This article was co-published with Source.
The scene is total chaos: a woman and all her purse’s contents in middair as she trips over a child’s toy, a man hastily trying to gather his spilled laundry, a screaming child weaving through the crowd. Somewhere, in the midst of it all, is the person you’ve been looking for: wearing a red and white striped shirt, black rimmed glasses and a lopsided cap. There he is! There’s Waldo.
Many of us have fond memories of Waldo. But while he looms large in our imagination, our childhood searches for Waldo typically stayed pretty small – Waldo is a tiny person in the middle of lots of other tiny things.
And that’s what this post is about: wee things. Specifically, the wee things that we see as part of graphics, maps, visualizations (wee things in space) as well as the wee things we experience as part of interactions, navigation, and usability (wee things in time). This means everything from sequences of small graphics that help us make comparisons, to tiny locator maps that help orient us within a larger graphic, to navigation icons that give hints about how we should make our way around a page.
Waldo, and the eternal search for him, can actually tell us quite a lot about design. In many ways, Waldo is a great example of what NOT to do when using wee things in your own work. So with Waldo as our anti-hero, let’s take a look at how people read and interpret small visual forms, why tiny details can be hugely useful, and what principles we can apply to make all these little images and moments work for us as designers.
Wee Things In Space
Probably the most immediate definition of wee things are things that are physically small: little things on a page. We see these all the time in news graphics, and we’re probably familiar with some of their forms: small multiples, sparklines, icons, etc. I’ll go into more details about all of these.
These visual forms work because they serve as extensions of our mind – they are cognitive tools that complement our own mental abilities. They do this by recording information for us to make use of later, lending a hand to our (pretty terrible) working memories, helping us search and discover and recognize. We’ll take a look at one task in particular they are great at: letting us make comparisons.
Tiny sequences of graphics, also known as small multiples, are great ways to help our brains compare. They are so successful because we don’t have to rely on working memory – every bit of information is in front of us at the same time. This means that we can easily see changes, patterns or differences.
Here are a bunch of examples of small multiples in the wild – maps and planets, first lady hair styles and telegraph signals, food trucks, fashion color trends and dressing appropriately for different climates, the distribution of deaths in the 1870’s and last but not least, Bill Murray’s hats.