Tag: Richard Saul Wurman


Data Visualization as Innovation Fuel

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Contributing recently to the Markets for Good blog, Humantific CoFounder GK VanPatter wrote Data Visualization Meets CoCreation.

In this brief paper GK suggests to the philathropic community, taking advantage of what leading business organizations have already learned: that innovation involves equal amounts of challenge framing, idea-making and decision-making. Improving decision-making is not in itself, a formula for enabling cross-disciplinary innovation.

GK suggests moving beyond just data visualization and decision-making to utilize sense-making visualizations as fuel for cocreated innovation. In the organizations that Humantific works with sense-making visualizations are already playing key roles in every phase of the change-making process from the early fuzzy situation stages through to ideation and implementation.Continue Reading..


ReAppreciating Richard Saul Wurman

Starving for Understanding?

Required historical background reading for anyone joining Humantific is Richard Saul Wurman’s Information Anxiety, published in this first edition in 1989. Years later Richard did a refresh and republished the book as Information Anxiety 2. The later version is easier to find than the original book. Either is recommended if you want to better understand the remarkable time-warp story of how the Understanding Business, the Explaining Business, the SenseMaking Business actually preceded, by decades, the Big Data business.

Of course, all of the technology-related references inside Information Anxiety are now dated, but Richard’s central message remains even more relevant today than when it first appeared. Forget all the Big Data buzz for a moment. It was 20+ years ago that Richard began expressing concern about “the black hole between data and knowledge” and “the widening gap between what we understand and what we think we should understand”. It is rather amazing to consider Information Anxiety in the timeline of technology history. It was in 1989 that the world-wide-web began appearing in public and Apple introduced its Mac SE/30 and the Mac 11ci, running at 25 MHz with an 80 megabyte hard drive!Continue Reading..


Information Design: Not For Sale

Many people have responded to Amy Balliett ‘s article on The Do’s And Don’ts Of Infographic Design, including Nathan Yau’s rebuttal. You will find many comments about why her points don’t make much sense, and why we all believe she needs to learn more about information design basics (I mean, do you understand the chart above, which she uses as an example of good infographics?). Rather than continue on specifics about the actual infographics, I’d like to elaborate on the deep personal disappointment I felt when I read Balliet’s Do’s and Don’ts.

When I departed the working world to attend graduate school, I did so seeking something that brought more meaning to my work than commercial graphic design and communication could offer (I will add marketing and advertising to this category). It was a long and confusing journey that ultimately changed my life: in discussing my graduate thesis with my professor, Ramone Muñoz, I learned of Richard Wurman’s writing and work. I had found information design.

The specific article I read many years ago from Richard Wurman was a Design Journal publication called “Hats.” I devoured it. I had finally found what I had been looking for: substance, essence, a search for the truth, a focus on people. In short, information design was a logical side to design that helped people in their everyday lives, and in their everyday search for understanding. I found my ‘home’.

So when I read Amy Balliett ‘s article after many years of living and breathing information design, I was filled with sadness. At a time when information design in its varied forms is more commonplace than ever and is being recognized as an important aspect of  changemaking, she has taken a huge step backwards and stripped out everything good about information design thinking, replacing it instead with marketing fluff — pure visual appeal, distortion of content, and flat-out disregard for people in favor of profit. She recasts information design as all the things I was running from (Sell, Sell, Sell), in a public forum for all to hear — and worse yet — to replicate.

Information design principles should not be rewritten by relative newcomers who show no awareness or appreciation of the field’s long history. Let’s remember and learn from the true legacy of some of the great information design pioneers:

Otto Neurath, who developed Isotype as a universal language that would unite people and bring literacy to the illiterate

Jacques Bertin, who created graphical frameworks to improve understanding and visualizations of statistics

Richard Wurman, whose passion to make information easily understandable spurred a generation of “information architects”

Edward Tufte, whose valuable lessons from history demonstrate the art and science of making clear thinking visible

These people were out to help change the world, not sell another box of cornflakes or drive traffic to websites!

Thank you to the editors of Smashing Magazine for making the rebuttal possible. It is encouraging to see Nathan Yau advocate the real best practices of information design and data visualization: focus on content and tell a clear story that will engage readers. However, there are many more voices and insights yet unrecognized in this conversation. Information design contains many practicing professionals with deep knowledge.

