anyway. Having attended more than my share of mind numbing but possibly brilliant presentations, I empathize with both sides. There are plenty of tools available to help experts communicate with non-experts. Among them are video and web design, musical review, good old fashioned powerpoint, and even more retro–time honored print. Regardless of the tools you eventually choose, creating a meaningful presentation begins with a few basic questions. Who is your audience and what do they know? What kind of information and how much of it do you need to communicate? If you don’t ask these questions up front, your tools may very well guide the process rather than serving it. For the past forty years, I’ve been explaining somewhat complicated (or at least complicated looking) things visually in books. My subject matter has ranged (although not always been backed by the same degree of confidence) from architecture and urban development to civil engineering, electronics, and human anatomy. But regardless of the subject matter, the process has always begun with questions – from those that gradually shape the best approach to those that help clarify the specific goals of each illustration or mix of words and pictures.

About the Speaker

David Macaulay, born on December 2, 1946, was eleven when his family moved from England to the United States. After receiving his bachelor of architecture degree from Rhode Island School of Design in 1969, he eagerly pursued work that did not involve practicing architecture. Two tracks emerged.

The first track was teaching drawing, design, and illustration. This has included almost three decades at RISD along with shorter stints at Wellesley College and Brown University. The second track resulted in the creation of 25 highly visual and primarily nonfiction books. Among them was Cathedral, 1973; Pyramid, 1975; Castle, 1977; and Mill, 1984. 1988 saw the publication of The Way Things Work with coauthor Neil Ardley.

In 2000, Building Big was released to accompany a five part PBS series of the same name. This international survey of some of the largest and most familiar examples of civil engineering was hosted by Macaulay. In response to the events of September 11, Mosque was published in 2003 and that same year work began on a book about the workings of the human body. The Way We Work, coauthored by Richard Walker, was published in 2008. Between the larger books, Macaulay has also produced a number of picture books. In 1990, Black and White was awarded the 1991 Caldecott Medal. In 2006, Macaulay was named a MacArthur fellow.