Public Space

September 3, 2013

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Sometimes thoughts need the right space to happen, the right space to live in. We may choose to distance ourselves from one dimension of our reality to experience another, to have new ideas or gain perspective. At other times, life decides which side of reality we must confront, and so our thinking conforms (or resists).

In this moment, I am writing from Washington Square Park. My thoughts are in many places — work, home, past, future — but right now, I’m immersed in the ecosystem of the park. The weather is pleasant, the heat of summer mellowed to a comfortable level — and a signal that fall may not be far. NYU students are back from summer break, or just starting their college experience. Old friends are reconnecting, new friendships are forming. Technology is everywhere: students smiling at text messages, calling family back home, or working deadpan on their laptops, tourists shooting photos or videos of the whole scene, and me, typing this into my iPhone. Jazz music, performed only by a sax player and drummer, sets the perfect backdrop to this afternoon confluence of people and place, a shared sequence of moments in a small but timeless patch of NYC.

One moment, hidden among so many parallel realities, struck me this afternoon. As I finished my lunch, out of the corner of my eye I noticed a furry caterpillar begin a perilous journey across a heavily-trafficked walking path leading to the fountain in the center of the park. I looked around and realized I was the only one watching him attempt to cross. Slowly he (or she?) inched forward, arching then flattening his fuzzy brown body. He barely made it three feet, out of the ten feet he needed to cover, before an unsuspecting student clipped his head with his bright white sneaker. In one final arching motion, the caterpillar’s journey ended, and all the while, the scene continued. Friends laughed, dogs walked beside their owners, a breeze flowed through the trees, and the jazz played on. It wasn’t long before he “blended” into the ground, flattened by the waves of footfalls up and down the path.

Life goes on, indeed, but it mustn’t go unnoticed. I don’t know the caterpillar’s greater purpose in the grand scheme of things, unless he was destined to become a butterfly and start a butterfly effect. Where did he come from? Where did he think he was going? Why did I just see that? Perhaps I’m reading too much into it and looking for deeper meaning, but I can’t ignore the significance of that moment.

I come to this park, as I do other public places, to see my world differently — but really, I come to see the world. In fact, I always see many different worlds, macro and micro, overlapping, colliding, coexisting. In the space of a lunch break, in the space of a public park in NYC, many things can happen if you just tune into the worlds around you.


Advancing the Human Journey

July 2, 2013

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How might information design improve our journey in the world? (screenshot from Journey)

The concept of the journey spans cultures and traditions around the world. Journeys form the core of ancient and modern narratives, from the hero’s quest to the experience of life from birth to death. Lately, I’ve been thinking about the connection between the philosophical and functional aspects of the journey construct, and where a new understanding of the past and present might be possible. How might we build upon and extend the notion of the journey as a narrative framework for self development and growth within the context of information design and sensemaking? Going further, how might we expand the notion of information design to advance human potential?

The seed idea for this post came from an article in The New Inquiry titled Playing Outside, which discusses the strained evolution of video games as an art form and as a means of social change. What immediately caught my interest was a reference to a game called Journey:

an indie game based on Joseph Campbell’s monomyth and the sentimental concept of unvoiced collaboration with strangers.

They had me at “monomyth.” How did I not hear about this game when it launched in 2012? Finally, video games are growing up and exploring fresh new territory! The author digs into the problem and challenges the video game establishment later on:

The idea that at the end of the day, games are obligated to serve the purpose of “fun” above all others has been the main wrench in the works of the gaming industry’s machinations for legitimacy. Why should games be mature, cope with social issues, reflect society, or demonstrate the genuine artistic vision of a grown-up creator? At the end of the day, they’re just for fun, say gamers when they’ve run out of defenses against the mainstream industry’s embarrassing, stagnant homogeneity.

Why remain locked in a market-safe model that indulges teenage male power fantasies with graphic violence and vicarious conquests? Why not push the medium to it’s fullest potential and experiment with new forms of interaction and experience — possibly new modalities of learning and understanding?

