This universal icon represents an ”idea”.”Light brings sight, and sight brings understanding.”If it was about talking or listening, then the icon for idea would be this.
In 1995 I was working on this. That’s when I discovered the power of visual thinking.The software for this baby looked like this. So to understand it, we started drawing pictures.
We called it UML, but really it was just pictures of our code. These days every major complex system starts with a Visual UML model.I think we can agree that these pictures are easier to understand than this code.
So why is this? Well, the visual cortex is the most massive system in the human brain. It’s about 1/3 of the surface of the cerebral cortex.So roughly 1/3 of your mind is geared for visual information.
This info graphic can help us understand that visual thinking pre-dates written language by about 200,000years.That’s us there at the end. And that thin red line is yesterday, when we started writing things down.
But what is writing? Its just pictures. Written language is powerful and complex and requires a much slower process for understanding.Visualization communication skips these steps and goes straight to the idea.
1786. Scotland. A draftsman named William Playfair decides that tables suck and invents the line graph, the pie chart, and the bar chart.We can thank Mr Playfair for Microsoft Charting and therefore Power Point.
In 1812 Napoleon invades Russia. 1869 Frenchman Charles Minard publishes this infographic.The Big Line showing th size of Napoleon’s army gets smaller and smaller as they head to Moscow, freezes to death and then retreat.
Charles Minard was popularized by Edward Tufte. In 1982 he self-published The Visual Display of Quantitative Information.A new branch of science was born, the Discipline of Analytical Design.
This graphic show the population of the countries matching the domain names, you’ll also notice its roughy greographically correct. The size of letters shows the compartive population. Tufte’s science would approve of this graphic.
But not this one from the NYTime, there is no real relation between the font size and the actual numbers., its misleading.Tufte is a scientist and a purist. There should be no unneccesary lines, every part of a graphic should tell a true story about facts or data.
Here’s an example of analytical design. The colors indicate prevalance of diabetes around the world, and this site comes with loads of comparative visualizations to help us understand real medical data.
The internet is drowning us in data, some important, and some, well not so much. We begin to need pictures and graphics just to function.
If it weren’t for css, grid layouts and modern web design the net would probably still look like this, instead of this where there is content and we can understand it.
Familiar Images are the most accessible. Everyone understands a calendar.In this graphic , Jess Bachman visualizes 1 Billion dollars as 2 days in the Iraq War. A Billion we don’t understand, but two days we do.That’s an expensive 2 days.
Good design, helps us make a decision. To act one way or another. Seattle Artist Chris Jordan made this wave it represents the 2.4 Million pieces of plastic garbage that make it to the ocean each hour.
The piece is composed of 2.4 Million actual pieces of plastic taken from the ocean. These images perhaps are a stronger idea than the number 2.4 Million.
So what I am driving here is that people are not machines. We don’t read XML. We don’t process SQL. We understand pictures.
So whether its processes, data collection, rich media, menu systems, whatever..Content has meaning, and if you want that meaning to be clear in the clutter, Start by thinking visually first, before you do anything else.
I’ll leave you with a paraphrase from Ed Tufte “Good design is more likely to produce truth” and for me that’s even better than a good idea.
Pictures, Icons, Ideas
By Ashley Raiteri (ashr on twitter)