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.

——–

*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.


The Real Meaning of Information Design

November 29, 2013

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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.


The Other Visualization

August 29, 2013

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We often think of visualization in the most tangible sense of the word: an image or representation of thoughts, data, observed phenomena — something you can look at. Visualizations conventionally take the form of a print document or on-screen display, but they also occupy environments and increasingly live on devices. Much attention these days is focused on the creation of such visualizations to manage vast data sets and enable sophisticated scientific and mathematical analyses. Visualizations of this type help us understand (and perhaps believe we can control) our environment by giving us insight into the dynamics that measurement reveals — everything from the number and position of near-Earth objects to environmental conditions in New York City. We also use visualizations to understand our own behavior, from our physical fitness to our emotions. The skills needed to create visualizations are becoming more accessible, the tools more sophisticated, and the level of detail sharper and more granular. We keep finding new ways to collect data, new types of data to mine, and new ways to see our present world differently, but we’re losing sight of an innate capability to see and create much more than data could ever allow us to.

The other kind of visualization — one that we all practice but often take for granted — requires no special tools except imagination. It is creative visualization.

Some dismiss it as daydreaming or fantasizing, deriding its practice throughout life, but its every bit as valid and productive a visualization method as it’s more commonly accepted counterparts. Creative visualization is all about letting the mind roam free to explore whatever drifts in and out of conscious thought. It is the doorway to new ideas and new possibilities. It is a breeding ground for the absurd, the impractical, and the completely impossible, but it is also a necessary complement to the more structured forms of visualization.

Aside from giving the brain an outlet for bizarre flights of fancy, creative visualization serves a number of purposes. Brainstorming, or ideation, is probably the most familiar practical form of creative visualization, as it focuses the imagination on a specific task or problem to be solved in order to generate many different solutions or possibilities (of course, brainstorming can be verbal as well as visual). Generally speaking, most brainstorming tends to hover around what is pragmatic and easy to execute; even when the activity is at its most fluid, the fundamental encouragement of wild ideas and transformation of ordinary ideas into extraordinary ones (per Alex Osborn’s original intent) tends to go unheeded. For those seeking to “innovate,” the generation of fresh and original thought often gets stifled by premature criteria: cost, time to market, degree of impact, etc. The full potential of visualization as an innovation tool is often lost because “how you get there” overshadows any open exploration of what “there” could even look like.

In the realm of strategy consulting, visioning exercises are a powerful enabler of change for teams, organizations, communities, and society. A step beyond brainstorming specific tactical solutions, they involve understanding a present reality fully and deeply, perhaps through research and data analysis, in order to envision an ideal future where strategic challenges and opportunities of the present are resolved. Such “visions” might include expanding into new markets, launching new products, reorganizing departments, or re-establishing an organizational vision and entire strategic direction. This activity calls upon different stakeholders to collectively build the reality they want to achieve together (and define their time horizon) by building upon and enriching each other’s ideas. Ideally, such future visioning involves a clear vision or over-arching purpose, uninhibited idea flow, diverse sources of input, and skilled visual facilitation to orchestrate, synthesize and refine the group’s thoughts into a clear and actionable picture of tomorrow.

There is yet another kind of creative visualization that gets very little attention, and perhaps draws the most skepticism: the ability to vividly construct an image or entire experience in the mind and have it manifest in reality.

