Macaulay discusses drawing career

by Colby Ye | 11/4/12 11:00pm

The ability to communicate complex ideas in an easily understandable way is just as important as understanding the ideas themselves, "The Way Things Work" author David Macaulay said in a lecture on Friday afternoon in Spanos Auditorium.

During the lecture, Macaulay presented sketches from his work and discussed the process of writing and illustrating his books in a way that connects with readers that do not come from scientific backgrounds.

When he first began working on "The Way Things Work," his sketches looked like a "Sears catalog," Macaulay said. He said that he and his editors worked to create illustrations that would be more engaging for readers.

"Let's go back to the drawing board let's let the art take up more of the space," Macaulay said. "Let's really be careful to say only what needs to be said in words, and let's make the illustrations effective enough to cover what's lost in the text."

Macaulay emphasized the importance of "keeping it light, keeping it playful, keeping it engaging" in his work. Balancing the illustrated and written components of the piece is an important part of making the work interesting for readers, he said.

"If it's a visual printed thing or if it's just visual on a screen, you need to find that balance between the visual imagery and the verbal imagery, accepting the fact that the verbal imagery is another piece of the composition," Macaulay said.

Macaulay said that he traveled to Mexico and Brazil to observe firsthand the engineering and design processes he was planning to write about. In Mexico, he went scuba diving with underwater archaeologists, and in Brazil, he visited a shipyard, he said.

His lack of a formal engineering background makes him a more objective observer, Macaulay said in an interview with The Dartmouth. This separation has enabled him to connect more effectively with his audience and readership, he said.

"My curiosity and my objectivity, which is born to a great extent out of ignorance, is not dissimilar from the audience I want to reach," Macaulay said. "So if I go in there and ask these questions, it's because I want to understand something, and once I've figured out this thing, this subject, whatever it is, then I can pass that information along to the reader."

Macaulay's ideas are relevant and applicable to various kinds of work outside of engineering, according to audience member Christine Demment, who is a practicing psychologist. Macaulay's work highlights the importance of continuing to ask questions, which is important to her own work as a psychologist, she said.

The ability to effectively explain a concept requires a deep understanding of that subject, according to Thayer PhD candidate Yinlin Wang, who attended the lecture. Wang said he admired the efforts that Macaulay took to prepare his illustrations, such as visiting shipyards and consulting with expert engineers.

"I believe that it's more difficult to explain complicated concepts in a simple way that everyone can understand," Wang said. "So I think that may be [Macaulay's] advantage, that he is not an expert in all this. Because he is not an expert, if he can understand his own drawings, then other people who don't know science probably can understand it as well."

In the future, Macaulay said he plans to explore new topics he has not yet written about. He is currently working on a book about the human body and illustrating readers for younger children. He said he hopes to encourage more children to read.

"It begins with curiosity, it begins with asking questions," Macaulay said. "If you don't ask questions, life goes on, and you won't even notice."

Macaulay's work is particularly relevant today as technology plays an increasingly important role in daily life, Thayer Dean Joseph Helble said. Many Dartmouth faculty members are familiar with Macaulay's work, and some have even used it in their classrooms to illustrate specific mechanical devices and inventions, he said.

"If you look at where we are as a society, where we're heading in the 21st century, I think it's hard not to argue that some fundamental understanding of technology is absolutely essential for everyone," Helble said.

The lecture, titled "Make It Clear and Make It Matter," was part of the Jones Seminar lecture series, sponsored by the Thayer School of Engineering.