Tag: Data Visualization Beyond




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Consider TIME / Big Data For WHEN?

In this new series, Humantific SenseMaker Insights, we will be sharing a few tips based on our 15+ years of work and experience in the realm of helping organizational leaders make sense of complex fuzzy situations. Sometimes mountains of data exists in those often pressing situations, while in others, little or no data exists–but regardless there is need to drive forward.

Today, in the avalanche of Big Data crashing on all of our shores and in the marketplace push to consider data a “new natural resource”, a now abundant shapeable material, do you ever get the feeling that something important in that messaging is not being acknowledged, explained, or talked about?

In the competitive (some might say over-hyped) marketplace, what we often see missing in Big Data conversations is the simple acknowledgement that data sets are particularly useful in the construction of certain types, not all types of pictures. Apart from the many technology-related advances, certain basic data-related principles still apply–at least until humans figure out how to work around or change the underlying physics of the universe..:-)

Recently a Humantific Visual Analytics Team undertook an analysis of 200 years of data visualizations with the goal of better understanding what kinds of pictures have been made, historically, using various forms of data. Some readers might be surprised by the findings.

Acknowledging that not all data visualization is being used in the context of organizational or societal innovation it is this particular realm that we remain focused on and interested in. The interconnections between information and innovation acceleration have been at the center of Humantific’s work for more than fifteen years. While swimming in the data tsunami lets not forget a few innovation fundamentals.

In all of our visual sensemaking work we are building-block agnostic. We are not tied to only being able to make pictures based on data-sets alone. Others might be. At Humantific data is just one material used in the construction of informing pictures.

Among our first questions in any visual sensemaking engagement is this one introducing the consideration of time: WHEN is the picture that you seek to create? Asking WHEN inevitably informs the equation of what it is that will likely be needed to construct your picture. Data might or might not be the right “material”. To consider such a question, we, at Humantific, use a simple SenseWHEN viewing lens that contains these three parts: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow.

We recognize that the creation of Yesterday (Past), Today (Present) and Tomorrow (Future) pictures require quite different considerations and building materials. We have known for some time that data analytics and data visualizations are great for constructing pictures of Yesterday and Today. Tomorrow pictures are often inspired and/or informed by data, but no data exists for the not-yet-arrived future, regardless if that future is next year, next week, or ten minutes from now.

While we certainly acknowledge all the promising innovations underway in the realm of data-based predictive analytics, it remains true that today, in one way or another, pictures of Tomorrow have to be created from a “magic” mix of facts, presumptions, visions, projections, and ideas. In addition, many leaders are certainly well aware that in the context of organizational change and societal change (wicked problems), pictures of Tomorrow (solutions) most often have to be constructed in a manner that is conducive to buy-in by multiple constituents, ie: cocreation.

At Humantific we do a lot of futuring work with organizations and, so, are often called upon to help design and construct interfaces, tools, and experiences to help humans cocreate pictures of Today-Tomorrow as well as the subsequent bridge-building. Organizational leaders often call upon our team to lead the multi-stakeholder cocreation of the bridges of change between the Today and Tomorrow pictures. How are we going to get to that future? Often it’s going to take considerable work and change, including behaviors. We will talk more about this and share additional insights in this direction in future posts.

To undertake the sample view across a 200+ year period of data visualizations, the Humantific Visual Analytics Team utilized 5 well known books, including William Playfair’s 1786 AtlasGraphic Methods for Presenting Facts (1917), Graphic Presentation (1939), Visual Complexity Mapping Patterns of Information (2011), and Information Graphics (2012). Inside the 5 volumes we viewed nearly 1000 visualizations.

Looking across that two century time span, what we found was that 98% of the data visualizations were pictures of Yesterday or Today. Out of the 989 diagrams created over a two century period only 2% were attempts at pictures of Tomorrow.

In terms of proportional orientation, the earliest book from 1786 was not significantly different from the latest Information Graphics compendium for 2012. In Playfair’s 1786 book, 100% of the visualizations were comprised of Yesterday and Today pictures. In the new book Information Graphics, published in 2012, 95% of the visualizations were comprised of Yesterday and Today pictures. That is not much of a change across two centuries!