Let’s elevate the conversation, please.


Wurman Speaks at SenseMaker Dialogs


Pioneering SenseMaker, Richard Saul Wurman will speak at SenseMaker Dialogs in New York on February 16, 2010!

Official online registration will open soon.

Sponsors: Humantific & Parsons, School of Design Strategies.

Moderator: Elizabeth Pastor.

Location: Parsons, The New School for Design in Manhattan.

Date: February 16, 20010

Time: 6:30 pm to 8:30 pm

Tickets: $12.


To get on early registration list: email programs (at) humantific (dot) com

What is SenseMaker Dialogs?

SenseMaker Dialogs is a speaker series launched in 2009 focused on the rapidly changing hybrid activity of SenseMaking in the 21st century.

Organized by Humantific in collaboration with Parsons, School of Design Strategies in New York SenseMaker Dialogs celebrates and shares views into the revolutionary wave in sensemaking that is underway in our increasingly complicated world.

Leading SenseMakers today are already involved in much more than data and information visualization. SenseMakers have become integral to many forms of change making occurring around the world.

The boundaries of what sensemaking is and what sensemakers do is in a state of rapid transformation like never before. SenseMaker Dialogs will explore these shifts.

Each talk features two thought leaders engaged in exploring the boundaries of sensemaking.

Join SenseMaker Dialogs on Facebook.

Questions? Send email to: programs (at) humantific (dot) com


SenseMaking / The Karl Weick Question

We are often asked this question: How does 21st century SenseMaking and Social SenseMaking in particular differ from Karl Weick’s SenseMaking? 

GK VanPatter: “We consider Karl E. Weick to be among the pioneers of the contemporary sensemaking movement. As you know, Weick is widely recognized as an important American organizational psychologist and theorist, but his work connects across several other knowledge realms as well.

While acknowledging Weick, we think it is important to appreciate that his work represents only one of several avenues that lead to what is now 21st century sensemaking. It is an avenue that happens to have a particular texture, tone, and focus.

To be brief, take a look at this parallel universe picture:

1989: Richard Saul Wurman’s Information Anxiety was published.

1995: Karl E. Weick’s Sensemaking in Organizations was published.

Published earlier:

1786: William Playfair‘s Commercial and Political Atlas was published

1917: Willard C. Brinton‘s Graphic Methods for Presenting Facts was published.

1937-1945 : Otto Neurath & Isotype published many sensemaking works.

Unfortunately, the information sensemaking consciousness and precisions that Wurman wrote about in 1989 are completely absent from Weick’s 1995 perspective as is any deeper information design historical recognition.

It is not so unusual, even today to see one knowledge communty not being aware of work going on in another community.

On the other hand, if one is looking for theoretical foundations for sensemaking approprite for organizational contexts, Weick’s work contains many insight gems – and for those just starting their own sensemaking of this subject, I would highly recommend studying his perspectives. There is nothing particularly contradictory in Weick’s work, but his view as an organizational scholar is not exactly what we do in everyday sensemaking consulting practice.

Today, what sensemaking has already become significantly extends these two pioneering perspectives that were, in themselves, built on the shoulders of many others who came before them.

Since you asked, I can think of at least ten reasons why 21st century SenseMaking and Social SenseMaking in particular differ from Weick’s SenseMaking.

Here are five of ten brief examples:

1. Weick was/is focused at the altitude of organizations. As an organizational psychologist writing in 1995, he viewed organizations as complex learning systems. He often referred to organizations being equivalent to level eight on Kenneth Boulding’s (1956) nine level Scale of System Complexity. Weick was, in effect, working on the “foundations for organizational science.” This altitude view is only part of where Social SenseMaking is focused today. As per the Measure of America example, Social SenseMakers are also interested in the changing role of sensemaking in broader, less structured society.