My discovery led to a highly unproductive (but mentally stimulating) afternoon reading reviews, watching video after video of Journey gameplay and behind-the-scenes videos of thatgamecompany explaining their approach to making the game and their over-arching philosophy. Then I read the mission statement on their humble and un-flashy website:

Create timeless interactive entertainment that makes positive change to the human psyche worldwide.

What a paradigm shift, and what an exciting frontier to explore! I don’t own a PS3, but if thatgamecompany continues to live up to their mission and push the boundaries of “interactive entertainment,” I may be persuaded to get one.

What Journey does so elegantly is tap into human themes of discovery and self-attainment and elevate them beyond the ordinary and the everyday: epic, dreamy landscapes, semi-familiar cultural references and symbolism, magic as a creative and communicative element, and best of all, the sound effects and music, masterfully composed and performed. Every design decision, from the color palette to the character design to the sound effects, enriches the visual and emotional texture of the game and demonstrates exceptional craftsmanship.

In a way, the creators of Journey deliberately practiced anti-information design to make a more engaging, universal experience for any audience, regardless of language. The actual gameplay is driven by “learning by doing,” so most of the action is looking around and trying things out — play in its simplest form. The player-to-player interaction eliminates language barriers by drawing on universal social principles: shared ultimate goal/purpose, cooperation to achieve the goal, trust, etc. (Of course, without a mechanism for aggression or violence, players are left with fewer other choices in this utopian game scenario.)

Abstracting human experience to superhuman or meta-human level is not easy. The short behind-the-scenes videos hint at the tremendous intellectual, creative, and technical effort it took to create the unique world of Journey. When I look at the game from an information design perspective, I see elements that information design has been missing — or has been slowly maturing toward:

  • Multi-sensory methods to amplify understanding and meaning – We’re only starting to understand what “online” means for information design, and the push towards sophisticated programming languages and visualization software is only uncovering part of the picture. Video games, by virtue of all that technology under the hood, immerse us in dynamic visual worlds, and even transport us away from our own time-space reality. How might we push video and audio even further, and how do we employ our other senses — and feelings — to enable understanding?

  • Responsive and truly interactive experiences – The evolution from static to dynamic knowledge creation and transfer is still ongoing, yet there are opportunities to expand how we think about interaction and direct manipulation of information. What if visualizations moved beyond sliders, check boxes and toggles, and enabled fluid, intuitive exploration? How might we make information experiences less rigid and more responsive to enable instant feedback, physically and virtually?

  • Personal change and growth – Commercial information design serves an important function, by helping people navigate spaces, learn new concepts and skills, and do their everyday work. But we could be thinking more about how information design thinking can support individual development and sense-making throughout life. My biggest gripe about information design is the “so what?” factor. Popular information design, in the form of “infographics” (or decoratively illustrated lists of facts) and abstract data displays appeal to the eye and may enable some understanding, but what happens next? The metaphorical notions of “consumption” or even “digestion” seem to be the end state for information design these days, but if we carry the thinking further, are we metabolizing that information and is it fueling any action? How might we nourish the intellect and the individual, instead of just manufacturing visual confections and feeding appetites? How might we focus on outcomes instead of just outputs?

The more I reflect on this topic, the more I feel that information design should embrace a greater purpose. It continues to prove its value to businesses and organizations, but it can — it must — also benefit individuals and society as a whole in deeper and more engaging ways. But to accomplish that doesn’t require more content to be formatted and displayed or more data to be mined and filtered through analytic software and spit out onto slick futuristic interfaces. The “new” and widely untapped frontier that awaits information design is a refocus on maximizing human agency by enabling and expanding what people can be and do in their lives.

The journey that lies ahead for information design should not be guided solely by technology, market trends, or passing fancies. The journey should be grounded in what matters most to people and their lives — their struggles, their aspirations — and it should be guided by understanding, from within the realm of understanding-based professions and from without. Cooperation, collaboration, and a respect for the timeless, universal things that bind humanity will help guide the way forward.