While embracing the many opportunities that Big Data represents, we have found in our own experience that organizational and societal changemaking tends to be more complex than data crunching, data visualization and data based projections. While all of those activities can certainly be informative we recognize that there is a lot more to changemaking and futuremaking then understanding pictures.

We share these kinds of perspectives with the organizational leaders working with Humantific, as they are tasked with figuring out how best to envision futures and then drive change in organizations and societies.

The Big Truth about Big Data is that it is unlikely that “data visualization” alone will get you to the future that you have in mind for your organization or your society. It can help you get there. It can help you better understand Yesterday and Today, which often informs Tomorrow–but let’s be real and acknowledge that more and different kinds of work are also going to be needed along the way. Humantific is already working on the other side of this realization. The “Beyond Big Data Visualization Era” is not only already here, it has been here for some time…:-)

Inspired by Humantific:

“The Other Visualization.”

Related here on this Humantific site:

Making Sense of the Early SenseMakers

Lost Stories Information Design History

Before, During and After Isotype

Feel free to subscribe to Humantific Quarterly.

E2: Go Social or Go Home?

Thoughts on the Enterprise 2.0 Conference.

On June 18-21 I attended the Enterprise 2.0 (E2) conference in Boston.

Was it just another social media Kool-Aid festival?

The good news is that I saw a lot of opportunity space at Enterprise 2.0. Much of it was between the official narratives.

Here are a few observations for those who might have missed our earlier tweets:

1. What struck me most about the conference was the remarkable sense of energy and optimism around the social media phenomenon. Most conferences present limited views into a subject, typically based around the organizers’ and speakers’ perspectives. In this regard, Enterprise 2.0 was no exception. Clearly the Boston conference presented an edited view into the rapidly moving subject of social media and its many implications for enterprises today. For many attending E2, it seemed to be the technological and organizational business revolution of the moment. Similar to previous technology-driven revolutions, there was a lot of “Get it…you prosper”, “Don’t get it…you’re dead” rhetoric floating around.

2. On the question of whether or not the social media revolution has reached a tipping point in terms of its application to enterprises, the vibe at Enterprise 2.0 reflected a resounding “YES!” Like in other heavily promoted revolutions there were abundant pronouncements that it is a done deal and already late in the game. According to the prevailing folklore of the revolution, it is no longer a question of “if” but rather “how.”

3. My favorite speakers at E2 were Michael Wu from Lithium Technologies, who demonstrated one view into real time analytics, and Andrew Carusone from Lowes, who spoke on enabling change in his organization. Both had real insights to offer.

4. For those with more than a one business cycle perspective, numerous shades of the previous eCommerce revolution could be seen at the E2 conference, including early stage presumption/misunderstanding, that what all leaders need to do to make their organizations more collaborative, more innovative, is buy more IT, this time repurposed as social media. It is going to be interesting to see how such re-spun enthusiasms play out in the much more IT savvy marketplace of today. For Cisco, IBM and various consultancies, the packaging of this wave as social media has been heaven sent.

5. The portion of the social media revolution that appeared at E2 was seen to be less about connecting brains to work on world peace, and more about selling more cornflakes and running shoes faster. It was a little like someone asked an MBA student what could business organizations do with social media and the result was the creation of the E2 conference. There seemed to be very little awareness that a parallel “social universe” already exists, that has, for some time, been focused on social innovation, i.e., innovation in a societal context, rather than business organization context: same “social” term but very different meaning. For those who are familiar with both “social universes,” there was a sense at E2 that half the social universe was missing. It seems likely that, in the near future, Enterprise 2.0 will catch up to the realization that there is a lot more going on in other parts of the social media social universe. Other social media for good conferences seem likely.

