Rational Thinking Made Tangible

March 31, 2014


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.

Say What You Mean

April 30, 2013


The Oxford English Dictionary, recognized as the “definitive record of the English language,” contains about 600,000 words, but only about 35,000 to 75,000 words make it into the average person’s vocabulary. With such a broad palette at our disposal, it should seem easy for us to assemble just the right combinations of words to capture precisely what’s on our mind and convey it in the best possible way. What poetry we could weave!

Alas, the reality is that we make communication much more complicated than it should be for ourselves and for others. How can we make everyday communication more human?

Correct Grammar Doesn’t Equal Good Communication

Generally speaking, schools are capable of doing as much harm as good in teaching communication skills. With the exception of kindergarten story time and the occasional show and tell, communication-related instruction focuses less on cultivating ideas and the ability to express oneself and much more on processing and formatting ideas by way of grammar, punctuation, syntax, etc. Of course, these rules have their value and appropriate place, but focusing too heavily on them is part of the problem we face with clear communication: our preoccupation with what we think we should or shouldn’t do — the split infinitives, the dangling participles, the misplaced modifiers — overshadows our fundamental need to make sense of what we want to express.

You’re Not the Center of the Universe

We all stumble when it comes to saying what we mean and putting it in a way that makes sense to others. Sometimes we give in to mental laziness, spouting off clichés and other well-worn turns of phrase when it’s too hard to construct something meaningful or original. Sometimes we want others to value our thoughts as much as we do, so we primp and preen our language to sound more dignified or scholarly than it actually is. And sometimes, we use words “creatively” to reframe unpleasant or unfavorable realities. What we don’t realize is that in every instance we’re putting ourselves and our interests at the center of communication, not the people we’re talking to. That’s not to suggest our shortcomings with communication are entirely the product of deliberate selfishness. We may have the best intentions but simply act out of habit or convenience. We sometimes don’t realize there is a problem and don’t bother to take the time to think through our message.

When we don’t think from our audience’s perspective, consciously or not, we set ourselves up for failure. This may seem an obvious point, but consider how commonplace “anti-user” behavior is:

Scenario 1: “This is how I see it…”

We tend to forget that our personal frame of reference isn’t universal, and that not everyone shares our worldview, experience, or knowledge. The disease of familiarity, or being so deeply immersed in a content area that one loses objectivity, can erode a conversation when every other word we use is an acronym, technical term, or insider lingo.

Scenario 2: “This is the way we do things around here…”

In a work environment where we aren’t necessarily speaking and writing for ourselves, we might have to follow a long-held but flawed protocol or parrot the expressions of our coworkers and managers, lest we upset the status quo and jeopardize our employment. To openly advocate plain language would be to pit oneself against internal bureaucracy and the ever-vigilant “Legal,” not to mention risk looking like you actually care about your job and your company.

Scenario 3: “This is my agenda…”

We may casually gloss over ambiguities and bend the truth with vague expressions because it serves our interests to do so, whether it is to win others’ support or avoid criticism. Euphemisms were borne of this desire to soften the truth by substituting blunt expressions with more subtle ones, like “casualties” instead of “war dead” and “pre-owned” instead of “used.” In matters of public policy, words can spin the same issue different ways: the gun debate comes down to either gun rights or gun control; the abortion debate is a question of being pro-life or pro-choice. These tactics openly disregard an audience’s intelligence. They attempt to “spare” them the trouble of confronting reality, offering instead an effortless line of thought to follow — one that is pre-defined and pre-approved.

Straight Talk is Smart Talk

The main problem with effective communication isn’t that we don’t know what it looks like or how to do it. It’s that we forget the basic principles or don’t make the effort to practice them regularly. We offload the job of figuring out what we mean to our audience, who have neither the time nor the interest to do so.

It’s time we reclaim that responsibility and re-learn some human-centered fundamentals of communication:

Be thoughtful.

How often do we actually pause to collect our thoughts and review them before firing off an e-mail or having a difficult conversation? Time constraints, highly charged emotions, and other pressures rob us of objectivity and tact, so what we think often leaves our mouths or hands without any filters or censors. Making reflection and review a conscious habit of written and spoken communication can spare the embarrassment and awkwardness that thoughtless words create.

Be inclusive.

Put an end to conversations that coast along on a thin veneer of agreement, nudged along by false nods and “uh huhs.” Get in the habit of establishing a common language, especially when speaking with those outside your personal or professional tribe. Pausing to spell out an acronym, translate technical concepts into layman’s terms, or just draw an explanatory picture avoids more confusion later on.

Be accurate.

Use the right words as they were intended. For instance, nouns and verbs do their jobs fine, so it can get confusing when nouns pretend to be verbs, like workshop (learn and practice), impact (affect), author (write), and incent (motivate). Also troublesome are adjectives that act as nouns and leave ideas hanging, like “legal” and “creative.” They should be followed by words like “team” or “department.”

Be direct.