Closely tied to the New Thought movement of the late 19th and early 20th century, and later re-emerging in the New Age phenomenon of the 1960′s–1980’s, creative visualization of this type relies on the full power of the imagination to effectively “create” personal change by tapping into a force beyond rational understanding or present scientific knowledge. The law of attraction, a core principle of New Thought stating that positive thinking attracts positive outcomes (and negative attracts negative), works in tandem with creative visualization: the stronger the image, the associated feelings, and the intent, the greater likelihood that it will come to be. Some who have written and spoken on the subject, like Neville Goddard, Wallace Wattles, and James Lynn Page, refer to the unseen mechanism of manifestation as a spiritual or cosmic energy (often associated with God), while others like Adelaide Bry, author of Visualization: Directing the Movies of Your Mind suggest the force is within the individual — a largely mysterious but consistently reproducible “mind over matter” phenomenon. In his book Thinking Visually, visual thinking pioneer Robert McKim briefly explores how to cultivate imagination and enrich foresight to achieve future goals by introducing Maxwell Maltz’s psycho-cybernetics technique. So, for example, if you want a bigger house, you must see and feel the future state vividly in your mind: walk through the front door, see tall ceilings and bright sunlight pouring through the windows, feel content that you are living in the house you want. With repeated practice of this technique, the general principle holds that it will happen in real life — maybe not down to the exact details, but it will happen. As for proof that this method works, individual experience is usually the testing ground. Scientific studies seem scarce save for one involving Russian Olympic athletes (the source is unidentified).

Visualization — making things visual in physical or mental form — applies to numbers, words, ideas, and even hopes and desires. While some forms of visualization focus on understanding the present and are rooted in empirical observation, they’re only half of the visualization story.  The more subjective, and some would say the more compelling side, is about envisioning and creating the future, whether by our own direct efforts, through group collaboration, or by means beyond our total comprehension. There may be more science anchoring conventional visualization methods and more pragmatism to focusing imagination on generating “real” solutions, but we should also be open to the potential of creative visualization in its different forms to help us solve problems and improve our lives.


Being Prepared

January 28, 2013

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Not long ago, most everyday problems were solved with little more than one’s wits, a dose of common sense, and one’s own two hands. Virtually any appliance or piece of equipment in a typical home could be serviced with a little mechanical know-how and a basic toolkit. Do-it-yourself guides such as the Time-Life Home Repair and Improvement series provided all the instruction one needed to tackle even more complex electrical, plumbing, and carpentry projects. Of course, the guides left out how much actual time, sweat, and trial-and-error it would really take to get something done.

I was fortunate growing up to have an industrious grandfather who took every opportunity to school me in the ways of the handyman. He gave me my very first set of tools — a ballpeen hammer, flat and Phillips-head screwdrivers, a crescent wrench, socket wrenches, small vise clamps, some metal files, and a saw — all neatly housed in a metal Sears Craftsman toolbox, with plenty of room for additional tools as my skills grew. In our basement workshop, he would teach me the basics of repair, from simple woodworking to soldering, but the most important lesson of all involved no tools. It was how to be resourceful.

When MacGyver first aired on television, it was love at first sight. I devoured every episode with the hope of learning some clever trick or inventive use for an everyday object that might one day get me out of a similar jam, as young boys often imagine. With my parents’ permission, I got my hands on a Swiss Army knife. I didn’t want just any model, not even the one good old MacGyver carried around (apparently, there were several). I chose the biggest, baddest model available at the time, aptly named the SwissChamp. At 3.5 inches thick and boasting 33 tools, it was guaranteed to serve me well for a very long time. About twenty-five years later, it hasn’t let me down, although I still haven’t used every tool on that thing.

My tinkering tendencies have mellowed considerably over the years. The scope of problems I can fix with my own hands has shrunk to what I have the patience and time for, which usually involves common plumbing repairs, light woodworking, and anything that can be mended with superglue. Don’t even ask me about car repair.

Today, I rely most on the modern-day multi-tool: my iPhone. Nearly six years since its debut, the iPhone still amazes me; as a physical object, it does little more than provide a mirror reflection on its screen, but as an electronic device, it houses a telephone, television, radio, computer, address book, notebook, calculator, camera, camcorder, compass, level, flashlight, video game console, and much more. It won’t help me install a new washer and dryer, for instance, but it will help me search for a local appliance dealer, review customer ratings, buy the appliances, call to schedule installation, and set a reminder in my calendar for the appointment. Not that I’m proud of this pinnacle of human achievement, mind you.