6. Adopting social media dynamics to creatively increase consumer spending as the next big survival/growth strategy for corporations was the primary focus of E2.  In many cases what that meant was that underneath all the social technology and social analytics talk was the rather unremarkable, some might say, old world order goal of driving more consumerism. There seem to be no seasoned intellectual heavy hitters on stage, interested in or inclined towards pointing this out, or offering alternates to this singular narrative. Drink the “Lets go do this” Kool-Aid or die seemed to be a central vibe of E2. Of course the idea that this massive, emerging capability should be used solely for driving sales, would represent a significant missed opportunity for a new generation of leaders in the new world. The mind bender was that others in the social innovation space have already figured this out. Many alternate narratives and purposes already exist, which were not discussed or shown at the social media focused Enterprise 2. It took awhile to get the brain around that presence and that absence.

7. Overflowing with references to new analytics, there seem to be none regarding the percentage of the social media movement focused on enhancing consumerism, and the percentage focused on the social innovation for good sector. Considering the bigger picture, rather than the one on view at E2, I would guess presently those numbers look something like this: 50% enhancing consumerism, 50% enhancing social innovation for good.

8. Interconnected with the social media revolution is the parallel revolution in so-called Big Data that is being generated by social media. On the question of—what should humans do with such never before seen data? —again the E2 answer is—use it to sell more stuff to each other. Not present was all the great work being done in the realms of data analytics for good, social sensemaking for good, etc. In addition the focus of presenters at E2 talking on the subject of Big Data was on conveying how easy it has become for amateurs to use open software to generate data visualizations. The process of making sense of all the stuff being generated, good and bad, was not even mentioned. The process of understanding when a visualization is junk or effective was not even mentioned at E2 as the speakers themselves seem to have no idea. It does appear that the various communities assembling around Big Data visualization, including the presenters at E2 are in the very, very early stages of realizing that more is required in change making than visualizations.

9. The Enterprise 2.0 community presently seems to be rather unconnected from the design thinking, innovation, sensemaking and changemaking communities from which they could learn a lot. Considering all the possibilities, the aperture of E2 seemed to be rather narrow. Widening the aperture, it is not difficult to see that deep knowledge exists in many communities connected to the underlying themes of the social revolution, including collaboration, design thinking, sensemaking, analytics, integrative thinking, cocreation, innovation capacity building, etc.  Barely a tiny slice was seen of these knowledge domains at E2.

10. If you are looking for nuanced appreciation of how your business organization has changed and progressed in the last few years, you would not have found it at the binary oriented E2. At the core of the Enterprise 2.0 concept is a giant and rather out of the loop assumption that organizations today remain stuck in old 1950s style command and control structures depicted as Enterprise 1.0. If your organization has already progressed beyond command and control, and you have already enabled collaboration, you might find some of the social media assumptions a little perplexing. The logic seen at E2 works best if you have been drinking the E1 Kool-Aid from 1950 up until last week. Of course many organizational leaders have made significant strides in building innovative collaboration cultures long before social media arrived. That kind of picture was never acknowledged or referenced at E2. With the addition of social media to such organizations, does that acceleration make them E3 organizations? The underlying 2 step logic of E2 seemed to vastly oversimplify the organizational change revolution that has been going on for years. Ordering up some McVisualization, some McChange, some McInnovation was a notion that crossed my mind while watching some of the speakers.

11. Of course mobility and gamification were presented as key trends at E2. The former obviously has deep long legs with enormous implications. Mobile first, desktop second was an often-heard refrain. While gamification was presented as a key performance enabling concept it still seems more like a flavor of the month to me. There is no question that gamification has packaged into a technique for marketers or others looking for new services to offer organizational clients. Did you get your teddy bear today? While I can certainly see situations where gamification can be useful being applied internally with employees and or externally with customers, I wondered about its shelf-life. When will customers grow weary of gaming pitches? Smart senior employees are going to line up to be gamed with 50 colors of teddy bear badges? Once gamification dynamics become widely transparent, how long can that infatuation last? It seems probable that the “Beyond Gamification Era” has already begun somewhere. That would be no surprise.