2. Weick saw organizations as “interpretation systems” focused internally and externally. In Weick’s sensemaking picture, internal organizational actors engage in collective sensemaking, primarily through discussion, and without any specialized tools or knowledge. As an observer of organizational interpretation, Weick paints a picture of 100% emergence. In considerable contrast, today, the function of sensemaking (and some might argue of next design) in general is to provide frameworks or scaffolds that serve as cognitive or emergence accelerators. In 21st century organizational and societal contexts where change is now constant, there is not always time for the machinations of 100% emergence. In many organizations, 100% emergence represents the existing conditions that organizational leaders seek to overcome and improve upon. Unless they intend to conduct an academic study, what they are most often seeking are the tools and methods of enabling acceleration. The notion of professional SenseMakers – as specialized intermediary enabling actors – does not appear in Weick’s sensemaking picture. Today sensemaking is not only a naturally occurring organizational or societal function that everyone participates in, it is also one being addressed by a significant, growing, and rapidly changing industry as enablers of organized sensemaking – sometimes called “distributed sensemaking”. Social SenseMaking is about the deliberate bringing of that knowledge into the realm of broader society.

3. Weick saw dialogue primarily as words, so was not focused on visualization as an enabler and accelerator of sensemaking. His work was not about exploring how visualization enhances sensemaking. In his later 2005 writings, Weick sought to make sensemaking more action-oriented, but still described it as “turning circumstances into a situation that is comprehended explicitly in words.” His cognitive bias is often evident in his writings. To Visual SenseMakers, this orientation and omission contradicts his stated sensemaking intentions. Whala! If they do not teach visualization in business school or organizational science school, that’s not to say it does not bring significant value. Today we know that it does.

4. Weick was/is more attuned to organizational learning as a form of action and less oriented towards design, transformation, or strategic problem solving modes and methods. His three-part process of Scanning, (Data Collection), Interpretation (Data Given Meaning), and Learning (Action Taken) maps primarily to the front-end of transformation process. He makes no methodical connection to the remainder of the transformation cycle. Today Social SenseMakers with deep methods knowledge are more directly placing sensemaking in a changemaking methodological context. Connections are being made not just between interpretation and learning, but between understanding and change as a form of deliberate action.

5. In Weick’s organizational sensemaking universe, “Operational researchers and other staff personnel perform computations on environmental data and weigh alternatives before proceeding.” Today, making sense of data is only a small part of sensemaking. Those involved in transformation by design have already moved beyond data visualization and are enabling collective sensemaking of the complex challenge/opportunity space, the human activities in the space, etc – not just the data or information in that space. In the context of an increasingly complex world, sensemaking has been broadened, repurposed, and reframed to better sync with the activities already underway in practice. This represents significant change for those involved in next design practice, transformation practice – whatever you want to call that.

Part of the challenge with studying Weick is that he did not walk the walk in his writing on the subject of sensemaking as Wurman did. Much of Weick’s writing is jargon-filled, academic, and impenetrable. He was primarily focused on his own scholarly academic tribal audience. In addition, Weick’s writing on the subject rarely contained visualization. For every 2000 words, you might see one small visual model. The protocols that he was writing to were those of academia, not of diverse cognition. In contrast, Wurman was interested in directing his insights at the general public. His explanations signaled knowledge of cognitive balancing. Today this kind of awareness is considered to be part of SenseMaking 101.

Perhaps we can talk about this more off-list.

Today we see sensemaking sitting at the intersections of multiple realms of knowledge, underpinned by numerous interconnected theoretical foundations that one can certainly study: information theory, learning theory, organizational development theory, organizational psychology, knowledge creation theory, cognitive theory, communication theory, systems theory, emergence theory, complexity theory, chaos theory, design theory, innovation theory, social network theory, problem solving theory, anticipatory science theory, futurology & foresight theory, behavioral change theory, transformation by design, etc. The other day I saw an author trying to make sense of the world through the reverse life cycle lens of Benjamin Button!

In spite of the zillions of theories, a lot of great thinking, and considerable research, there is not yet a solid theoretical foundation for what sensemaking is becoming. Needless to say, we are, at Humantific, interested in participating in the reformulation of that foundation now that sensemaking has become, like so many other realms of knowledge, a pattern in motion.

If you look closely underneath the design thinking revolution, I believe you will find that it primarily involves the scaling up of sensemaking. Inward and outward directed human-centered research has all become part of sensemaking.

It might be a bit of a mind-bender to some, but what we believe is changing most is how humans navigate and make sense of complexity in the context of continuous change. For some of us, sensemaking is the revolution within the changemaking revolution.

Hope this helps.

Watch GK VanPatter’s presentation from SenseMaker Dialogs 2 in 2010:

See more on Humantific’s Social SenseMaking initiatives.