Using Cartoons To Make Sense of Your Data | Beth's Blog

Using Cartoons To Make Sense of Your Data


Note From Beth: If you’ve picked up a copy of the newly released “Measuring the Networked Nonprofit:  Using Data to Change the World” than you no doubt noticed the cartoons, created by Rob Cottingham,  that begin each chapter.   Rob worked with us as we developed each chapter to pick out the key idea and poke of at it – we wanted to write a book about measurement that was accessible and fun to read.

But, cartoons can be terrific infographics or used as technique for sense-making.    Cartoons are good communication tool.   Because of the combination of humor and brevity, cartoons are a great way for your organization to share information and ideas.    Cartoons can encapsulate an idea or message with a single image, people pressed for time can absorb them quickly and share them more easily.

Okay, you like the idea of using cartoons to visualize your data or communicate your ideas.   But what if you can’t draw?   Rob Cottingham offers some tips in this guest post.

Using Cartoons to Make Sense of Your Data by Rob Cottingham

There’s never been a better time to not be able to draw.

Okay, let me back up. It’s not that it doesn’t matter how well something is drawn, or how visually attractive it is. If you’re great at drawing, or you have a good eye for color and composition, you’re way ahead of the game — all other things being equal.

But all other things usually aren’t equal. (Try measuring them if you don’t believe me. I know of a rather good book on measuring things.) Exacting design standards can work against you if they keeps you from posting a less-than-perfect visual so long that the conversation has moved on to another topic by the time you hit “Publish”. And slick production values may not have the same impact as something that’s crudely drawn, but reflects an authentic voice conveying an important, resonant idea.

So here’s how you can add some visual cartoon-flavored impact to your story, blog post or report, even if you’ve never so much as doodled Snoopy on a high school notebook.

First, remember that the underlying content trumps everything else. What’s the message you want to convey, the story you want to tell, the fact you want to get across? What’s the emotional reaction you want your audience to have? What action do you want it to drive them to? Start by answering those questions, then start thinking about the visuals you want to create (and how you’ll make them). That can save you a lot of wasted effort, and you’ll avoid wasting your audience’s time and attention.

And tying for first, don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t draw. Most of us actually can. We just have limits to what we can draw and how well, and beat ourselves up when we trip over them. But bumping up against our limits is how we learn to do better. And even if you never get to the point where gallery curators are banging on your door, there’s a lot more acceptance online of pretty rudimentary drawing skills… as long as they get across a great idea.

If you can draw two circles and make them overlap, you can make a Venn diagram. (If you can draw three circles, you can draw a more complex Venn diagram than most of the ones you’ll see out there.)

If you can draw a triangle on top of a square, and add a rectangle…

…then with a little practice, you can draw a house…

…and if you draw a line or two coming out of it, pointing to a few words (no shame in doing those with your computer, by the way!), you have a cartoon.

Two pointy lines, a circle, two dots and six straight lines,

… and you can make a cat…

…which, if you play your cards right, might volunteer to help you with fundraising.

The point isn’t to convince you that you can, in fact, draw Tippy the Turtle and should enroll now for an exciting career in illustration. It’s to say this: everyone has limits. See what you can do working within them, and every once in a while, press those boundaries gently and try to learn something new. Because those limits can bend and shift, and the more (and more often) you push against them, the more they’ll move.
(Bonus silver lining: Constraints in your drawing ability can force you into the kind of simplicity that focuses your message onto what really matters. If you can’t draw the cluttered, distracting background, you won’t.)
So that’s my pitch for learning to draw — or, more accurately, learning what you can draw now, and learning how to draw more down the road.

In the meantime…
Still can’t draw*? You can still create great pictures. Sites like and apps like Comic Life have amazingly simple interfaces that let you create comic strips and cartoon panels — and you’ll never have to draw so much as an eyebrow. Online charting and data visualization tools like are can let you pull together charts and info graphics quickly and easily.

Countless online meme-generating sites can let you whip up a sharable text-on-photo image in seconds; a mobile photo captioning app like Over for iOS lets you do it yourself right on your own device.

Or find some inspiration from the way webcomics like a) Dinosaur Comics, b) the profanity-laced Get Your War On and c) Wondermark use artwork created by others.  Specifically, they use a) exactly the same clip-art in exactly the same positions in every single strip, adding dialogue; b) a very few different pieces of really awful clip-art, adding dialogue; and c) vintage public-domain 19th-century illustrations, adding dialogue. Just be sure you aren’t running afoul of anyone’s usage rights. (By the way, at least one of these artists actually can draw very, very well. So can Randall Munroe, who draws the stick-figure-centered, wildly-successful xkcd
By “can’t draw”, I mean “Your drawing skills aren’t yet to the point where you feel comfortable sharing your creations with the world, but you’re working on them and any day now, you’re going to post that first doodle.”
If you don’t want to use a pen, you can still use a camera. Whether it’s a top-of-the-line DSLR or the nearest smartphone, a camera coupled with your imagination can take you a long way. Trying to dramatize the impact of overfishing and habitat degradation on wild salmon stocks? Get a few discarded fish bones from your local fish store, lay them on a sandy beach and (with a little chopping and arranging) set out the panels for a cartoon. Snap it, Photoshop in a few dialogue bubbles once you get home, and you have your cartoon.
You can do the same thing with all kinds of visual communication, of course. Those salmon bones could become a bar chart, tracking the decline in population. Or engage your inner pre-schooler to chart changes in education funding: make a line graph by gluing macaroni onto construction paper. Or if you want to draw attention to a word or phrase, write it in big letters on a blackboard or a lined flip chart, or draw it on a napkin — whatever context makes sense for the underlying idea. Take a picture of your creation, and you’re set.
Finally, keep working at it. Use your emerging skills — in drawing and in the alternatives — to create cartoons, but also to explore other ways to communicate visually. Try new things, see what works for you and for your audience… and keep learning.  Read great books like Dan Roam’s The Back of the Napkin, and follow folks like Sunni Brown. Add Information is Beautiful and Sketchnote Army to your information diet. Watch Beth’s Pinterest board on visual marketing.