12. Perhaps the biggest underlying theme at Enterprise 2.0, that seemed to be everywhere, was collaboration. For some it seemed to be a new subject..:-) There was a wide range of interpretations on what the term “collaboration” actually means ranging from simply getting connected, to casual conversation, to more deliberate focused problem solving. Is subscribing to a discussion list now collaboration? As in the earlier eCommerce era, there were lots of IT folks on hand at E2 suggesting (again) that collaboration was going to be as easy as plug and play. It never is. Other than plugging into social media technology and monitoring data analytics, few presenters at E2 seemed to have the foggiest idea how to build collaborative capacity in organizational contexts. The prevailing philosophy seemed to be that the technology itself will get the job done as long as managers stay out of the way. What I saw at E2 could best be described as very early stage awareness of how to cultivate collaboration and innovation in the context of organizations. In terms of an opportunity space, there would seem to be no question that the social media era is a ripe opportunity space for those with deep collaboration enabling knowledge.

13. It was interesting to see that behavior was an often-discussed subject at the E2 conference, but often what was meant by the term was technology adoption- not innovation. Evidently innovation behavior, what it is and how to enable it as a core capability within collaboration, is a subject not yet on many E2 radar screens.

14. Time has returned as an important ingredient in this revolution. The ecommerce era siren call that: “organizations have more money than time”, was replaced with the Nike proclamation: “fast is not enough you need faster”. Accelerating data collection and data visualization are quite different from accelerating the sensemaking and the related changemaking. These more action oriented connections seem to be not yet on radar screens at E2. Of course cognitive acceleration in a business context has a long history but none of that made any kind of appearance at E2. It was like acceleration started when social media arrived. After a while such foreshortened one cycle perspectives grow a little weary.

15. Making sense of the Enterprise 2.0 event in general was not helped by a package of way-finding and catalogue navigation materials, which were, shall we say, a tad under designed from a sensemaking perspective. Running what amounted to a vender event in parallel to the conference, using similar signage added considerable confusion. Such details, as not listing the speaker names beside the event names in the conference catalogue made figuring out who was speaking when and where more difficult than it needed to be. These are rather basic human-centered event and experience design considerations, so I was quite surprised to see them executed in such a mediocre way. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being exceptional from a sensemaking perspective, I would give the E2 way-finding system a 1.5 and the conference catalogue a 1.0. Combine those two elements with a vastly over-scaled event facility and the result was a challenging event landscape for participants.

16. Overall, the Enterprise 2.0 provided an interesting window into the business enterprise side of social media, where that part of the community is and is not, as well as where it is likely going. It does not take a rocket designer to see that where it is not (yet) represents rich opportunity space for others.

I might go back to E2 if they significantly widen the conceptual aperture, redesign it at a more strategic level, have less IT focused presenters, connect it to other communities and revolutions already in motion, fix the navigation and find a venue scaled to the event..:-)

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ReAppreciating Mathematica

Among the historical Visual SenseMaking work that inspires Humantific is the astonishing output of the Eames Office. Pictured is the cover and inside images of a rare explanation booklet that accompanied the 1964 Mathematica exibition.

The Eames Office, led by Charles and Ray Eames, created some of the most memorable Visual SenseMaking work of the 1940s, 50s, 60s, & 70s that still inspires many of us in this business today. Created without computers, the output of the Eames Office is truly staggering.

Mathematica: A world of numbers…and beyond was the first major exhibition produced by the Eames Office. Sponsored by IBM, the purpose of the 3,000 foot exhibition was to stimulate interest in mathematics by visually explaining fundamental concepts. Mathematica was installed in a new science wing at the California Museum of Science and Industry in Los Angeles.

How Mathematica was described in 1964: “Mathematics has been called ‘the Queen of Sciences’, for its intrinsic beauty and because it has mothered a host of other sciences. Traditionally, its branches have been arithmetic, algebra, geometry, trigonometry, statistics and logic. It forms the base of many practical sciences such as physics, chemistry, geology and meteorology. It provides the foundation for cultural arts such as music, art and architecture. It is rapidly being adapted as a basic tool by the social sciences and humanities—for studies of population, political trends and economic theories.