The MacGyver instinct never goes away, though. I’ve recently become fascinated with the phenomenon of every day carry, or EDC, which promotes and even glamorizes preparedness for “situations ranging from the mundane to the disastrous” using a compact but high-performance toolkit. Whereas a simple pocket knife may have been more than suitable for daily needs a century or so ago, the modern “carry” typically includes a smartphone, a sturdy folding knife, a multi-tool, a flashlight, a pen, a manly wristwatch, and the occasional handgun. There are even preferred brands and discussion forums dedicated to the subject. I’ll admit that, except for the weapons, many of the items and the level of rigor and design that goes into them are impressive, but I wonder if the coolness factor of survivalist gadgets and shiny metal objects overshadows the spirit of utility and resourcefulness that every day carry embodies.

The ability to rise to the unexpected challenges of everyday life and figure out a solution on the spot, sometimes under pressure and with few resources, is becoming a lost skill. Technology can only carry us so far, but we may eventually find ourselves stranded, over-dependent and helpless to fend for ourselves without it. Real preparedness is more than having all the right tools for every predicament or every imaginable supply in abundant stock to counter existential risks. They mean little without the presence of mind to grasp a situation, determine the right action, and get the job done, however big or small.

How might we re-learn to be more capable, self-sufficient thinkers and problem solvers when we take our modern conveniences for granted? Boy Scout training for grown-ups, perhaps?


Putting Visual Thinking to Work

October 16, 2012

Much like other crossover sensations from the creative world such as design thinking and information design, the visual thinking phenomenon has sustained interest for some time now. From the most staid corporate institutions to the most enlightened young startups, visual thinking techniques are being sought after as part of a new business toolkit in the quest to create “cultures of innovation.” Post-its, whiteboards, and flipcharts are infiltrating once stodgy conference rooms and work spaces. Unbridled creativity — not industrial-era efficiency — is the key to better products, smarter services, and increased profit.

But behind the glowing promise of the vizthink movement, a challenge persists for many in the business world: how best to harness the power of visual thinking to achieve real results?

There are already countless answers to that question tied to specific practices. Some would argue that free-form “doodling” (now scientifically proven to aid attention and memory) is integral to more engaging meetings because it ensures participants are actively tracking along with the conversation. Others might champion visual facilitation methods such as graphic recording, the mural-style translation of words to pictures, as the key to making strategy sessions memorable. There’s also the smorgasbord of activities known as gamestorming, meant to enrich collaboration by incorporating elements of play into the workplace. But for the beginner unsure of where to get the most value out of visual thinking, the variety of options can be difficult to navigate, and the time and energy it takes to reach a conclusion on one’s own can be daunting.

A number of guiding lights provide practical instruction and systems for learning core visual thinking principles, yet there is still room to close the gap between the vision of vizthink and everyday workplace realities.

Thinking First, Visuals Second

It’s easy to think that beautifully penned sketchnotes or delightfully illustrated graphic recordings are the hallmark of good visual thinking: they demonstrate great technical skill and creativity, and they certainly appeal to the eye. In reality, they might only succeed at just the visual part while providing little insight or fuel for the thinking part. Quite often, the artistic production of these visual artifacts takes precedence over the process that they support and the outcomes they are meant to deliver. To be blunt, if a visual fails to convey an idea clearly, enhance understanding (for oneself and for a group), inform decisions, or drive toward a goal, then it benefits no one. Visual thinking is more than just drawing for the sake of drawing, capturing something for posterity, or aiding memory. It boosts our capacity to process information and create new knowledge by enabling specific cognitive tasks. In a business context, visual thinking facilitates knowledge work in teams by dissolving communication barriers and allowing many different minds to work together towards a common goal. It is the glue of human collaboration.

Different Modes for Different Goals

At a fundamental level, visual thinking operates in three modes, with corresponding tools and techniques:

GENERATING

Visual thinking is generative — that is, it relies on the output of ideas and content in tangible, visual form. It may sound simplistic, but without the externalization of thought in some representational form — text, drawing, symbol, etc. — visual thinking cannot happen past the mind’s eye.