New Modalities of Understanding

April 1, 2013

modalities

While doing research on the links between information architecture and information design, I came across a video clip of Richard Wurman talking about the origin of the term he has been credited with inventing. It isn’t the first place he’s told the story, so this particular video didn’t seem earth-shattering… until right around the 5:40 mark. Spurred by an apparent disdain for the sorry state of web design, he ventures into a discussion of modalities (ways of perceiving and experiencing), and particularly how new technology is often mistaken for a new modality in the way we experience information. He cites the iPad and the Kindle as examples of new ways of repackaging content, but not fundamentally better or significantly different ways of absorbing information. Reading is still reading, only now you can swipe and scroll through pages on a small screen instead of thumbing through a paper codex to do it.

What we have yet to achieve, he argues, is a “new path to viscerally understanding information.” This realization, that there is a whole frontier of human understanding that we have yet to venture into, is a critical one at a time when the notion of human progress is so sharply defined by what technology affords us — smaller devices, faster speeds, greater connectivity, more content, more screens, and bigger data — and when the prevailing conversations around understanding still hover at the level of methods, tools, technical issues, and other tribal/territorial concerns within data visualization, information architecture, information design, visual thinking, etc.

In my own research and work in information design, I’m constantly nagged by the feeling that not only will confusion continue to reign in the wild and wooly world of understanding professions, but that our heads will remain buried in the sand when it comes to forward thinking about the real future of understanding. Why does it seem like every other tweet, blog post, or magazine article these days questions or defends the validity of some visualization technique, complains about the “big data” phenomenon, stirs debate about good and bad infographics, or just cheerleads about “the power of [ fill in the viz ]” when the next chapters in understanding are hardly being written. How did we get so myopic?

I think that one way to start thinking about the future of understanding is by “going off the reservation” of conventional study and practice and becoming reacquainted with the underpinnings of understanding, through studies of cognitive neuroscience, philosophy, and psychology, among other areas. The pursuit of “why” can lead to some interesting journeys:

  • Why do we understand? What makes understanding work?
  • Why are humans such visually-oriented creatures? Why don’t we use taste, touch, and smell more as information channels?
  • Why do writing systems work? How did so many different writing systems develop?
  • Why don’t we tap into dreams and the sub-conscious to aid understanding?
  • Why isn’t extra sensory perception explored more seriously?

The realm of science fiction can also provide food for thought and stimulus for research. A willingness to imagine wild new possibilities, regardless of practicality or basis in fact, can open doors that mundane patterns of thought might inhibit:

  • What if you could learn some difficult skill by uploading it to your brain, like in the Matrix?
  • How might a non-human alien species transfer knowledge?
  • What if there was a way to teach babies before they were born, to accelerate their learning?
  • What if you could smell a story, in vivid, accurate detail?
  • What if the concept of understanding went away because every idea and concept was instantly understood?

With so much untapped potential for exploration, I would be deeply disappointed, saddened even, if the pockets of discourse on and activities around understanding remained entrenched in self-analysis, self-criticism, and self-promotion. There is already growing enthusiasm in learning from the past (Lascaux caves, Inuit carved maps, Playfair, Priestly, Snow, etc.), so why not set our sights on the horizon and start discovering “breakthrough ways in the journey of understanding”?


The Dawn of the Understanding Age

December 20, 2012

understandingage

Time to shift our priorities from making more information to making sense

I’m officially calling for an end to the Information Age.

For the past 60 years or so, we’ve made outstanding progress with information. Ever since we transformed the nature of information from something fixed and static to something fluid and dynamic, we’ve opened up whole new worlds of opportunity for its creation, transmission, storage and retrieval. We have become highly efficient at producing tools for generating content, establishing platforms for publishing, and designing systems for archiving, searching, and sharing information. The fact that we can now interact with so much information in so many ways using so many different devices (most of them portable) is a staggering achievement. In a sense, this is information’s Golden Age.

