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Clarifying Is Not Simplifying [Sailing the 7Cs, Voyage 6: Clarify]

Clarifying Is Not Simplifying [Sailing the 7Cs, Voyage 6: Clarify]


Sometimes it is, of course. But I’d argue that, much of the time, to Clarify is precisely to complicate.

Take for example the time I devoted an entire class period to maps. I first showed my students a Mercator projection of the world, used in everything from history textbooks to Google Maps. They weren’t impressed. “Yes,” their eyebrows said. “We know what a map looks like.”

As the West Wing reminded us, though, maps are more complex than they might seem. “Which is larger,” I asked my class, “Greenland or Africa?” It was a close call, and opinion was divided. “And which is larger,” I continued, “Europe or South America?” This time there was a clear winner: Europe. Then I trotted out the statistics: less than a million square miles in Greenland, but nearly 12 million in Africa. About 4 million in Europe; more like 7 million in South America. Now the students was indignant. Why would a map be so deceptive?

The trouble, of course, is that the Earth is round and maps are flat. Until we figure out how to fit a globe into a book or screen, cartographers will need to make sacrifices in the name of whatever aesthetic or scientific principle they value most (and Mercator designed a map for navigators, not for geography teachers). Some such choices will be unobjectionable; others will be deliberately or inadvertently harmful. Either way, the maps we use will tell us as much about human priorities as about any objective reality. That was the point I was trying to illustrate for my students.

In a follow-up exercise, I had them draw maps of our classroom. They were free to represent whatever they wanted: concentrations of each gender, prevalence of glasses and contact lenses, which pieces of furniture were in need of repair—anything. They could render the view from their seat, a bird’s-eye (ceiling-light’s?) perspective, or something else entirely. Many sat paralyzed by the possibilities, struggling to decide how best to construct the space around them. No doubt the same task would have seemed far simpler to them just an hour earlier.

What visual metaphor best describes what I was trying to accomplish that day? My students had entered class with relatively clear pictures of the world in their minds; I had purposely muddied their ideas, juxtaposed clashing images, sketched from multiple perspectives. Yet I maintain that my goal was to Clarify, perhaps not the world itself, but their views of it.

When you focus a camera in order to see more clearly, you detect details, complexities, even imperfections that would not otherwise be visible. Maybe that is the type of Clarity we need.

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