Rational Thinking Made Tangible

March 31, 2014

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Over the years, I’ve come to understand that information design work is as much a process of reasoning and investigation as it is an activity of pure design decision-making and production. In the earliest stage of my career, I thought information design was only about making graphics that put facts and figures in a clear, understandable format. I assumed that “clear” and “understandable” meant employing graphic techniques like bold color coding, ample white space, good typography, and descriptive illustration. My design education introduced me to the formal principles and standard guidelines for doing design work, like color theory and grid systems, along with the time-honored maxims like “less is more” and “if you can’t make it bigger, make it red.” I believed I had all the ingredients and the tools to do proper information design work, with a generous dose of ego thrown in.

But the more I actually did the work and the more exposure I had to different challenges, the more gaps I uncovered in my own “expertise.” If something made sense or triggered an “aha!”, the graphic designer in me attributed the success primarily to design as I understood it — the skillful arrangement of elements on a page — and little else. What I didn’t fully acknowledge was the “why” behind information design — why does that particular arrangement of elements work. And what do “clear” and “understandable” really mean?

What makes information design work?

The answer to that question stems from a widely-circulated quote attributed to Edward Tufte, from his book Visual Explanations:

Good information design is clear thinking made visible.*

What immediately strikes me about this definition is the order of ideas: clear thinking precedes visualization. It’s a simple point, but a critical one when discussing foundational aspects of information design. The ability to reason and apply rigorous logic to understanding-related challenges is what enables the effective design of information, in any form. In practice, I think “clear thinking made visible” could broadly refer to a continuum of activities:

  • applying a knowledge of principles and rules behind systems to making sense of situations
  • creating and using frameworks for organizing content (thoughts, ideas, data, text, etc)
  • designing interfaces for those frameworks using a variety of methods, tools, and techniques (To clarify, I’m using the word “interface” loosely to refer to visual, aural, spatial, tactile, and maybe even gustatory and olfactory means of accessing and interacting with information, not just technology-based interfaces.)

There’s a lot to unpack in those three bullets, perhaps in future posts. For now, I’m mainly interested in reframing information design to account for the bigger, invisible picture that happens in the “pre-visual” or “pre-artifact” stages. What I hope to see, sooner rather than later, is a shift away from the narrow graphic design-centric perspective that has hindered understanding and growth of the field and towards a cognition-centric perspective that embraces the full scope and potential of what information design is and does below the surface.

With that in mind, I propose a revision of Tufte’s quote to something like this:

Effective information design is rational thinking made tangible.

There are three key words here:

Effective: Given the ever-expanding range of stuff passing as information design these days, it would seem necessary to distinguish works as effective or ineffective at enabling understanding, rather than simply “good,” which has its own subjective meaning. The word “effective” may also promote a greater focus on how information design functions holistically, rather than just how it looks or how it works alone.

Rational: Saying “rational” instead of “clear” thinking helps put a finer point on the type of thinking involved in information design — thinking that subscribes to reason; “clarity” alone may only suggest that thoughts are distinct and well-defined, complete statements, but they may lack any basis in logic.

Tangible: Information design can take many forms once it has passed through the conceptual, “figuring out” stages. The word “tangible” need not only refer to objects or artifacts but to those things that can be experienced directly.

Information design has a long way to go before it will break free from conventional notions of what it is and can — or can’t — be. Greater awareness of the upstream information design process is necessary, as are required studies in cognitive science and logic. Understanding the brain and how it works, from the theoretical to the practical levels, should be the next wave in information design education and practice, not more overemphasis on filling our design toolkit and producing dazzling outputs.

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*The full quote is “Good information design is clear thinking made visible, while bad design is stupidity in action.” After briefly Googling the quote for other instances of its use, I came across what could be its inspiration, by Bill Wheeler: “Good writing is clear thinking made visible.” It isn’t surprising that both writing and information design can be described in the same way.


Change the Conversation

January 28, 2014

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I’ve never been much of a talker. As much as I enjoy rich, far-ranging conversations, at heart I’m a quiet recluse who prefers silence to chit-chat. Dialogue is great and necessary, but there is a point where talk must translate into action.

Looking back on the content I’ve read over the past year, a good portion of it is commentary about some problem or situation that needs to change, but there’s little indication that any action will follow to bring about change. Twitter often feels like writing on the water — as soon as ideas are broadcast (critiques, praise, and everything in between), they either ripple outward or vanish downstream. Blog posts have a sedimentary quality, as new or recycled material settles on top of old, day after day. And while books and journal articles are great, at the end of the day they’re just static knowledge containers. These days, it feels like the only call to action is to consume more content or struggle to keep up with it. What is all of that content for?

