Tag: Data Visualization

17
Oct

Making Sense of the Early SenseMakers

Thank you, William Playfair… for going beyond the words and the numbers.

As part of a “White Paper” we are doing at Humantific on the subject of data visualization, I have been enjoying revisiting some of the historical material from the 18th century. I always enjoy looking at the logic behind early data visualizations and learn a lot from the perspective of how to make things more understandable and clear.

For this study, I am spending more time specifically on William Playfair (1759-1823), among the first persons to create graphic representations of data (He was preceded by Joseph Priestly, who created the first timeline chart in 1765). Playfair is credited with being the inventor of line, bar and pie charts. For this paper, I am not focusing so much on how the charts work or don’t work, but, rather, what were they pictures of.

 William Playfair’s historic “Commercial and Political Atlas”, 1786,
described as the first major work to contain statistical graphs.

Reflecting on when this happened… I started to wonder: If Playfair came up with one of the first graphical representations of data, how did people make sense of all those numbers before? I mean, really, how did people actually make sense of everything before? 

When someone says the airplane was invented, we all think, “Wow, that was amazing,” but we don’t always put ourselves at that moment of time, and think about what it meant to not be able to get on a flight to go see your family across the ocean, to go down to the Caribbean for a beautiful vacation, to go to a meeting, etc, etc. I guess most of us would be much closer to our original birthplaces–and if we weren’t, we wouldn’t be going back that often.

So, back to that time when Playfair had that inspiration to represent numbers visually… or, as he called it, making “Data speak to the eyes”.  Being a visual learner, I can’t imagine what that would be like… the fact that studying any subject, would be just words and numbers. Would my ability to understand and learn (and go to the next level of learning and development) be seriously diminished? What would school have been for me growing up? Not that my school years reflected a tremendous amount of meaningful visualization, but it definitely was part of the vocabulary and it helped me learn better.

The second thought I had, was, being such a visual sensemaker myself, would I have started to draw things intuitively to understand them, or would I have stayed in that highly verbal world and struggled to operate in it?

I guess that we will never know the true answer to those questions since we can’t go back and unlearn all the visual language we now take for granted; however, I would venture to say (and I am sure many others would too) that it’s pretty likely that my ability to learn and excel would be diminished quite a bit. A highly verbal language only speaks to a part of the population, as we know from many studies on cognition and multiple intelligence theories.

Thank you, Playfair, for going beyond the words and the numbers, and revealing what is behind the data. For all of us visual thinkers and learners, it’s made a big difference! Really.

:::

[ And thank you to Howard Wainer and Ian Spence for republishing Playfair’s The Commercial and Political Atlas and Statistical Breviary ]

More on William Playfair on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Playfair

Image Source: Playfair, William. The Commercial and Political Atlas and Statistical Breviary. Wainer, H. and Spence, I., Eds. 2005. Humantific Collection, New York. Reproduced from Playfair’s Atlas, 3rd ed. London: J. Wallis, 1801.

Related on this Humantific blog:

Consider TIME / Big Data for WHEN?

05
Sep

Michelle Obama talks Data Analytics!

We were delighted to see Michelle Obama’s insightful comments on the relationship between complex problems, data analytics and creating the future that were embedded in her speech last night at the Democratic National Convention. Who knew she knew data analytics?! Michelle gave a glimpse into Presidential sized challenges:

“I’ve seen how the issues that come across a President’s desk are always the hard ones – the problems where no amount of data or numbers will get you to the right answer…” Michelle Obama

We certainly agree!

As trendy as the data analytics and data visualization movements have become and as useful as data analytics are to all organizations today, outside of those movements it has been recognized for some time that data analysis is capable of generating only certain types of pictures.

In our change making work with organizational leaders we find that a useful first question to ask is WHEN is the picture that you seek to create? Are you seeking to create a picture of Yesterday, Today or Tomorrow?