It’s the year 2013, so no need to cling to officious language and outdated expressions. Steer clear of fluffy fillers like “at this time” (now) or “in the near future” (soon). (“Due to unforeseen circumstances” is just plain silly when you think about it.) Stuffy Latinate words like utilize (use), commence (start), and cognizant (aware) also pretend to be important but fall flat next to their real-world counterparts. If you can say the same thing with simpler and fewer words, go for it.

Be honest.

Acknowledging and delivering the unvarnished truth sometimes means venturing into uncomfortable territory — where doing so could potentially offend another or result in personal disadvantage.  Let your gut be your guide: if reading your own words gives you that gnawing, unpleasant feeling in the pit of your stomach, delete and start over with a clear conscience.

Be brave.

Standing up for clear communication in difficult or unfavorable circumstances is no easy feat, as in situations when someone’s authority or ego might be challenged or when a long-held company policy might be questioned. Bravery in communication means defending clarity and eliminating ambiguity for the sake of a greater good, but doing so with the mindfulness and respect that all the previous points call for. It might also mean setting an example and encouraging others to be better communicators. In either case, the goal is to confidently promote understanding in spite of the perceived risks or consequences.

What are some other guiding principles and real-world lessons for humanizing communication? How else might we enrich our writing and conversations with more signal and less noise?

Worth reading/viewing:

Junk English by Ken Smith
On Writing Well by William Zinsser
Contrafibularities clip from Blackadder

Just Do.

March 29, 2009


I’ve always been fascinated by prolific artists, whether they’re writers, visual artists, designers, or musicians. The ability to tap into an endless stream of ideas and readily produce them in great abundance, either rough or refined, is a rare and enviable gift. Those of us who work in the field of design can attest to the occasional blank feeling at the very start of a project, when the immediate surge of inspiration is most critical. The complete standstill of creative thought is like a rude visitor who drops by without warning and far overstays his visit. Even the most vigorous attempts to kick him out may prove futile.

Sometimes, the reverse phenomenon might happen: great scores of ideas rush to be born, only to be stopped cold by our internal censor, guarding the exit like a muscle-bound club bouncer. Only the “best” and most durable ideas are ever worthy of getting through. Then the challenge becomes making those ideas real — on paper, on screen, in three dimensions. But the ideas have to be crafted with utmost care. Design involves so many choices: which color? which size? which direction? which order? Today’s great decision might become tomorrow’s utter failure.

In an effort to combat this endless cycle of no ideas vs. no good ideas, I’ve decided to redirect my mental energy to more constructive endeavors (see previous post). As a start, I’m going to try real hard to post more on this site, most likely in short form (thanks to the WordPress iPhone app). I will also try to add more projects, even if they’re in progress as sketches or rough prototypes. It won’t be easy, but I think it’ll be worth it.

Thinking about Thinking…

February 16, 2009


I tend to do a lot of thinking. Not a moment passes when cascades of thoughts aren’t flashing across my mind like channels flipping quickly on a television screen. I suppose it’s both a cause and a symptom of working in a creative field and constantly being attuned to all things visual and verbal (I was never one for kinesthetic activities like sports).

There are different patterns or types of thinking — linear, circular, random or non sequitur, among many others — but the kind that burns the most cerebral calories for me is recursive, or thinking about thinking (I’m sure there’s a more accurate term for this somewhere). To continue the television metaphor, it’s the mental equivalent of pointing a video camera at the television screen it is connected to, or placing two mirrors directly opposite one another. Images repeat to infinity, containing their own image, contained within their own image. Recursive thinking need not continue to infinity, as in an Escher print — just one or two degrees out or in from where you are is all it takes.

Recursive thinking is an attempt at objectivity, though not quite free of personal bias or perspective. Outside of any rigorous studies in philosophy, psychology and cognitive neuroscience, I find the best description of this phenomenon by Ambrose Bierce in The Devil’s Dictionary:

MIND, n. A mysterious form of matter secreted by the brain. Its chief activity consists in the endeavor to ascertain its own nature, the futility of the attempt being due to the fact that it has nothing but itself to know itself with. From the Latin mens, a fact unknown to that honest shoe-seller, who, observing that his learned competitor over the way had displayed the motto “Mens conscia recti,” emblazoned his own front with the words “Men’s, women’s and children’s conscia recti.”

Some of my favorite works of art, cinema, and literature deal with nested repetition of the same reality (also called the Droste effect):

And although this isn’t exactly recursive — unless you keep your own Earth-level consciousness in mind as the film’s perspective zooms out and in — The Powers of 10 by Charles and Ray Eames (1977) best captures the experience of shifting one’s perspective:

(best viewed in high quality)

So does anyone else out there have any personal insight into thinking about thinking, especially folks in the design field? I’d like to collect examples of how this is depicted visually and maybe share them in another post, so comments and suggestions are welcome.


UPDATE, 1/30/10 – Here’s an interesting example of geographic recursion.

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