Doodling is the most common generative activity since it channels stream of consciousness thoughts in an unstructured form. The lack of inhibition and freedom to put pen to paper that doodling affords, rather than the quality of visual output, is perhaps of greatest value when solving problems. Related activities such as graphic recording and sketch-noting are also generative in that they convert spoken and written thoughts into pictures, with the intent of making key ideas resonate in memory. Mind mapping and visual brainstorming also fit in this category since they allow many ideas to be generated rapidly.

ANALYZING

Visual thinking can also be analytic. It breaks down raw content to uncover patterns and define relationships. Tied to the generative function, analysis cannot occur without something to analyze, such as meeting notes, PowerPoint decks, and other documents.

Analysis seeks to create order and includes non-drawing-based methods that take advantage of spatial relationships. Pinning up, clustering, and color-coding materials are classic ways to organize content into categories for analysis. Visual frameworks such as axis plots, charts, and graphs help capture and distill the findings of analysis into a usable form.

SYNTHESIZING

Finally, visual thinking can be synthetic by combining previously disparate or disconnected ideas to create newer and clearer ones. Synthesis typically feeds off of the findings of an analysis and produces tighter pictures of a situation than previously known.

Synthesis can take the form of diagrams, concept sketches, and visual stories, among other methods. Multiple iterations strengthen synthesis: trial and error with different formats, configurations, and graphic approaches ensures that all essential elements of an explanation work together to communicate effectively.

All three modes of visual thinking are essential to problem solving, but I find that the real power of visual thinking lies in the second and third modes. This is where the thinking side of the equation really shines — where “aha” moments happen.

Finding the Right Mode for the Job

With a basic understanding of visual thinking’s distinct but related functions, it’s easier to diagnose common work situations and take action. Here are six common scenarios and some possible approaches:

Do you need to get a quick grip on a situation?

GENERATE: Draw a very simple picture of what you know and don’t know — who’s involved, what their roles are, where the situation is happening, etc. Add to the picture as you learn more, even if the picture gets messy. You can take a more considered approach once you know what you’re dealing with.

Do you need to dig deeper and learn more?

GENERATE: Ask probing questions to capture as much information as possible verbally, using visual frameworks as needed when words get cumbersome (eg, organizational structures, process flows, etc). Just stick to generating facts without making assumptions or drawing conclusions.

Do you need to sort through research or extract the most essential information from a pile of documents?

ANALYZE: Read through the content in several passes until you see a pattern emerge. Pin up, number, color, stack, label — use whatever means necessary to clearly distinguish one category from another. Track your findings along the way to synthesize later.

Do you need to put all the facts together and see the big picture?

SYNTHESIZE: Explore multiple different ways to put together the key findings from your analysis until the story or message comes through clearly. Aim for balance and visual harmony rather than superfluous detail to refine the picture.

Do you need to come up with ideas for something?

GENERATE: Try visual brainstorming. Take a stack of index cards (or post-its) and draw one idea per card, using only enough visual detail to get the idea across quickly. Go for quantity and pin them up or arrange on a table for analysis only when you’ve exhausted all possibilities.

Do you need to explain a concept to colleagues?

SYNTHESIZE: Sketch out the three to five important points you want to highlight in your story, then draw and redraw until your pictures are both complete and easy for your audience to understand. Rather than jump to PowerPoint, consider presenting in storyboard format or in a sequence of flipchart drawings. This format saves time and invites additional comments and feedback.

There are many more techniques (and entire systems) available to accomplish the above tasks depending on the situation, time/location constraints, and whether you are working solo or in a group. As a general rule, I find that simpler is always better when it comes to doing visual thinking in a business setting. Setup should be easy, tools and materials should be readily available, and visual methods should maximize inclusion and understanding — always keep everyone engaged and the process flowing. With experience, one comes to realize that almost any challenge can be made manageable with a keen situational awareness, a few workhorse pictographs and frameworks, and a bare-bones toolkit.

 

Technical note: I’ve started using Bamboo Paper on my iPad more frequently these days. It’s tremendously helpful in creating natural-looking drawings and outputting them digitally. The visuals in this post and the last were created with this method.


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