The progress of mathematics and devices for calculating and computing has been closely interrelated since the invention of the abacus. Today’s modern computers solve in seconds problems that would have taken mathematicians months or years just two decades ago. 

IBM hopes that this book based on the exhibit will help communicate the scope of mathematics and the work mathematicians do.”

The original Mathematica exhibition is now owned by, and on display at, the New York Hall of Science.

Image Source: Mathematica: A world of numbers…and beyond. 1964. Designed by the Eames Office. Humantific Collection, New York.



Future Work Skills 2020: SenseMaking

We see the rise of SenseMaking continuing with recognition now widespread as is evidenced by this Future Work Skills 2020 Report based on insights by Institute for the Future in California.

“As smart machines take over routine manufacturing and service jobs, there will be an increasing demand for the kinds of skills that remain difficult for machines to perform. We call these higher-level thinking skills that cannot yet be codified sense-making. These skills help us create unique insights that are critical to decision making.”

“….although data-mining and analytics tools can be effective at finding these kinds of connections, they cannot effectively contextualize these findings. It takes a human to assemble data and correlations and turn them into rich stories that garner attention. Humans also integrate values, morals, ethics, and other preferences in decision making.” 

One difference between this perspective by Future Institute and that of Humantific is that we utilize Visual SenseMaking not only to inform convergent “decision making” thinking but also to inform divergent idea-making thinking. We already know that both are required for effective change making in the context of organizations and societies.

See our previuosuly published SenseMaking is Rising.

For the full picture see our previously published NextDesign Geographies.

Although we have no connection to the creators of the “Future Work Skills 2020 Report” we could not help but notice that the 10 drivers highlighted in this report all connect to what Humantific is already doing in the present…:-)

1. Transdisciplinarity: literacy in and ability to understand concepts across multiple disciplines.

2. Virtual collaboration: ability to work productively, drive engagement, and demonstrate presence as a member of a virtual team.

3. SenseMaking: ability to determine the deeper meaning or significance of what is being expressed.

4. Social intelligence: ability to connect to others in a deep and direct way, to sense and stimulate reactions and desired interactions.

5. Cross-cultural competency: ability to operate in different cultural settings.

6. Cognitive load management: ability to discriminate and filter information for importance, and to understand how to maximize cognitive functioning using a variety of tools and techniques.

7. Novel and adaptive thinking: proficiency at thinking and coming up with solutions and responses beyond that which is rote or rule-based.

8. Computational thinking: ability to translate vast amounts of data into abstract concepts and to understand data-based reasoning.

9. New media literacy: ability to critically assess and develop content that uses new media forms, and to leverage these media for persuasive communication.

10. Design mindset: ability to represent and develop tasks and work processes for desired outcomes


Inspired by NextD Geographies

We are delighted to see many graduate and post-graduate students referencing and making use of NextD Geographies, a framework created in 2005 by Elizabeth Pastor and GK VanPatter to make sense of the design thinking community from a complexity scale perspective.  For many, that sensemaking framework has become a useful tool in their efforts to better understand the present and future states of strategic design thinking.

Perhaps a little like song writers seeing their creations adapted and interpreted by others, we might not always agree with every rendition of NextD Geographies, but it is interesting to see the various interpretations and applications across disciplines, geographies, and generations..:-)

Among the currently adapting post-graduate students is Jordan J. Lloyd, working on his PhD at the University of Sheffield School of Architecture, and is focused on “design-led approaches to managing large scale transitions in complex adaptive systems.” Jordan seems to be “interested in ‘developing a design methodology that utilises common threads between complex adaptive systems, then applying them to complex entities such as cities.'”

Of course, for us, Adaptability, Resilience and Adaptive Capacity building are not new ideas, but rather long-standing themes found in Applied Creativity history as early as 1950. What is most interesting to us is to see these themes being adapted to and imported into the rethinking of design thinking, as it continues to scale. The challenges of Adaptability have stood the test of time and remain at the center of many team, organizational, and societal challenges still today. Adaptability continues to be adapted! Friends of Humantific will know that it is the next-generation mechanics of Adaptive Capacity that we teach in Humantific and NextD workshops.