As I suggested in my last post, information design is drowning in chatter. There is so much discussion about infographics, data displays, and dazzling visualizations that the hard work of defining and giving more structure to information design as a formal discipline is being neglected. In my own blog, I acknowledge that there’s a considerable gap between what I say and what I actually do. I complain about the state of information design and visualization repeatedly — where there’s confusion, what challenges exist, what could be done better — but I recognize I’ve done little to change the situation beyond helping clients understand the full value of information design. Some soon-to-be-launched ventures will help me practice what I preach and catapult some words and ideas into reality.

The Web is an amazing platform for self-expression, idea exchange, and knowledge sharing, but it’s up to us to step away from our computers, put down our devices, and engage in the world. We need to get better at applying all the knowledge we absorb and all tools at our disposal towards finding and creating solutions to the problems that sorely need attention.

I want 2014 to be the year where we spend a little less time “curating conversations” from the comfort of our computer screens and more time getting our hands dirty in the messy, unglamorous work of sensemaking. Not all of that work will be tweet-able, “like”-able, or Instagram-able, but it will matter, however big or small the effort is.

5 Information Design & Visualization Action Areas for 2014

  1. Mapping Context: The understanding domain, which encompasses the language, people, practices, scholarship, literature, and other components of information design and visualization, is constantly evolving, but it’s still very difficult to see the map of this territory. Some may think that it’s futile to define boundaries and set definitions because of that perpetual flux, but without even a conceptual representation of a space that is occupied and shaped by so many different fields and perspectives, there can be no understanding among the people and groups that call that place home, nor can newcomers and “outsiders” get their bearings. Maybe once we have a sense of what we all mean by information design and visualization and start to mean the same fundamental thing, we can better contextualize what we do for others in their terms and collectively help make sense of the world.
  2. Making Connections: Richard Saul Wurman says that you only learn something in relation to what you already know (in a talk he gave many years ago in NYC, he described his personal frustration with the unfamiliar: “How can I put some velcro on this shit?”). I think we all could do a better job of forging connections between the familiar and the unfamiliar, instead of constantly pursuing the “new” and “different” under the guise of trendiness or “innovation.” That means doing more to help people understand what we all do, whether we’re data visualization people, news infographics people, wayfinding people, information architects, etc. How many of us have a crisp, clear, one-sentence description of our work that many people can understand and relate to?  In our daily work, that means reducing the scale and apparent complexity of the unfamiliar into human terms. One great example of this I found recently is the Dictionary of Numbers, which makes obscure numbers more concrete and tangible. The potential for this type of tool is immense.
  3. Expanding Community: There are many different, highly specialized communities within information design and visualization, but they don’t seem to talk much to one another. Maybe it’s me and my lack of history or possibly limited view of things, but I still don’t understand the divisions between, say, information design and information architecture communities, or information design and data visualization communities. When I peer into each little “world” encapsulated in their respective community organization sites and Twitter conversations, I see vibrant discussion and the occasional mention of a neighboring field or overlapping community, but I don’t often see deliberate efforts to bridge across to those neighbors and expand communities (unless you consider open calls to participate in conferences with broad categories or comment fields on blog posts active invitations). We all can be territorial for a variety of reasons, and the thought of extending a hand of fellowship towards foreign “tribes” may seem uncomfortable to some, but related to the first two points above, the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks. HelpMeViz is among the most promising communities I’ve seen recently that doesn’t simply celebrate shared interest in data visualization — it welcomes productive discussion around data visualization projects needing input. More physical and online platforms for teaching and guidance in this still fuzzy domain are sorely needed.
  4. Considering Consequences: One of the biggest ongoing problems affecting the perception and understanding of information design and visualization is the glut of (mostly bad) “infographics” and their sensationalistic promotion. It’s old news that marketing and graphic design have misappropriated the form and function of visual information displays to suit aesthetic and commercial interests, but the consequence is that information design and visualization are becoming too closely and too narrowly associated with empty, unintelligible, and irrelevant illustrations of facts and figures and artistic or technical experiments that serve only their creators. The reality is that those more expressive outputs won’t go away. Some argue that they are necessary elements or “disruptors” of the larger visualization ecosystem. Still, there still needs to be a clearer delineation between what is playful and what is serious. I would go so far as to distinguish what is fake from what is real. Information design and visualization, at their core, deal with enabling understanding and informing action, and we need to recognize work that serves that purpose — in both practical and meaningful ways. And we need to emphasize that information design and visualization span far more challenges than just making pictures of data and far more outputs and outcomes than infographics and data visualization alone, contrary to what blogs and magazine sites may say. We have more than enough “infographics” that leave us thinking “so what?” or “huh?”. It’s time to show that information design and visualization can — and do — make a real difference in the world.
  5. Championing Clarity: It’s a simple point, but one that is easily forgotten: we all can and should do more to make life easier for ourselves and others in the ways we interact and communicate with each other. Being a practitioner of any sort in information design and visualization should mean that an understanding sensibility is “always on” and a part of everyday life — not just when a project or client demands it. Let’s speak in a way that everyone can understand, and not assume others share our same lexicon. Let’s listen and take time to truly understand what others say and express, so we can respond in meaningful ways. Let’s slow down and cross one understanding challenge at a time, instead of jumping to conclusions about what a solution or answer should be. Let’s start simple when we’re explaining something, visually, verbally or both, so we don’t leave anyone behind. And let’s share our skill and expertise to help others, even in small ways, make clarity a habit.

