Unlocking Visual Thinking

We get lots of email around these parts, but one of the most consistent inquiries over the years has been: “What’s the deal with all the charts and infographics?

The short answer is brevity. You can communicate lots of information with a chart or graphic in a small space.

The longer answer is a bit deeper: Graphics are driven by specific data. They are more fact focused than a purely verbal approach to communication. Indeed, “the Narrative” lends itself to all manners of subjective misinterpretation. When we hear a story, we automatically create a construct of that narrative, filling in all the holes. The narrative creates a picture in the mind’s eye that is filled with all manner of biases and false images. Verbal story telling generates a tale that may or may not be accurate.

Thinking visually, on the other hand, is more driven by objective facts and data — reality — than the emotionally appealing narrative.

In this month’s Wired, Clive Thompson discusses visual-thinking guru Dan Roam, author of The Back of the Napkin. Roam argues that we over-emphasize the verbal narrative over visual information:

“Our culture relies too heavily on words: Our school systems—and political systems—are designed to promote people who are verbal and eloquent. And text tends to encourage us to describe our problems as narratives or linear lists of facts.

But dynamic, complicated problems—like global warming and economic reform—often can’t be boiled down to simple narratives. They’re systems; they have many little parts affecting one another. In those situations, drawing a picture can clarify what’s going on.

“Words,” Roam says, “won’t save us.”

I could not agree more. That’s why around these parts you see so much data visualization from sites like Wall Stats, Visual Economics, Information is Beautiful, Flowing Data, Visual Complexity (plus many others), as well as the interactive graphics from the WSJ, NYT, Pro Publica, Economist, etc. All of our chart porn even spawned a blog of the same name.

There can be no doubt that the Internet has boosted the utility of imagery. We even had to name a category Digital Media (perhaps we should rename it Visual Thinking). Under the Weekend tab, you should also check out David McCandless TED presentation, The Beauty of Data Visualization as well as Nathalie Miebach’s intersection of Art and Science as Sculptural Data.

Thinking in terms of pure verbal narrative leads to errors, bias and an imperfect version of the Truth.


The Power of Visual Thinking
Clive Thompson
Wired October 2010, September 27, 2010  

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