But we pay a steep price for all these advancements. We continue to struggle with the growing volume and complexity of what we create. Whole industries have formed for the sole purpose of managing information, from information technology to information science, but these efforts suffer from their own self-perpetuated complexity, like ever-changing standards, elaborate systems design, and cryptic jargon. We now suffer from information overload, information anxiety, infobesity, and other info-ailments. On the flip side, some of us welcome the deluge and become hooked on the steady stream of information available to us, giving rise to the infovore and information addiction. In the case of either too much or not enough information, our attention spans have shrunk, our concentration has become fractured, and our memory has been offloaded to a hard drive somewhere.

Along with these challenges, the quality of information design and delivery has fallen short of people’s real-world needs. We may possess better tools and techniques than ever for presenting data and packaging information, but the results still favor the form of information rather than the function, or as Richard Saul Wurman would put it, the performance of information. We’ve grown too accustomed to the idea of having designed information pieces and online experiences do all the heavy lifting of explaining something, but we overlook the shortcomings of the artifacts we create, placing the burden of figuring it out on an already overloaded audience.

We’ve been too deeply enamored with the technical and technological aspects of information, all the while neglecting to adequately bridge the gaps we’ve created in human understanding.

It’s time to usher in the Understanding Age.

Just like the resurgence of classical learning and ideals in the Renaissance and the triumph of scientific reasoning during the Enlightenment, the Understanding Age will bring about a renewed focus on human needs in communication and a deep appreciation for sensemaking and teaching skills. The key to the Understanding Age will be the adoption of information design thinking skill as an essential universal capability, like math, writing, and logic. Professional information designers won’t be the only ones expected to make sense of data or create organizing structures for content (although their expertise will remain vital to tackling complex problems). We all will need to become better explainers and start taking more responsibility for the way we communicate with each other, regardless of intent, discipline, or medium.

The implications of a widespread consciousness-raising for understanding could be significant. One of the biggest transformations I envision (and hope for) could happen where it’s been long overdue — in those difficult life situations where guidance is hardest to find:

  • Starting and raising a family
  • Dealing with serious illness
  • Coping with loss
  • Surviving and recovering from a natural disaster
  • Launching a new business

(Even without doing an exhaustive analysis, the most understanding-deficient areas of life turn out to be money, health/well-being, and law. Why that is will remain a topic for another post.)

Just imagine: instead of having to plow through scores of books, brochures, websites, and videos or make countless phone calls to family, friends, and “customer service” lines when you need help with, say, a healthcare issue, all the support you need could be available in one place or through one point of contact who would take the time to explain everything to you clearly. The information you’re looking for could be available precisely at the point of need, never too far out of reach. And none of it would seem unusual — it would just be the way things are done. Does this sound like an episode of the Twilight Zone?

I could list many more examples of what an Understanding Age could bring about for education, business, government, and society, and build a better case for such a movement, but the benefits are readily apparent. If information design thinking became widely embraced and practiced, we might solve for many of the social and economic challenges we face today.

The idea of an Understanding Age might be too aspirational, but some of the groundwork for this vision has already been laid. Information design, information architecture, and data visualization have grown in popularity and have slowly evolved into more recognized practices. The infographics wave, for better or worse, has raised awareness of information design by pushing it into the mainstream. Visual thinking as an enabler of understanding continues to gain traction. The continued popularity of design thinking and the growing formalization of user experience as a discipline have both helped to make user-centered design a priority for many businesses and organizations. Gradually, the importance of more mindful communication and the desire for skill-building to practice it effectively will catch on.

At a small scale, some basic principles for everyday communication can help make a difference:

  • Challenging policies and practices that deliberately conceal and confuse (a big one!)
  • Thinking systemically about what you’re communicating and how it fits in an ecosystem of touchpoints
  • Distancing yourself from your content and assuming a beginner’s point of view
  • Weeding out ambiguities in your language, like acronyms and technical expressions
  • Diagnosing barriers to understanding through questions and feedback from your audience
  • Encouraging more direct person-to-person dialogue, instead of device-to-device exchanges over email and text
  • Being patient when someone needs more explanation

and, most important of all

  • Never assuming anything

If we can’t start the next chapter in history right away, we can at least try to make each other’s lives a litte easier.