We ask this knowing that any serious look at the history of data visualization will surface the realization that the vast majority of data visualizations that have been generated since the 18th century as well as those being generated today are pictures of yesterday and today, not pictures of tomorrow. In spite of advancing technology tools that orientation inside the data visualization business has not changed in 226+ years!

At Humantific we certainly recognize that while data analysis and data visualizations can significantly enhance organizational sensemaking of yesterday and today, pictures of tomorrow need to be cocreated. The not so hidden truth is that cocreating futures together requires a very different kind of skill-set than simply crunching and visualizing data sets.

Most forms of complex problem solving, all forms of meaningful organizational change and societal change require cocreation across many constituents, many disciplines. However well intentioned, change making is rarely as simple as placing visualized data in front of human eyeballs. Lets get real. If effective change making was that simple we would be living in a quite different world today.

This cocreation realization has been at the center of our Humantific work since we founded the company in 2001. We are deeply involved in visual sensemaking and realize that its real value is made possible in the context of cocreation. It is a realization that we share with the organizations that we have ongoing work with. Savvy organizational leaders are already operating in the beyond data analytics era. In that next era that is already here, sensemaking and cocreation are deeply intertwined.

Full transcript of Michelle Obama’s Convention Speech

Related:

Humantific CoFounder, Elizabeth Pastor presents SenseMaking for ChangeMaking at the “Data Designed for Decisions Conference” in Paris.

Lost Stories in Information Design History

Out of Balance Competition Launches

08
Aug

Out of Balance Competition Launches

Humantific is delighted to announce our international competition collaboration with Magazine ARCH+ and Bauhaus Dessau Foundation.

OUT OF BALANCE  – CRITIQUE OF THE PRESENT
Information Design after Otto Neurath

Prize Money: 20,000 Euros

Sponsors: Autodesk, Humantific, M:AI Museum für Architektur und Ingenieurkunst

The Topic
“1. Societal processes are presently emerging that make a balancing of social inequalities ever more unlikely and that pose a serious danger that society will drift apart, both on the global and national level and on the regional and local level. People are born into socio-spatial circumstances. Their chances in life vary in the extreme because of this “randomness”. In the interest of social integration and in accordance with democracy’s postulate of equality, modern societies embody the promise of an equalization of living circumstances. This is a guarantee for the political stability of a community. So it is not only permitted, but clearly necessary to ask about the fulfillment of this political desideratum. That means to ask what social reality actually looks like; to ask about the balance of a 30-year phase of ne liberal economy on a global level; to ask what effects deregulation and the privatization of state tasks and the restructuring of the social systems in Europe have had; and to ask how the unleashing of the global financial industry affects above all the economically weak.

Cities have always been the sites of migrants’ hopes for survival and the improvement of their situations, but they are also sites of organized defensiveness, inequality, and exclusion. The urbanization of world society is an accelerating process.

In the 21st century, for the first time in the history of humankind, more people live in cities than in rural environments, with unpredictable and initially catastrophic consequences for both rural and urban areas. In the megalopolises of the Third World and emerging countries, the social conditions of 19th-century Europe are resurfacing in potentiated form. At the same time, these processes affect the “old” world by means of streams of capital, goods, and migrants, creating new imbalances and disadvantages there. Starting with the financial markets, a system of organized irresponsibility has spread that not only exacerbates social differences, but also consciously exploits them for private advantages.

We live in a time that must be newly surveyed – in social terms and as the basis for a new societal consensus. Coming back to “real things” is the precondition for this.”

“2. Today, the difficulty of empirically describing reality no longer lies in a lack of information, but, quite the contrary, in the constantly growing amount of data that make it difficult to draw an overall picture of society and to distinguish between what is important and what is unimportant. Today we have access to an unencompassable wealth of data, much of it automatically generated: statistics, personal data, photos, documents, etc. Hardly anything seems able to elude this universal visibility in the digital age. At the same time, the present is increasingly more opaque. There are precise data for more and more questions of detail, but it is getting harder to find orientation and gain an overview of the present; the quantitative description of phenomena is getting denser, but understanding of the underlying relations and processes seems to be vanishing. Considering that all societal activity depends on information, the wealth of data poses a real dilemma; we can indeed speak of a “digital opacity”. Automated processing with the aid of programs that autonomously view, order, and evaluate data in no way automatically creates transparency.