It’s already the end of January, and there’s lots of work to be done. I hope to see more positive, constructive effort in 2014, as well as some fresh ideas and approaches to the areas I’ve listed. In the meantime, stay tuned for updates…


The Real Meaning of Information Design

November 29, 2013

real-info-design

Will we ever dig our way through all this information design content and hit the bedrock beneath?

We’re in the midst of an information design information overload. Blogs, books, courses, and workshops proliferate, covering every hot topic under the sun: big data, data visualization, infographics, “vintage” information design, software, etc. And while there are a few helpful guides along the way to navigate through this space, digging through the layers of content and finding not just the gems of knowledge but the very foundation of information design can be daunting. My goal in this post is to address the gap between what information design looks like today and what it really is by surfacing some of the most important (and interrelated) aspects of information design that are either implicit in a variety of resources or missing entirely.

What information design is really about:

1. Problem solving, not just visualization

Information design is commonly associated with end results: infographics, diagrams, data displays, and other kinds of outputs. This association with finished products can give the false impression that information design is only about visualizing facts and data, while overlooking the cognitive activities that information design is intended to enhance. Effective information design supports problem solving by giving structure to thought along the entire problem solving process, whether it’s in figuring out what problem to solve, organizing facts and data, finding patterns and synthesizing insights, or generating solutions aligned to a particular goal. And the form that information design takes at each step in the process need not be a perfectly polished digital visualization — hand-drawn sketches, color-coding systems, spatial organization schemes, and other sense-making methods all work to enable understanding.

2. People and purpose, not just tools and technology

Many blogs and books focus on the how of information design, like what software to use or how to construct different kinds of charts. Craft and technique are valuable to know and gain proficiency in, but what’s not often discussed in great depth is understanding who we’re designing for and why they need our help. Information design at its core is about helping people achieve their goals within a given context, whether they’re customers, patients, or citizens. How information designers achieve that goal may vary, as the toolkit continuously grows and evolves. What is fundamental and unchanging in all information design work is being highly attuned to people’s needs and defining their challenges in a way that guides the path to a meaningful solution.

3. Guidance and instruction, not just visual presentation

Related to points 1 and 2 above, many works of information design tend to be dense with tightly formatted content, which a viewer is left to deconstruct and decipher. Rather than make life easier, these “rich” visualizations require more time and effort to extract meaning because the information designer plays back the same content they received — without synthesizing it into a more digestible form — and adds a layer of graphic design following some aesthetic conventions of information design. True information design must go many steps beyond pure presentation and find the shortest path to understanding, removing all barriers and minimizing effort. That means guiding a viewer from an overview gradually to the detail, showing a whole and then breaking it into its parts, or connecting a new concept to something familiar. Information design should seek to create an ecosystem of understanding, where a potential gap or grey area is supported or reinforced by another resource, like direct phone or chat links to a live person, or signs and information at critical points of need along a service or experience journey. The idea is to do as much as possible to “be there” to help someone without physically being there.

4. Principles and frameworks, not just creative techniques

Generally speaking, information design thinking is largely absent from information design doing. The widely appropriated aesthetic of information design — pies, bars, diagrams, icons, and other graphic methods for visual explanation — creates a false sense of authority or credibility when applied superficially to content, as is common with the ongoing infographic/info illustration trend. This growing popularization of information design techniques reduces the practice of information design to a “look,” and may free creators of information design from any obligation to think deeply about the content and make sense of it first. What’s more, the emphasis in many websites and publications has increasingly (and maddeningly) shifted from information that is logical and meaningful to information that is beautiful. Part of the reason for this is that foundational practical information design knowledge is scattered across different sources or isn’t clearly spelled out in one place. It takes years of practice and immersion in the literature (past and present) as well as teaching experience to distill the essence of information design work into basic, workhorse principles and frameworks, such as information coding systems and visual frameworks for diagramming. Once those principles and frameworks become second nature, information design can be applied to any kind and scale of challenge, from planning a meeting or learning experience to mapping out a corporate strategy.