 


An Analysis of Visualization Discourse

July 19, 2012

How might we make sense of all the talk surrounding visualization today?

Note: I’ve used “visualization” throughout to remain consistent with the language of both articles, but I feel the term is still ambiguous and tends to refer to data-driven works only. 

I spend much of my time sifting through RSS feeds, Google Alerts, e-mails, and tweets in search of those moments of insight that bring meaning and clarity to the visualization conversation. Most of the time I get frustrated or disappointed because, even among the more incisive articles, I keep seeing the same missed opportunities to cut through the clutter and elevate the discussion above debate. However, one recent exchange stood out for me.

Andy Kirk’s article for O’Reilly Radar, Walking the tightrope of visualization criticism, and Robert Kosara’s response, A Criticism of Visualization Criticism Criticism, draw attention to a broad though often unexamined issue: the dynamics of participation in visualization discourse. Andy justly states that criticism of visualizations is often leveled too harshly or without regard for the context in which visual displays are made. By ruthlessly picking apart “unprofessional” works and applying the same rigid evaluation criteria across disparate visualization types, “experts” and others are breeding a culture of exclusivity that discourages newcomers from participating. He also calls for a greater awareness of the visualization ecosystem — the professionals, amateurs, and the general public who occupy this space (to paraphrase Andy’s descriptions) and their respective roles and needs. Even if certain approaches appeal more to the heart or the eye and offend the purist’s sensibilities, their place must still be acknowledged alongside other types of visual displays. Empathy, he concludes, is the key to building a richer, more inclusive community for all participants.

While Andy advocates for the velvet glove in criticism, Robert defends the iron fist. Direct, pointed critique is essential to shaping this still young field, according to Robert, since it maintains the boundary between what is acceptable as visualization and what is not. If we do not uphold the rules and principles of good visualization, as Robert asserts, confusion will continue to reign. Understanding what “good” means and how to achieve it comes from the ability to question why something works or doesn’t work, to laud its merits as well as expose its flaws. Unlike Andy’s tone of gentle guidance, drawn from his experiences teaching data visualization, Robert’s is one of tough love, in which hard truths are delivered without sugarcoating or restraint.

Both Andy and Robert raise excellent points, although I couldn’t help but notice the good cop / bad cop tone in how they present their views. Rather than continue the “criticizing criticism” debate, I see an opportunity in their discussion to sketch out the bigger picture of visualization discourse. I’ve listed and briefly unpacked six different dimensions of visualization discourse embedded in both articles. This analysis is highly subjective and a bit over-generalized, but I hope the piece-by-piece breakdown will inform further thinking:

1. WHO is talking?

Andy’s visualization ecosystem construct presents three separate groupings of people within the visualization space, but there are further important distinctions to be drawn between academics and practitioners, college-educated versus self-taught visualization designers, veterans versus newcomers, and others. All kinds of people participate in blogs, discussion forums, and events, and while everyone’s background isn’t always explicit, we should be mindful of that diversity. We also need to acknowledge not just who’s in the room, so to speak, but who we are ourselves — our preferences, biases, and beliefs. We can’t escape human nature, but our interactions in the visualization space would benefit from a measure of human awareness.

2. WHAT are we talking about?

Visualization as a broad realm of practice and study still eludes easy, widespread understanding. Its terms are ambiguous, its boundaries are blurry, its sub-disciplines fragmented, and its many tools and techniques overwhelming. While there’s a very general understanding of what “visualization” refers to by way of its outputs, there is yet no clear picture of what it fully entails. Proponents from different practice areas such as data visualization and infographic design attempt to “set the record straight” on basic definitions, yet they inevitably spark debate and reveal the factional divides that perpetuate confusion. I believe this fact will remain the biggest obstacle to progress across all areas of visualization unless we work toward some common ground on which to coexist and develop a shared vocabulary with which to engage in productive discussions.