A situation arises in which political activity is not empirically verifiable and is dissolved in politically exploitable contradictions.

Information design is more than a collection of data: information design uses data to create statements that provide insights into societal circumstances. Information design reveals connections behind the surface of the phenomena. Information design provides orientation. It creates a hierarchy of information based on relevance and content. It reduces complexity, thereby creating an overview.

Information design is not neutral. The shaping of information is influenced by the interest in knowledge. An enlightening, emancipatory information design reveals facts that are repressed, not spoken of, or forgotten, but that are nonetheless essential for understanding the present. And it thereby influences the perspective of societal activity. The image of the world we make for ourselves determines how we act.”

Possible Thematic Fields Include:
“Urban processes/spatial transformations like urbanization, segregation, deterioration into slums, gentrification, pollution, etc.

Global streams of financial capital, goods and raw materials, the outsourcing of production, human migratory movements, etc.

The task of the competition takes up the thread of the picture-pedagogical work of Otto Neurath. With his method of pictorial statistics, he developed effective forms of visually preparing data and implementing them in informational graphics that make it easier to grasp societal conditions and processes.”

Participants:
“The competition is directed towards:

Members of the design disciplines: information design, architecture, urban and regional planning, environmental planning, graphic design, product design, media design, photography, film, visual arts.

Scientists in the disciplines art and cultural studies, art education, information sciences and communication studies, social sciences, economics, environmental and geoscience, ethnography, statistics, cartography.

Students in both areas. Collaboration in interdisciplinary teams with both designers and scientists is recommended.”

Exhibition and Publication
“The competition submissions will be published by the competition’s organizers and exhibited in the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin in Autumn 2013.”

Jury:
Heinz Bude, Social Scientist/Economist
Joost Grootens, Graphic Artist
Sabine Kraft, Editor ARCH+
Joachim Krausse, Cultural Scientist
Philipp Oswalt, Bauhaus Dessau Foundation
Philippe Rekacewicz, Geographer/Cartographer
Simon Rogers, The Guardian
Christian Weiss, Autodesk
GK VanPatter, Humantific
Ursula Kleefisch-Jobs, M:AI

Procedure
“Inscription from August 15, till November 12, 2012
Submission of the works by January 31, 2013 (postmark).”

Find Project Partners Online
“Starting August 15, 2012 for initiating cooperation between designers and scientists in interdisciplinary teams.”

Learning from Otto Neurath
“The task of the competition takes up the thread of the picture-pedagogical work of Otto Neurath. With his method of pictorial statistics, he developed effective forms of visually preparing data and implementing them in informational graphics that make it easier to grasp societal conditions and processes. For Otto Neurath – the co-founder of the Vienna Circle and central proponent of logical empiricism – statistics were a central source for the scientific description of society and the economy. But description was in no way his sole interest. The content gained from the data also conveyed the demand to participate in shaping the present and in securing an imaginable future. Neurath trusted the latent political message of numbers and made it his task to make them “speak” and to make them accessible to those they most concern.

In the twenty years in which it was elaborated – 1925 to 1945 – the Vienna Method of pictorial statistics went through numerous transformations and expansions, without abandoning its principles. This mutability manifested itself, first, in applicability to disparate thematic areas; second, in the expansion of its effective scope from the local to the global; third, in the internationalization of language and pictorial language (from the Vienna Method to ISOTYPE); and fourth, in the adaptation of the graphic signs to changing media, including the moving image of film. The clarity of the concept’s principles and its openness suggest that we concern ourselves again with Neurath’s approach to information design.

