Unpacking Understanding


There’s plenty of talk these days about making sense of messes, making the complex clear, bringing order to chaos, turning data into insights, creating understanding, et cetera. Who does that work — whether it’s an information designer, information architect, user experience designer, or any other hot professional of the moment — is not the focus of this post (although it is a largely neglected topic of discussion). My concern is that understanding-related work of any kind happens without much understanding of understanding itself. How can we get away with talking the talk, selling services that promise to make confusing things comprehensible when we know so little about what understanding is and how it works?

Such is the folly of many similar pursuits today: we want to innovate, we want to unlock creativity, we want to harness the power of design and design thinking. But these words, just like “understanding,” are victims of marketing spin, media hype, and fluffy visual rhetoric. The romanticized idea of these things, commonly represented by the colorful mosaic of post-its on an office wall, the intriguingly messy marker scribbles on a whiteboard, the twenty- or thirty-something team cheerfully engaged in group brainstorming around a flipchart, makes it seem so accessible, so easy to partake in the fun designers have enjoyed all along — and more deceptively, to wield tools and methods that will deliver the same results (better products and services, happier customers, higher revenue, etc). But what is the fundamental basis and origin of these activities? Why are people doing these specific things, and what do they actually get out of them?

Understanding is too often associated with visual outputs: those “insightful” data displays, “engaging” infographics, or “compelling” visualizations that attempt to speed us along the data > information > knowledge > wisdom continuum. We are bombarded with visual explanations, illustrations of factoids, pictures of numbers, maps of ideas, in every possible channel or medium. The reasoning is that because vision is believed to be the dominant sense, the primary input for information*, and pictures are so much faster to read, visual presentation of information ought to be more understandable. The more visual the better, right? Of course, this is flawed, superficial reasoning, (not to mention heavily skewed by some toward purposes far from enabling understanding). Visuals are just one delivery mechanism for content and data, and they are nowhere near universal. Certain visuals designed a certain way work for certain people more than others in certain contexts when conveying certain types of things — but why?

We don’t really know what innovation, creativity, design, design thinking, or understanding are because nobody stops for a minute to peel away the glossy veneer and really think about them, to question them, to research their history and foundations, to synthesize meaning and actually make sense of them. In this age of thought snippets and tl;dr, hardly anyone seems to have the time (or interest) to invest in any deep level of study and reflection beyond a Google search or skim of a blog post or magazine article or bother to follow a paper trail of references and source material that is, in fact, made of real paper and not bits and bytes. Instead, there is a willingness to accept “minimum viable knowledge” — just enough to gain familiarity and be “in the know.” For many practitioners in the design space, a “whatever sticks” approach may be good enough in the products and services they create, which includes applying received knowledge about formal design principles like type, color, scale, contrast, etc. The real science and scholarship behind these concepts and principles ends up being neglected and ultimately forgotten.

In the world of understanding-related work, we need to dig deeper into the “what,” “why,” and “how” of understanding:

  • How does understanding work? What are the processes involved in visual and non-visual information processing? How does the brain translate sensory input into something meaningful and usable? What does available research offer, and what have we yet to learn?
  • What do you need to enable understanding? How do you tap into the mechanisms of perception and cognition in order to maximize understanding in the creation of information artifacts and experiences? What are the ingredients/preconditions/requirements for understanding? And what lessons do different professions offer one another (teaching/education, graphic design, psychology, etc)
  • How do you really know if you’ve achieved understanding? What is the “aha!” moment, exactly? How do you effectively evaluate or measure understanding? Do any methods already exist? What are the pros and cons?

I’ll readily admit my own understanding of understanding is limited. I’ve framed plenty of great questions in the course of my career, and if I could embark on a full-time (generously funded) research project to answer these questions, I’d happily dive into it. However, for the time being as a full-time practitioner, I think it’s important to wade gradually into the realm of research and probe specific lines of inquiry at a time, rather than tackle everything all at once. For me, it involves carving out time to catch up on literature about neuroscience and psychology and piece together my own understanding, writing or diagramming thoughts and connections, so that I can start informing my day-to-day work and gauge how well I’m doing what I think I’m doing.

My hope is that other professionals focused on enabling understanding recognize the need to think more deeply about the work they do and try to replace assumptions, best guesses, and conventional “wisdom” with sound research, evidence, and self-driven learning. Whether you frame this as bridging theory and practice or academia and industry, there is a clear need for more thoughtful practice as well as more more practical thought if we want to holistically advance understanding work of all kinds.

* The claim that 90% of information transmitted to the brain is visual apparently lacks an authoritative source.


  1. Stephen Few says:


    Thanks for cutting through the hype and confusion with some sane thinking about and genuine concern for understanding. As data visualization, infographics, and visual thinking have risen in popularity, groundless and self-serving opinions have been voiced and then repeated again an again without verification. Visualization and visual thinking are essential to understanding many things, but not all things. Other modes of thinking are also essential.

    I teach data visualization, but I make it clear in my work when data visualization is useful and when it is not. I also make it clear that, even when data visualization is useful, it can be done in ways that are ineffective. The benefits of data visualizaton are rich; they don’t need to be exaggerated. Those of us who wish to promote understanding are not concerned about the sex and sizzle of our methods but the quality of the results.

  2. Michael says:

    Thanks, Stephen. I often wonder if grumbling and groaning about the current state of affairs with information design/visualization does any good, but I’m glad to know I’m not alone.

    To your point about data visualization, there seem to be more new forms (styles?) of visual representation emerging than most people can even comprehend. The notion that people’s visual literacy will somehow “catch up” as novel approaches become more mainstream is absurd, when there’s such a limited understanding of visual literacy as it is. Taking the opposite approach and relying on fewer, more conventional — that is, boring — methods or no visualizations at all would seem unthinkable nowadays, even if it’s ultimately clearer.

    I think there is a place for visual experimentation as well as exploration of other modalities beyond the visual alone, but that should be counterbalanced with (or rather, preceded by) a strong grounding in fundamental principles that span all modes of communication. But then another problem arises: where and how does one even learn those principles?

    (By the way, great review of Daniel J. Levitin’s “The Organized Mind.” I totally missed that one, but just added it to my wish list.)

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