The Things You Don’t See

May 31, 2014


Information design, by nature, is concerned with making sense of the known: data, facts, observations, ideas. It involves taking existing content and putting it in a format that makes it more readily know-able. But rarely does information design acknowledge the missing, the unknown.

A recent talk by Andy Kirk on representing the absence of data in visualizations rekindled my thinking on how much we underestimate “known unknowns” or completely miss the “unknown unknowns” in a given situation. While Andy highlights the challenges of graphically depicting a zero quantity as well as the visual and narrative impact of emptiness in data display, I see a parallel set of challenges in the conceptual, non-quantitative side of information design: how do you map a comprehensive understanding of a situation beyond what’s readily given and outside of one’s own frame of reference? (To clarify, the “conceptual, non-quantitative” work I’m referring to here isn’t about making infographics but about solving complex problems in organizations.)

Solid fact-finding and content gathering provide the raw material for information design. Asking the right questions and getting the necessary answers, however, can mean different things to different people. In conceptual information design, who, what, when, where, why, and how span a broad range of observable phenomena to be captured and analyzed (people, places, ideas, connections, processes, contexts, comparisons, etc). But the person framing the questions can only do so from their point of view and with the skills and expertise they possess at the time. Biases certainly affect the quality of fact-finding, but a lack of contextualization and systems thinking, among other awarenesses, can severely hinder information design work. Below are just a few blind spots in the early stages of information design work that can constrain understanding and potentially lead a project down the wrong path:

1. We don’t see what’s right in front of us.

We can easily ignore important pieces of information because they may seem too obvious or “common sense” (which isn’t so common at all). Our familiarity blinds us to knowledge that we take for granted but that may be completely foreign to someone else, so when we visualize a current reality and load it with facts, we may omit crucial details that an “outsider” needs in order to build understanding. Stepping outside ourselves and seeing the world from a newcomer’s perspective allows for more inclusion and inroads to unfamiliar territory.

2. We don’t see what’s just outside our field of view.

It’s easy for us to cling to all the facts we know for the sake of advancing a project towards completion, but the resulting picture we create may be far from complete and lack the clarity and accuracy that a situation may require. Gathering input from different perspectives, whether it’s a range of stakeholders, diverse sources of information, or literally a different vantage point, can help ensure a 360º view of a situation (much like we use space probes to see the dark side of the moon, which never faces Earth). And when there’s still a missing part of the picture, we should be able to denote it as “missing” or “other” in a visualization.

3. We don’t see what’s changing.

Change and flux are challenging to reconcile in information design. When something new is about to happen, the very fact that the change will happen may slip through the cracks and go unacknowledged in the shuffle of everyday work… until the change is announced and compliance is expected. Leadership transitions, large-scale reorganizations, technology updates/launches, and other organizational changes can significantly derail an information design project if they’re not recognized and addressed early enough. Anticipating and incorporating discussion of change and synchronizing communications (visualizations, training, etc) to the timeline of change can help alleviate the shock of the new.

4. We don’t see ahead into the future.

Facts and data rooted in past or present observations are the conventional inputs for information design projects. However, certain types of information design work require looking beyond what is towards what could be when exploring a problem. Information design for strategy development, for instance, depends heavily on both a firm understanding of the present and a clear vision of a desired future in order to bridge the gap between them. Thoughts and ideas about what tomorrow might look like, even the most far-flung and imaginative, are critical inputs into the process. Even if some elements of the future vision are fuzzy or undefined, saying so in a visualization enables a team of stakeholders to have a conversation on those elements and define an approach around them.

5. We don’t see what’s unfavorable or inconvenient.

As much as we want to impose Spock-like objectivity on information design work, the simple truth is that humans are subjective creatures strongly inclined to do what they want to do (or what they’re told to do). We may avoid delving into areas that are too difficult to deal with, too personally aggravating, or just not interesting enough, and in the process we sacrifice valuable content for comfort. Sometimes, we may not be aware we’re closing doors on things we don’t like. On the client/stakeholder side, they may evade certain questions or flag some sensitive topics as off-limits (even though they may still be important parts of the picture) or there may be content that is masked off by bureaucratic red tape. In both personal and organizational contexts, the key is to emphasize the value of acquiring the knowledge, however difficult it may seem: aside from deepening understanding of a situation, it may spawn new thinking and improve the quality of the outcome.

These are just initial (choppy) thoughts on the subject, and there is much more to say on the topic of biases, but the main point of this post is simple: There is no such thing as perfect knowledge or perfect information design. Even the best efforts to map a complex space or fill every bucket of content can fall short. Being aware of our blind spots makes us better equipped to handle new and more complex situations by forcing us to see more of the world with different eyes, rather than simply accepting the view from within our cozy little comfort zone.


  1. Michael,

    Good stuff. Your five “unseens” get right at a theme I’ve been encountering quite a bit lately, which has to do with perception and the degree to which it messes with good decision making. All five of your points fit right in to habits and behaviors I’ve noticed in myself, or, perhaps better put, noticed in hindsight.

    One I could add is that we don’t see the unblocked path. In other words, we often think that barriers or non-negotiables are more firmly established than they are or need be, and preempt a lot of our thinking with rules we deduce from them. But if we’re willing to entertain “crazy” ideas, or “if money were no object” ideas, or “what if” ideas, and push them past what otherwise might seem like obstructions, I’ve found that the necessity of those barriers almost always erodes. Sometimes it’s purely a matter of comparing a possible outcome with the cost of not having it because of whatever “rules” you’re trying to avoid violating.

    In any case, you’re absolutely right in your conclusion — that there is no such thing as perfect knowledge — whether that applies to information design or anything else. On that note, the closest thing to perfect knowledge is probably plural knowledge, or, the result of collaborative thinking. It usually helps to have other people push us out of our blind spots :)

    - CB

    Comment by Christopher Butler — June 11, 2014 @ 8:19 am
  2. Thanks for commenting, Chris. Yes, hindsight is the great revealer of “unseens,” if we actually take the time to reflect on what we missed!

    I like your point about the unblocked path. It’s kind of like a cross between not seeing what’s right in front of you and not seeing into the future. We readily assume “no” is the answer because we’re trained (by school and work) to follow practical/pragmatic lines of thinking. But by exploring possibilities and uncovering more facts about what could be, we start to see that far-out ideas are really quite realistic and even necessary.

    I especially like that you mention collaborative thinking as the best we can achieve with regard to covering our blind spots. Team problem solving can achieve much more than any lone thinker, but it takes lots of skill and coordination to do it right!

    Comment by Michael — June 12, 2014 @ 8:13 am

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