Today, more data are at our disposal than ever before; but precisely the growing plethora of data raises questions. How can meaningful information be extracted from the sea of data? How can one meet the desire for legibility, coherence, and orientation? What actual situations remain unobserved or under-illuminated, despite the wealth of data? Something else has developed: the spectrum of the digital processing of information permits animated depictions and interactive forms of communication. Viewers are involved in generating data and become potential co-designers of the information design. In the face of the demands placed today on interface design, the significance of Otto Neurath’s contribution to information design is clear. Material and technical means have meanwhile developed enormously.”

With this competition, we are seeking ways in which Neurath’s concepts of data visualization can be adapted for the capabilities and needs of today’s world.

Official Announcement
“See announcement in detail in German and English at
ARCH+  or Bauhaus Dessau Foundation

Note: Complete competition descriptions, dates and directions are available in German and English on the ARCH+ site.

Related Inspiration:
Before, During & After Isotype
Isotype Building Bridges
Making Sense of Industries

30
Jul

SenseMaking is Core Leadership Skill

We are delighted to see Deborah Ancona, Director of the MIT Leadership Center at the MIT Sloan School of Management acknowledging sensemaking as a key aspect of leadership in her post entitled The Elements of Good Leadership.

Today’s leaders need the ability to make sense of complex environments. Sensemaking — the ability to make sense of what’s going on in a changing and complex environment — is a particularly important predictor of leadership effectiveness right now, Ancona explained. Sensemaking in business (a term drawn from the works of Karl Weick) requires executives to let go of their old mental models and some of their core assumptions; to take in data from a wide variety of sources; to use the information they have to construct, with others, a “map” of what they think is going on; and to verify and update the map — in part by conducting small experiments that provide the organization with more information.”

We love Karl Weick’s work and consider him to be among a small group of inspirational pioneers. We are often asked how Weick’s work relates to what Humantific does today. We point out that professional sensemakers did not and do not exist in the Weick’s universe. Writing in a somewhat vertical way, Karl seems to have been unaware of the parallel universe of visual sensemaking that already existed at the time of his first writings (see below). Today organizational leaders have the opportunity to accelerate sensemaking and build sensemaking capacity by collaborating with professional sensemakers. At Humantific we link SenseMaking to ChangeMaking. This linkage is fundamental to how we help organizational leaders drive change in organizations.

Related See:

Understanding Social SenseMaking
Humantific CoFounder GK VanPatter posts to the Social SenseMaking Group on Facebook explaining how 21st century SenseMaking and Social SenseMaking in particular differ from Karl Weick’s SenseMaking.

23
May

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

30
Mar

Breathing Life into Numbers

Measure of America authors, Sarah Burd-Sharps and Kristen Lewis will be giving a talk at Philanthropy New York Forum entitled Breathing Life into Numbers: Introducing a Human Index for Funders

Date: April 10, 2012
Time: 8:45 am – 10:00 am
Location: Philanthropy New York, 79 Fifth Avenue, 4th Floor, NYC

The America Human Development Index used by our friends at Measure of America has helped garner support for people-centered policies. It reflects the distribution of well-being and opportunity in America by bringing together health, education, and earnings indicators into a single number.

Join Measure of America Co-Directors Sarah Burd-Sharps and Kristen Lewis, and those with a keen interest in using the Index to address the challenges facing ordinary Americans, as we examine a new way to understand well-being and access to opportunity in America today.

Explore:

How the Index can be utilized to gain a better understanding of the root causes of socio-economic disparities.

How opportunity is distributed in America and which groups are surging ahead while others face the greatest risks.

What tangible steps can be taken, in today’s tight fiscal climate, to build an infrastructure of opportunity that serves a new generation of Americans.”

Registration: Philanthropy New York Members Register Here (Free)
Non-Members please email register@philanthrophynewyork.org. A staff member will contact you regarding payment for $100 fee.

30
Jan

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.

Street-parade-charts-p343

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.

