Embrace the Wait

March 31, 2015

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Have you ever stopped to think about waiting? We spend so much time just waiting for some things to happen, other things to pass. Consider the moments of waiting that happen over the course of a typical day: on line at a register, in traffic, in a doctor’s office, on a plane, etc. The very concept of waiting — a momentary suspension of activity or delayed action until a specific event happens — seems to suggest that we have to be in some mode of action at all times during our waking hours. Being idle has come to be a bad thing, and waiting itself has a generally negative connotation because the thing you want is not in the present but locked away in some defined or undefined point in the future. Time needs to pass before that desired state can come to be. And oh how we pass our time!

To me, commuting by mass transit is the perfect encapsulation of waiting, next to air travel. Commuting can be considered a form of routine waiting. It’s finite, scheduled, expected, and for that reason, we find ways to pour our lives and lifestyles into that span of time. Rituals, habits, indulgences all make their way into our commutes. Over the years as a regular commuter to and from New York City, I’ve observed a growing but unsurprising trend: devices have come to dominate the commuting experience. I regularly scan my subway car to see how many people are using a smartphone, tablet, e-reader, or other gadget. Most of the time, the majority of passengers are immersed in some tech-enabled activity: reading, listening to music, playing video games, watching movies. Signal permitting, people are chatting away, texting, snapping selfies, scrolling through streams of social media updates, or typing in updates of their own. It’s bad enough that we actually are capable of doing all of those things in a shared public space like a subway car or bus, that these are all options for things you can do when you have nothing else to do. The real problem is twofold. First, we haven’t yet learned how to distinguish what we should do from what we shouldn’t do in those situations. Second, and more the focus of this post, we don’t really know how to deal with moments of pause in an activity- and device-free way — to simply embrace the wait.

Reframing the meaning of those quiet, interstitial spaces in our lives requires an understanding of what we’re doing with the busy, booked-up blocks of time on our daily agenda and why. Most of us measure our personal worth or success by our productivity and accomplishment. We feel good about ourselves when we get more stuff done, so we work very hard to do more and more. In school and at work, we often get rewarded not just for scoring higher on a performance scale (like an A+ or a 100%) but for occupying our time with as many extracurricular activities as possible. We try our hardest to exclaim to the world “I am NOT idle! I am highly driven and motivated to succeed!” but what we achieve in the end is little more than exhaustion.

Filling empty space to capacity is a common habit, whether it’s our calendars, our closets, or our stomachs. We do no different to our brains. I would argue that the concept of information overload has less to do with us being bombarded by information from lots of external sources than with us deliberately saturating our own attention with more information than we need. If we’re drinking from the firehose of information, as they say, we’re also the ones holding the hose to our own mouths and controlling the valve. Devices that connect us to the plethora of information in the world and in our lives are not necessarily at fault. They just make it far too easy to indulge in our existing impulses, especially when we think there’s nothing better we should be doing than funneling our attention into a small glowing rectangle that’s conveniently within arm’s reach.

So what else should we be doing if we can’t play with our devices? My simplistic answer: Do as little as possible or nothing at all.

If sleep is the chance we have to rest our bodies and sort out all the memories we’ve collected during the day, what chance do we have during our waking hours to reset our minds and make sense of our experiences and our lives? Sure, there’s meditation, yoga, running, hiking, and many other mind-easing pursuits to help us gain perspective and focus, but what about those in-between waiting moments sprinkled throughout the day? I like lists, so here are five techniques I find useful:

  1. Create and capture rather than consume: Carry a notepad or small journal and write out what’s on your mind (yep, with a real pad and a real pen, no apps). It doesn’t matter whether you write or draw or both, and it doesn’t matter if it looks/sounds good or not, so long as you allow yourself to express whatever has accumulated in your head. Even sitting somewhere and describing what you see can be interesting.
  2. Do some creative visualization: I wrote about this technique in an earlier post, but it’s worth resurrecting. Whether you believe it works or not, it’s a remarkably calming exercise to envision a goal or end result you want to achieve in as crisp and vivid detail in your mind as possible. Give it form, color, texture, smell — whatever will bring it to life. With repeated practice, you might be surprised with the outcome.
  3. Work out unresolved issues: Unpack a problem that’s on your mind. Don’t simply replay what went wrong over and over. Look at it from different angles, step outside your shoes, identify the things you didn’t know or understand clearly.
  4. Move around: Lots of waiting involves sitting for prolonged periods. Movement, even in small ways, can be beneficial. There are many kinds of simple, low-impact exercises that can be done while seated or that require little space.
  5. Daydream: Really, why not? Let yourself stare out the window of a bus or train, watch the clouds go by, observe people bustling about, or just take in your surroundings.

Waiting can be about much more than waiting, and it can certainly involve more than the digital pacifiers we carry around with us. We need to reframe waiting as an opportunity to disconnect from the task-driven part of ourselves that craves stimulation and reconnect with the other, quieter part that longs for stillness, peace, and reflection. Maybe we can start to think anew about waiting as the space between notes of music, a deep breath after a steep climb, a blank page dividing chapters of a book, or a welcoming patch of green space in a towering, grey city.


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.


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.


New Modalities of Understanding

April 1, 2013

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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”?


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?


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