3. WHY are we talking?

Everyone in the visualization space has different motivations to participate, whether it’s learning, teaching, peer recognition, self-promotion, or a blend. These individual reasons are inherent in any public dialogue, and may serve to enrich it, but from a big-picture perspective, their confluence can interfere with focused conversation. Some sites may attract a range of intents: marketers selling a company’s expertise, students seeking career guidance, professionals looking for feedback on their work, and ordinary people looking for an entry point into the field of visualization. Granted, it isn’t always easy to find a home for all interests or to moderate fairly, but productive discussion suffers when spaces aren’t maintained for specific purposes. I believe the goal of participation in visualization discourse should be to promote knowledge exchange and enhance understanding for all. In reality, not everyone may share that motivation and may not even care about the larger ecosystem of visualization, but for some, it is the primary reason why platforms for discussion exist.

4. HOW are we talking about visualization?

With so many channels for expression at our disposal, we have as much freedom to say what we want as how we want to say it. Questions of “right” and “wrong” or “good” and “bad” in visualization naturally stir strong opinions and fuel the urge to make them known. Among blog comments and discussion threads, it isn’t hard to find examples along the entire spectrum of online social interaction, from passive “likes” and nods of approval to “trolling” and other forms of aggression. But in the middle band of the spectrum, there is a fine line between constructive criticism and flat-out fault-finding, and that distinction depends on the words we use and the tone in which we deliver our messages. If we first accept and uphold the notion that interpersonal conduct of any sort should be respectful above all, online or offline, then perhaps we might learn how to balance critical analysis and erudition with consideration for perspectives other than our own. In practice, that may be as simple as reflecting on one’s comments and critiques before hitting “submit,” or as hard as swallowing one’s pride and publicly retracting an inappropriate remark.

5. WHERE are we talking?

Different settings are meant for different conversations, but some conversations don’t happen where they should, or happen instead where they shouldn’t. In the wide world of visualization, with so many places to contribute one’s two cents and the smorgasbord of topics often covered in the same place, it seems that discussions materialize wherever the signal strength is greatest and traffic is heaviest. Sometimes the same question or topic might get asked in multiple places but with different answers (general Q&A sites like Quora and Yahoo! Answers come to mind). That’s great for publishers and site owners, but I’m not sure that’s a good thing for newcomers and for visualization discourse in the long run. It results in fragmented information and potentially lost insights when links break or sites fold, but it also makes the visualization space difficult to navigate. I no longer bookmark websites mainly because there are just too many places to keep track of and not enough sites that make sense of the visualization landscape.

6. HOW MUCH are we talking?

We’re doing a lot of talking about visualization these days, perhaps more than ever before. Books, videos, podcasts, magazine articles, conferences, and other content outlets are extending the conversation far and wide. Much of the chatter skews heavily towards tactical matters: tools, technology, techniques, and, of course, criticism. But when it comes to big picture issues, like defining boundaries and mapping of the landscape, both talk and action are in short supply. Indeed, discourse is verbal in nature, but something tangible must come out of it — whether it’s a new direction of study, a change in practice, or even a bridge between the cultures and tribes of visualization. Otherwise, we’re just volleying words back and forth. This issue is one I think about often, since I find myself doing more passive things like reading and commenting than active ones, like engaging with more people in the visualization community and even directly working on the problems I complain about.

So WHAT’S NEXT?

I often see visualization referred to as “young,” “new,” or “emerging,” but as a human activity, it is actually quite old; only our attempts to formalize, popularize, and maximize its potential in modern society are recent. In that context, we still have much work to do if we want to establish a solid foundation for visualization to thrive. What we’re seeing today — the tangled friction between personas, content, motives, behaviors, contexts, and activities — is a natural part of any human endeavor, and as such, it requires human cooperation and human understanding to resolve.

To echo a sentiment I heard somewhere, I would really worry if everything was perfect and there was nothing to work towards. Progress means regularly fixing the things that need improvement while proactively seeking out opportunities to innovate and grow. Little by little, the visualization community is making steps forward on different fronts. Andy, Robert, and others are contributing to that progress in their writing and participation. So long as there are voices piercing through the noise and creating change — old voices, new voices, and hopefully wiser voices — the visualization conversation will flourish for a long time.


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