Related:

Data Visualization Meets CoCreation

Humantific: SenseMaking for ChangeMaking

Humantific: The OTHER Design Thinking

Making Sense of Early SenseMakers

 

16
Jan

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.

Related:

Social Visual SenseMaking / InfoGraphics 1890

Humantific Teaching Visual SenseMaking

02
Nov

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.

Related:

More on Isotype Institute 

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

GK VanPatter: SenseMaking / The Karl Weick Question

CoCreation Missing No More: See: Markets for Giving Workshop

 

 

27
Aug

Data Visualization 1890

Those readers studying the parallel histories of visual sensemaking, information design, information architecture, statistical graphics and or data visualization will know that long before Richard Saul Wurman, Edward Tufte, Karl Weik, Otto Neurath, Gerd Arntz, Isotype Institute, Jacques Bertin, Fritz Kahn, or Willard Brinton came along, there existed various forms of what we now call visual sensemaking or social sensemaking. For decades, it has been a set of professions in constantly changing evolution. It has been referred to by numerous names, fragmented in many directionsfocused in various terrains with different skill-sets, tool-sets and purposes, but the work of unpacking and then explaining complexity has been around for more than 100 years. We love to find and study early visual sensemaking!

Shown here, from the Humantific Collection, are three examples of 19th century sensemaking in the societal context from Rand McNally World Atlas, published in 1890. Inside the atlas are a dozen beautiful diagrams that accompany hundreds of pages of maps and pictorial engravings.

Often, the individual creators’ names have been lost in history, but what they managed to create in 1890 with the tools of that era is rather amazing. Referred to in atlases of the day as “statistical diagrams” or “statistical graphics,” they were often visual depictions of data-driven facts focused on subjects such as Population, Race, Crop Yields, National Debt, Religions, School Enrollment, etc. Also appearing were more abstraction-based depictions (not based on data), such as visualizations of what the Solar System was perceived to be at that time in history.

In these 19th century data visulization examples, you can see the sensemaking device or technique of making comparisons. Depending on the subject, those comparisons might be from country to country, state to state, or year to year. More than one hundred years later, depictions of comparisons remain central to many sensemaking diagrams made today. Professional sensemakers know that comparisons provide context, and context aids in understanding.

As in the majority of data visualization being created today, most 19th century sensemaking work seen in atlases was focused on depicting past and present states.  At Humantific, we call these pictures of Yesterday and Today.

Also fascinating is that more than one hundred years after these 1890s visual comparison models were published, the American organizational theorist Karl Weick was speculating, in a rather non-visual 1995ish way, on the dimensions of sensemaking in organizations, pointing out that in order to give meaning to the present, humans compare it to similar events from their past. Many such unsyncronized realizations can be found in the various literatures.

In the 19th century, thinking about what we might be tomorrow and then moving towards that picture was not part of the statistical diagrams business, as it is for some, but not all sensemakers today. The truth is, a significant part of the now-very-popular data visualization community is still generating pictures of yesterday and today, not fully understanding what is missing.

Of course, one can generate pictures of yesterday and today from data sets, but creating pictures of tomorrow requires additional dimensions of skill in the mix, including applied imagination, and cocreation.

Effectively cocreating such visual pictures in real time with humans from multiple disciplines in the room requires additional skill dimensions that were not in the mix in 1890, and in some circles are just being recognized today. Today at Humantific, we integrate past, present, and future visual realizations as part of cocreated change making. For more than 15 years, we have been operating on the understanding that data visualization, in itself, is not enough to drive and ensure changemaking. In the real world, 99.9% of the time, change making has to be socially constructed. In other words, it has to be cocreated. This is part of the everyday bridging work that we love to do.

Viewing historical examples of data visualization in person, having original material on hand helps to inspire and inform how we think about our own work today and to better understand how its different!

Images Source: Rand, McNally. New Standard Atlas of the World. Rand, McNally and Company.  Chicago: The Continental Publishing Company, 1890. Diagrams by Unknown. Humantific Collection, New York.