Go here to view the original NextD Geographies models.

Background Note:

Humantific launched the NextDesign Leadership initiative in 2002 as a community sensemaking and changemaking experiment outside of our practice. At that time, we viewed the traditional model of design leadership as a burning platform. Much change was needed, but existing conditions were not fully understood. Making them understood was part of the early NextD mission. Numerous frameworks, including NextD Geographies, have been published on ISSUU, and remain available for viewing for free in the NextD Archive. Some of the NextD models have been widely republished around the world, including NextD Reality Check. We continue to utilize those frameworks as NextDesign Assessment Tools when viewing design programs, faculties, leadership teams, program strategies, consultancies, innovation capacities, geographic region focuses, media focuses, design thinking skill-building programs, etc. On design thinking related questions, NextD Geographies continues to be among the most useful tools in the NextD toolbox.

To join the current conversations, go to NextDesign Leadership Network on LinkedIn. It’s an OPEN discussion group! You can follow NextD on Twitter!


Elizabeth Pastor teaching in Madrid!

Humantific CoFounder, Elizabeth Pastor is in Spain teaching Complexity Navigation this week! Elizabeth has become a faculty member at Istituto Europeo di Design (IEDin Madrid and now teaches there once a year in the Master of Design and Innovation Program.

From the IED website: “These…Master’s programs, conceived as research laboratories, prepare professionals to overcome the challenges of a global, interconnected market through the perspective of New Visions, New Leaders.

After seeing the impact last year when Elizabeth taught the basic skills of Humantific’s Complexity Navigation to one class of graduate students, the directors of the IED asked her to come back to teach all students in the program at the outset of the term as part of a new set of graduate level innovation skills.

Most of the skill-building that we do at Humantific is done in the context of business organizations, with organizational leaders. That full 3 level version of the Complexity Navigation Program combines skill-building in Strategic CoCreation, Design Research and Visual SenseMaking. We are finding that a new generation of leaders understands the usefulness of having hands-on Complexity Navigation skills in the context of a continuously changing world.

For more information regarding the Complexity Navigation Program send an email to programs (at) humantific (dot) com.


Lost Stories Information Design History

In a competitive business marketplace, not everyone wants to acknowledge that each generation tends to learn from, build on, or divert from the previous generation’s ideas and output. We see this phenomenon clearly evident in the various streams of Visual SenseMaking history.

Predating the important work of Isotype Institute are numerous landmarks in the history of Statistical Graphics, which later evolved into Information Design—some aspects of which evolved into “Information Architecture” and then in a different direction “Visual SenseMaking” today, a subsubsetset of which has evolved into Data Visualization (long story for another day). Some historical landmarks are well known to many, while others remain off most radar screens, especially to new generations. Particularly online, we notice a general lack of historical awareness and crediting in many current data visualization, design and innovation-related discussions.

At Humantific, we have significant interest in the forgotten stories, lost stories, and off-the-beaten-path landmarks of sensemaking and changemaking history, as they have the potential to inform present day understanding significantly. We try to gather such stories and make them part of the collection that we share here publicly. One such landmark publication is Willard Cope Brinton’s 1917 book, Graphic Methods for Presenting Facts.

Willard C. Brinton (1880-1957) remains a relative unknown, one of several largely unsung, historical visual thinking pioneers. No entry for Brinton appears on Wikipedia, for example. Who he was, what he did, and why it was important is one of many stories buried in the history of Information Design.

Published in black and white when Brinton was thirty-four years old, the 371 page Graphic Methods for Presenting Facts is an impressive, early survey of what would today be considered to be bare-bones statistical diagrams and graphic techniques that existed at that moment. Now scarce in original form, this early volume is recognized as the first American book focused on graphic techniques geared for a general audience.

What a rockin’ idea it must have been in 1917 to do a “visual thinking techniques” book! From the book’s introduction: “As far as the author is aware, there is no book published in any language covering the field which it has been attempted to cover here.”