In a bind? Let someone else do it. There’s the absolutely lovely way of paying a cartoonist to draw a custom cartoon (thanks, Beth!), or to license an existing one — but there’s also a trove of cartoons and illustrations out there available under a Creative Commons license. You can search for them on Flickr, or just Google “creative commons”, “cartoon” and various keywords. Or you can start bookmarking cartoonists you come across who post under an open license. (Modesty forbids suggesting a starting point.) Just be sure you respect the terms of that license, which may require attribution, using the image without modification, or using it in content that has a similar license.
And please doodle. On your meeting notes, on your grocery list, on the draft annual report you’re editing… because sooner or later, you’re going to look at one of those doodles and see a cartoon — the kind you’d be proud to post, publish or share.

Rob Cottingham is the Principal of Social Signal.

14 Responses

  1. Great to see that people are starting to realise the value of cartoons and other illustrated images.

    I’ve worked as an online campaigner for nonprofits for seven years and I’m also a freelance cartoonist (and on occasion I’ve been able to combine the two streams of work). I would like to highlight one important point about cartoons and comics: they are really, really effective ways to get across abstract and complex messages. (And on top of that they are extremely shareable content online, which is always good).

    In case you’re interested I’ve written a blog post on when to use comics in campaigning -most examples are from the nonprofit world:

  2. Thanks for that, Virpi – especially the shoutout for Cartoon Movement, which has found some amazing voices out there – and yielded some spectacular projects.

  3. […] An interesting post on Beth's Blog which explores using Cartoons to get your messages out. She explores ways in which we can all make cartoons, a rich shareable experience to use for impact.  […]

  4. Great tips to free up creativity.
    Inspiring as always.

  5. Eliza Olson says:

    My first teaching experience was with kindergarteners. Fortunately, I discovered a book showing how to use letters to draw animals. One skinny m for the ears and another oddly shaped m and you have the ears and mouth of a dog. Just draw the rest. Again use a variation of the m for the legs. The written m is a good starter for a duck’s or goose’s wings or a swan. Just vary the neck.

  6. Beth says:

    I just love drawing and right brain activities … and drawing, even if you aren’t as skillful as Rob Cottingham can help you think better and lead to better ideas.

    Thanks Rob for the awesome tips and guest post

  7. I agree with Beth: drawing is one of the best ways to clarify your thinking -even if you can’t draw (Dan Roam’s books Rob mentioned in his post are mostly about this aspect of drawing). Tip: Boxes and arrows go a surprisingly long way, by the way!

  8. […] Beth Kanter has a guest blog post by Rob Cottingham on Using Cartoons to Make Sense of Your Data. […]

  9. Maralyn Jabour says:

    Thanks for the inspiration and good resources. Mo Willems, who writes the amazingly simple and expressive “Pigeon” books makes it a point to create drawings that a child can replicate…and his drawings capture the very marrow of emotion. Your suggestion that even ADULTS can venture into this territory is a real door-opener.

  10. […] the Networked Nonprofit: Using Data to Change the World” at the beginning of each chapter. In the article found on Beth’s Blog, Cottingham describes how nonprofits can use cartoons to make sense of their […]

  11. Beth says:

    Maralyn: Thanks for sharing your thoughts and sharing another resource. I’ll have to check out Mo Willems work.

  12. Rob, what a wonderful post jam-packed with resources. I loved the illustrations you did at NTEN this year as well; what a great visual resource for us all.

    I wonder if there are any rules of thumb you can offer when selecting photo images to illustrate a blog post? I use the Creative Commons (attribution of course) and always struggle with finding the right image to illustrate a blog post. Thoughts/rules of thumb?

    If I were to hire a cartoonist to illustrate my book, Rob, you’d be it as well!

    Debra @askdebra

  13. April K. Robinson says:

    As a student at University of Oregon, I am finding that more and more grad teachers and professors are using simple visuals like Venn diagrams and doodles to aid in their lessons. I am a visual learner and I highly approve of this approach!

    Keep spreading the word!

  14. […] — the kind you’d be proud to post, publish or share.A version of this post originally appeared on Beth Kanter's blog. […]