Visualizing knowledge


This is just a small gimmick for today. I’ve been interested in the work of people like Edward Tufte on information design or infographics in short for some: the ability to visualize as much data with the least ink. Well, sometimes simplicity in using all the ink is also a great way to communicate data, as you can see in the work of photographer Chris Jordan. His project visually examines the vast and bizarre measures of our society, in large intricately detailed prints assembled from thousands of smaller photographs.

Simplicity is clarity and that’s what I’ve been utilizing in my presentations lately. PresentationZen is a great resource for that. Leaving the status quo can sometimes be hard. Default templates in software like Powerpoint etc. give us an impression that great graphics are full of 3D effects, unnecessary grids, “cool” textures, stunning transitions or slides full of bullet points. There is a mass-hallucination in believing that the default templates are somehow acceptable to start with. In the end a large portion (>90%?) of businesses end up communicating their ideas badly.

Tufte’s work is important to grasp right now, as there is so much chart junk in our society floating around and polluting our mind. Yet in the same time the increasing ammount of information requires us to visualize larger patterns of knowledge, sometimes fuzzying out the numeric details. Where I see Tufte failing is when we move from data to information, and from information to knowledge. As we move from explicit knowledge to tacit knowledge, we need to represent patterns of interconnected things rather than atoms such as numbers visualized in charts. Sure, we need projects like Many Eyes and Sense.us to cope with quantity in new collaborative ways, but we need projects that tap into qualitative things, too.

I’m not talking about business process visualization either, here. I’m talking about patterns that look different depending of what angle you are approaching them, just like a hologram. Tag clouds are just a beginning. I see an increasing demand for such people who can take your hard-to-grasp idea and clarify it to a wider audience. Something that companies like XPLANE, Duarte Design and Idiagram are doing, not to mention unworkshop/Open Space/World Cafe facilitators who connect ideas in visualizations.

Illustrations open up doors to richer fields full of self-explaining metaphors. The problem with easily identifiable references and metaphors is that everyone has a different undertanding on the same metaphor and strong reaction to defend it. Defending your own point of view might result in an endless while loop where no shared understanding is co-created. Metaphors sometimes close our eyes from things we can’t see.

Despite the lack of my ability to find great guides of the likes of Tufte on how to visualize complex interconnected tacit knowledge (like our business idea), I find Tufte’s work important for any knowledge worker to stay sane and avoid turning into yet-another information spaghetti factory, a node in a network terrorizing their environment, a bad apple bursting out incomprehensible nonsense based on clipart noise and distorted metaphors every other day.

“Visualization and belief in a pattern of reality, activates the creative power of realization”

- A. L. Linall, Jr.

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