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March 05, 2009

How Much is $1 Trillion? The Anatomy of a Sticky Illustration

Today on Facebook, a friend posted a link to this article on PageTutor.com that illustrates as well as anything I've ever seen, just how much money $1 trillion is.

I don't want to infringe on the author's work, so please go read it, and then come back here.

Simple. They set out to make a simple point: $1 trillion is a lot of money.

Unexpected. The result is just ... astonishing. Just as important as the result, however, is the build up. By comparison, $1 million, which to most would seem like a lot of money, is just pedestrian. However, had they used $1 as the building block instead of $100, the $1 million may have appeared to have more weight. I was just as surprised by the $1 million illustration as I was with the $1 trillion.

Concrete. By using human-scale objects that people are familiar with (a $100 bill. A human. A pallet), the creators were able to take a concept made abstract by its scale and make it understandable. A lot of that has to do with the progression.

Credible. The efforts the author made to make the illustration concrete also make it credible. Add in the fact that the author used a tool created by a publisher with some authority (Google Sketchup), and the author's conclusion receives additional credence.

Emotional. There is really no overt call to action here. It's really not designed to pull at your heartstrings the way it could have been. However, if the scope leaves you with your mouth agape in astonishment, then this criteria is certainly covered as well.

Story. As I said, it would not have been effective had the author just posted the concluding illustration. It required the build-up to be effective. Start with something almost all of us has seen and probably held at some point: The $100 bill. Show how what most of us consider a fair amount of money is really not all that impressive to look at. Keep building anticipation until the last moment, when the final illustration is revealed.


Most people who have been reading this space for awhile know what a big fan I am of Chip and Dan Heath's book, Made to Stick. If you're not aware or you haven't read the book, let me direct you to my review of the first edition of the book (download the PDF).

If you haven't read it, now is as good a time as any. Buy it now. You'll be glad you did. - Cam Beck

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