1. We Are All Designers

Connecting Science and Art to Inform Design

#3 Quantify and Visualize: Seeing Is Believing

This is an ongoing series, based on conversations with Bruce Mau, to help people working in the brand-experience medium embrace and apply the 24 Design Principles. I believe that spending time with these interrelated, non-linear habits of thinking can help us realize better outcomes – at work, in our personal lives, and in the world at large.

We’ve already talked about the need for designers to begin any project by gathering all the available, relevant data. With our third design principle, Bruce Mau urges us to quantify and visualize that data. “The key concept is visualize – which is sharing,” Bruce explains.  I’m sure there are people who can discover everything they need to know from a comprehensive excel spreadsheet – and that’s a good start. But spreadsheets don’t tell the story behind the data. They tell the “what,” and maybe even the “how,” but not the “why.”

“The difference between a spreadsheet and a visualization,” says Bruce, “is that we have to individually experience the spreadsheet, but we can collectively experience the image. The image is social. So … if I can take that quantification and visualize it, we can all see the it simultaneously, and experience it together. That makes it accessible to all kinds of thinkers.”

Data may show us that we have a piano and a kitten and six feet of rope. A visual shows us the Steinway dangling over Fluffy’s head – and totally clarifies the problem, potential solutions, and our sense of urgency.

We now have software that will convert data into graphs — I love that. Even better, smart designers can interpret data in graphics that take complex, qualitative data and present it in such a compelling and easy-to-grasp visual that it ignites breakthrough gestalt moments. A good infographic can inspire understanding, consensus and action.

As leaders, we want to inspire belief in a shared goal, and seeing is believing. Yale statistician, author and artist Edward Tufte understands the power of visualizing data and teaches seminars on how to tell complex stories in a compelling way. It’s a science-meets-art thing. He describes this as “Simple design, intense content.”

In 2010, computer-graphics master Kai Krause famously created an uproar when he demonstrated how Mercator maps distort the relative size of the African continent to the advantage of the USA and other countries. By graphically showing, in his map entitled “The True Size of Africa,” that the United States, India, Western Europe and China all fit easily within its borders, he forced people to reconsider the scale and geographic importance of the African continent and, perhaps, its 54 distinct and diverse countries.

Visualizing the data doesn’t need to be a two-dimensional process. When the engineers in Houston had to help the astronauts on the damaged Apollo 13 spacecraft convert air filter canisters from the command module to fit the lunar module, they began by assembling all the plastic bags, cardboard and tape available to the astronauts. With no time to spare, they took visual inventory and then devised a solution, in Houston, that the astronauts could implement 200,000 miles away, orbiting the planet.

In the brand experience biz, we are used to diagraming logistical info – timetables, rigging grids, floorplans, exhibit models, and so on. We are getting better at using storyboards to help a client see the recommended solution long before we start to build.  But what if we used data to plot traffic flow by personas, based on things like time of day, alternate activities, outdoor temperature, seasonal implications, and even sport/music/food preferences? We could not only staff exhibits more efficiently, but could also make sure the right docents and SMEs were on hand – in the right location – to engage with our guests. How might our experience design change if we layered in data that revealed extrovert and introvert preferences? How might we help different personas engage and interact? What new sponsors might we attract?

Think about your most complicated project or assignment. What kind of data do you need to design a better outcome? Can you visualize it? What might we achieve if we had a tool to help decipher and connect all the data collected through the various apps, surveys, game devices, registrations and social media activities attached to the events we create? What if we could literally see the opportunities for improvement and innovation?

I know this much – seeing is believing – and I’ve seen enough to believe that if we act with intent we can find a way to visually quantify the relevant data – and make the most amazing brand experiences possible.