In the book, Brinton refers to himself as a “Consulting Engineer,” and member of the Society of Mechanical Engineers. He had an office here in New York City! He was Chairman of a committee on standards for graphic presentation formed in 1914, as well as a fellow of the American Statistical Association.  An engineering approach is clearly evident, as is the focus on building diagrams based on data, statistics, and facts. Notably, Brinton’s orientation in the book is one of advisor and commentator on the assembled work of others—an orientation that can also be seen, much later, in the work of Edward Tufte.

Graphic Methods for Presenting Facts contains numerous gems, including one particularly significant page in 20th century information design history. On page 39 (shown middle above), one can see an important design idea that Isotype is often given credit for originating. The evolutionary notion of repeating figure icons, rather than increasing their size, to depict size of a group became part of Isotype’s now well-known visual language style. Rumor has it, that Brinton’s book was in Otto Neurath’s 1920’s library. Ninety+ years after it appeared in Brinton’s book, this design idea, in refined form, is still very much in use today.

The truth is, much of the early writing on the subject of Statistical Graphics tends to be tactical; Brinton writes, in his comments, on a particular diagram by others: “This is an admirable piece of presentation even though the lettering and drafting are not quite as good as they might have been if more care had been used…” This kind of tactical commentary on now-out-of-date techniques makes up a large part of the book. Even today, many techniques in any technology get dated very quickly. It is often hard to know what has legs, and what will be gone tomorrow.


At Humantific, we are generally less interested in rapidly dated tactics, and more interested in broader considerations. What we do is look at historical Information Design materials through a time-oriented viewing frame, a simple 3-part lens that we call SenseWHEN. Apart from technique considerations, we want to know: WHEN was the focus of the picture being viewed? Was the goal to create a sensemaking picture of  Yesterday, Today or Tomorrow? We also want to know, at what scale were the views taken? Is this a picture of a person, a product, an organization, or a society?

Utilizing these simple viewing lenses, we notice that much of Information Design history, including that appearing in this early book, has been focused on creating sensemaking pictures of Yesterday and Today. Most often, these are pictures that can be constructed from data sets and facts. Much less frequently in that history, do you see pictures of Tomorrow. This is an entire subject unto itself that we will be writing more about, as it connects directly to what we do at Humantific: How can pictures of Tomorrow be cocreated in real time, by humans from multiple disciplines? It remains a subject that is near and dear to us. It certainly does connect to the history of Information Design seen here, but is rather different in orientation.

If Brinton preceded Neurath’s Isotype, you might be wondering: Who preceded Brinton? In his later, much more graphic, 1939 self-published book entitled Graphic Presentation, Brinton acknowledged that he did not know of the earlier groundbreaking work of William Playfair (1759-1823) when he was working, in 1912, on Graphic Methods for Presenting Facts. Brinton dedicated his 1939 book to Playfair, who is credited with creating some of the earliest examples of diagrams in his 1786, 1801, 1805, and 1822 books. William Playfair was also an Engineer, making pictures of Yesterday and Today.

For those who might not know—yes, before Playfair, there was Joseph Priestly (not an Engineer) who made timelines of Yesterday and Today. On and on it goes…:-)

Images Source: Brinton, Willard Cope. Graphic Methods for Presenting Facts. 1917. Diagrams by Willard Cope Brinton & Others. Humantific Collection, New York.


Data Visualization Meets CoCreation

Humantific: SenseMaking for ChangeMaking

Humantific: The OTHER Design Thinking

Making Sense of Early SenseMakers



Making Sense of Industries

We love and respect the complex history of what has become the sensemaking profession today. Here are more example images from Humantific’s Isotype Institute Collection. These are from 1955.

The Vienna-based Isotype Institute team, active in the 1920s-1950s, is widely recognized as an early pioneer in the commercial application of visual sensemaking. They applied their unique skill-set to the explanation of many business subjects, in addition to their social subjects work. These “Isotype Charts” are part of a 16-diagram series that explains the chemistry, manufacture, and use of plastics, with an emphasis on their application in the building industries. They appeared in the 1955 book, entitled Plastics and Building.

