Saturday, July 27, 2013

Threshold for Insight

Recently while driving a familiar route in rural Delaware an
unexpected clump of bright colors caught my eye. I’d seen the same
warehouse, one side covered with its spaghetti of complicated and
incomprehensible silver pipes, many times before. Now all the pipes
had been painted in five different crayon box colors. And the order in
the chaos was made clear in a glance. The symmetry of their
arrangement had never been visible before. Their different roles were
now distinguished by color that showed how they supported the function
of the central pipes. The order was always there but needed more
visual information to actually show. I’m sure this is enormously
helpful in maintaining the building’s functioning and avoiding
mistakes. Making the role of the parts more conspicuous communicates
what is significant within the overall system. It focuses attention on
the role of each element in the general purpose, and simplifies what
would otherwise seem complicated. People in many different fields are
beginning to see the value of visuals that show more relationships in
the information given. A site called looks at
corporate budgets in a novel way using 3d graphics that make the
meaning of the numbers clear. The implications of “thinning capital”
can be more vividly seen. As more people see the usefulness of more
comprehensive visual ordering of information, the next level of
visualization might, like the colored pipes, take the incomprehensible
to a threshold for insight.

Finding the next meaningful level of visual information can promote
insight for others. The explanatory power of visual organization can
simplify what might seem daunting to unravel without it. The design of
data depends on the needs of the system, the goals and processes
involved. It can focus attention on the complete path of an individual
circuit, or identify all the different type elements in a system at a
glance. The goal of the system, whether the organization of
departments in a workplace or arranging notes for a paper, provides
direction and guides how the work can be diagrammed. It’s an untapped
visual skill that could help us see where partial solutions are
actually creating problems, a skill for integrating multiple
variables. Many use bubble charts for brainstorming, connecting the
free flow of ideas. This might be enriched not just by color coding
but also distinguishing between foreground elements with more
immediate significance and secondary elements seen smaller in the
background. When I asked my students to diagram their personal solar
system with the self as the sun and other people as planets, the only
guidance I gave was to put people you see the most the closest and
show importance by increasing the size. Nobody had any trouble. They
knew immediately who was big and who was close and all the subtle
variations in between. And by putting it together in one image, it
showed them something about their social realm. As soon as you decide
how and what to visualize, the understanding of the visual hemisphere
comes pouring out.

Look up Dave McCandless and Edward Tufte for great examples of how
visuals can illuminate information. Think about what widening the
sphere of information might look like, or where bridges might be
constructed between different pockets of information. A whole
hemisphere of the brain is there to be developed.

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