5. Systems thinking, not just isolated efforts

Information design does not live in a vacuum — it operates within a context, be it a company or a society. For information design to have real value, it cannot remain locked in a one-off artifact that could potentially get hidden or forgotten from underuse. It needs to connect to people, ideas, and situations. It needs to be part of a living system and align with a broader rationale, whether it’s a corporate vision and mission, a brand, an existing architecture, or a workflow. Information design that exists for itself or only serves one very narrow purpose isn’t information design. Going further, an information designer needs to be mindful not just of the conceptual and organizational context, but also of the physical and environmental conditions in which their work will perform. The idea of a system extends to the lifespan of the solution: how accessible it is to different people, how legible it is in different lighting situations, how durable it is after repeated use, and how often it will need to be updated or replaced.

In time, I’m confident that more sense-making around information design will naturally happen as awareness grows about what it really is. But it will take considerable work: an earnest effort among all stakeholders to dive deep into the history, theory, and practice of information design; a willingness to share learnings and best practices with the broader information design/visualization community; an inclusive, instructive dialogue around unclear topics; and a mindfulness about how information design is represented and understood in the mainstream.


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.


Wayfinding Through the Visualization Space

May 23, 2013

If a utopian future for visualization is unrealistic, how can we do better to guide the way through it?
Photo by chriscom on Flickr.

A recent conversation with some fellow visualization folk led me to question my own notion of what the visualization space should look like and how it should get there.

Information design, as a visualization profession, is more than just how I earn a living. For me, it’s a deeply-ingrained way of seeing and being in the world. Sometimes, that desire to make things understandable is driven by preference and bias rather than by pragmatism. I’ve long been attached to the pursuit of an ideal visualization space, complete with a clear foundational language, broader internal and external understanding of visualization and its benefits, more structured programs that holistically teach visualization, and a closer sense of community across the many disciplines and specialties within. It would be great to see that viz-utopia happen and help make it happen, but the fact is that this vision is wildly out of sync with reality. Simply wanting things to be a certain way and tackling all the obstacles in the way doesn’t change what is and likely will be: an ecosystem of many different and differing points of view, hubs of activity, professional interests, channels of information, and outputs loosely joined under the category of “visualization.”

Perhaps the real opportunity is less grandiose (and presumptuous) and more down-to-earth: consistently working towards incremental understanding as a general goal rather than becoming fixated on solving for the larger perceived “problem.” Shedding some sense-making responsibility for visualization isn’t necessarily a surrender to the chaos and complexity that seemingly threaten to consume it. A measure of detachment acknowledges that other productive efforts are happening organically and have the potential to generate enough signal to cut through the noise. In this sense, the visualization space will ultimately become what all of its participants make of it; each contribution exists for the others to respond to, share, build upon, or rethink entirely. And the varied roles active within that ecosystem will shape the dynamic and tenor of discourse: teachers and students, leaders and followers, innovators and optimizers, sense-makers and trouble-makers.

So maybe hard paved roads, guardrails, and traffic lights aren’t the real solution to traversing the rocky terrain of visualization, but at a minimum, some balance is needed — enough structure and practical/theoretical basis to give the space substance as well as enough openness to allow new thinking and innovation to occur.

To borrow from the hiking world, it might be a shared community effort that guides the way, much like the cairns that line mountain hiking trails.

Cairn built atop a boulder on a hiking trail in New Hampshire. Photo by Michael Tsai on Flickr.

These small mounds of rocks mark the safest path when weather obscures painted trail markers or when hazards are hard to see. The piles aren’t always part of the design of the trail, yet they elegantly blend with the natural landscape while clearly showing the way. The success of cairns depends on many hikers doing their part by building them where they’re needed, adding stones to make the pile higher, or rebuilding them when damaged by the elements. Similarly, if enough visualization practitioners (from data viz, visual thinking, information design, scientific viz, etc), researchers, and others create and build upon existing knowledge bases (such as blogs, discussion groups, courses, events, etc) and collectively raise awareness of genuinely useful resources that advance understanding, the “right” paths might emerge naturally in time.

Of course, in this revised vision, all possible paths are available — it only depends on the individual to make sense of the options and decide on the best path forward.


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