Isotype Institute work was not always focused on driving towards changemaking. In examples like this one, their focus was on explaining existing conditions within industries—what we would call the “today” picture—without any particular reference or speculation about the “tomorrow” picture.

Today, Humantific would consider this to be part of the Yin (without the Yang) component of changemaking. Pictures of “today” are not only helpful in constructing collective understanding of existing conditions—they are also great jumping-off points for cocreating futures.

We might point out that Isotype Institute was not just making sense of data-sets and information. They were looking at, and deciphering, many complex phenomena taking place in the field of focus, much of it rather abstract—including processes, chemical compositions, and various applications. They were using skills which can be referred to as information design, but they were not just designers of information. They could make sense of any subject, regardless of its state. From the Humantific perspective, they were early professional sensemakers. Their professional sensemaking often informed and accelerated the everyday sensemaking of others operating in organizational settings and in the public realm.

The output of Isotype Institute is immensely impressive and still highly influential today.

More on Isotype Institute

More on Otto Neurath, Gerd Antz & Maria Neurath

Note: For those interested in the finer points of Information Design history, we will point out three additional details:

1. Design was not a word that was used within Isotype Institute.

2. Isotype images were not made by individuals, but rather by a collaborative effort, within which the ‘Transformer” played a significant role—acting as Mediator, Organizer, Shaper between the information research and the graphic form.

3. Otto Neurath died in 1945, at the age of 63. Some see significant differences in images acredited to Isotype made after this date.

Image Source: Mactaggart, E. F. and H. H. Chambers. Plastic and Building. 1955. Diagrams designed by the Isotype Institute. Humantific Collection, New York.


Social Visual SenseMaking / InfoGraphics 1890

Humantific Teaching Visual SenseMaking


Isotype Building Bridges

We are happy to share more historical sensemaking images from Humantific’s Isotype Collection. Active long before the “Big Data Era” arrived these Isotype examples are from 1943.

In early Isotype studio work, one can find many great examples of sensemaking acceleration techniques that are still in use today, including the comparison. Experts in presenting complex data-informed subjects clearly, the Isotype Institute team often used comparisons to help explain differences and similarities between groups, regions, and countries.

Reflecting a “simpler” time in history, Isotype work often (not always) involved two-party comparisons on select issues, as in this example. In this 1943 book, America and Britan, Only an Ocean Between, published in London for an English speaking audience, numerous aspects of the two countries are compared. In addition, a few 9-10 country comparisons are included in “18 Pictoral Charts Designed by Isotype Institute.” This human-centered approach to book creation, combining text, photographs, and diagrams, was referred to by the authors as “Reading Without Tears.”

As in much of Isotype work, the underlying purpose was optimistic and constructive: to build a bridge; to help accelerate understanding between diverse humans with the hope that this might create a better world.

From the book’s Foreword, by John Winant, then American Ambassador to Great Britain:

“America and Britain are learning to know one another… Such mutual knowledge will be more than ever essential when the battle ends and the task of reconstruction lies before us…If this century is to be the century of the common man, the common man must be informed of the facts by every means in the power of the expert — by writing, by pictures, by charts. For only so can he form the judgements on which a durable and democratic international reconstruction depends. This book will, I am sure, help to bridge whatever ocean still flows between our two countries’ knowledge and understanding of each other.”

Isotype created the visual symbol language (“International Picture Language”) as well as the diagrams. Considering that computers did not exist then, it is clear that Isotype Institute created—by hand—a staggering amount of excellent-quality social sensemaking material during their time. Even with its imperfections, much of that work remains inspiring for many still today.

Image Source: Florence, L. Secor. America and Britain, Only An Ocean Between. 1943. Diagrams designed by the Isotype Institute. Humantific Collection, New York.


More on Isotype Institute 

GK VanPatter: What is SenseMaking?
[Speaking at SenseMaker Dialogs]

GK VanPatter: SenseMaking / The Karl Weick Question

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