Talking about Visual Thinking

On October 12 I spoke at the National Digital Forum in Wellington. These are my speaker notes.

Unidentified man and woman, surveying a map of stock control and infected areas, conference on diseases in the Wairarapa district (1959).
Unidentified man and woman, surveying a map of stock control and infected areas, conference on diseases in the Wairarapa district (1959).
Alexander Turnbull Library. Ref: EP/1959/1566-F.

There are three pure science Crown Research Institutes in New Zealand. GNS Science studies geological phenomena; NIWA researches water all its various forms; and Landcare Research, an institution I worked in for four years, is concerned with soils, landscapes and living things.

Maps & charts play a very special role in that workplace. I would often find some combination of Garth, Pierre, Carolyn, Evelyn or Marino leaning over a roughly printed topographic map or hand-drawn chart. We would gesture, point, nod and disagree, tracing lines with fingers, pointing out inconsistencies with ballpoint pens. And by “talking through the map”, we developed a shared understanding of our respective problem domains.

These graphical props rarely lived longer than a few hours, although on occasion a landscape profile sketched on the back of a pie packet captured an idea so perfectly that it got filed away in a scientist’s records. The power of these artefacts was largely in their transience. Their ephemeral nature encouraged us to scribble, cross-out and annotate, all the while narrating our thought processes to our colleagues.

Oil and Water
“Oil and Water”, Jakob Rosenzweig, Jacqueline Bishop and Rebecca Solnit. From Unfathomable City

Rebecca Solnit is perhaps best known as an insightful essayist. She has also collaborated with cartographers on two published atlases. This map of oil infrastructure and bird migration from her Atlas of New Orleans is one of my favourites.

Last week I watched a YouTube video of Solnit delivering a lecture where she makes the statement, “Maps allow me to make propositions about cities and places as nothing else does.”

Solnit map quote

This quote brings to mind my time as a scientist and how much my colleagues and I learnt from the act of creating and talking about data visualisations with one another. It made me reflect on the fact that, with the possible exception of website analytics, I don’t see this happen to the same degree in memory institutions like ours. This is not to say that it doesn’t happen—more that, unlike in the sciences, these activities tend to be clustered in specific contexts or individuals rather than practiced by everyone as a matter of course.

I wonder what it would look like if we folded these modes of inquiry and representation into our everyday practices of working with our colleagues and collections.

Here some of the things that inspire me.

Stefanie Posavec Dear Data week 26
“A week of workspace”, Stefanie Posavec

This is an entry from the wonderful Dear Data postcard project. Each week Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec pick a theme, spend a week creating a visual representation of some aspect of that theme and send the other the results as a “visual data postcard”.

Here Stefanie is showing the individual items that have accumulated on the desk in her office workspace. Each circle represents an object. The top ten types of items are assigned a colour.

What intrigues me is Stefanie’s commentary when she observes that through the act of constructing this, she realised “the items on my desk are more of an indication of my personality, hopes, and insecurities than I had ever realised”.

“[…] most of the items on my desk aren’t really essential for work, but are there for more emotional reasons. And these items are large quantities of little tiny items that are scattered around my desk in a haphazard way. So I hang onto business cards that people who are in jobs more interesting and glamorous than mine give me, as it makes me feel that I’m one of their peers (silly, I know). Or I always empty out my wallet on my desk to remove all the coins and notes I pick up from the countries I visit on my travels, so these are found here too, functioning as aides-memoires of past adventures.”


Kate Hannah and I recently started something called Data Poets’ Society. Every couple of months we gather at the University of Auckland over drinks and food to share interesting data visualisations and learn from others. Talk to one of us if you’d like to become involved.

Last month Kate shared this lo-fi delight—a gendered history of science prizes in New Zealand.

Presenting the data as a chart on a whiteboard allowed others to physically point at different parts of the plot, making observations or asking for clarification. The interplay between the verbal narration and the “pen on wall” graphic provided insights into both the nature of the data and Kate’s thinking processes.

And that’s really valuable.

Visual thinking, visual communication

It’s worth making a distinction between Visual Thinking and Visual Communication. These modes of working with data get confused sometimes, but I believe they are largely distinct.

Visual Thinking happens in private. It’s you alone. Or you and your colleague at the next desk. Or a small group crowded around laptop or a print-out. It’s tentative, messy, exploratory and values quick iteration over “correctness”.

Visual Communication happens once you understand what you’re working with and are ready to communicate this to an audience. It is refined, reduced to a handful of dimensions and often performative.

Visual Communication is the realm of the professional designer; Visual Thinking is for everyone.

Sometimes I think about working graphics as mental scaffolding. In the act of rendering data or, drawing our thoughts, we assemble a construct to hang other concepts from—a construct that can be extended or modified or disassembled and turned into something new. Scaffolds are frameworks to help us build more permanent structures. Rough graphics are a means to explore ideas and discover what we really think about something.

Men sitting on a make-shift scaffolding, watching race, at the New Zealand Grand Prix, Ardmore Airport, Auckland (1960).

Men sitting on a make-shift scaffolding, watching race, at the New Zealand Grand Prix, Ardmore Airport, Auckland (1960).
Alexander Turnbull Library. Ref: EP/1960/0105-0113-1-F.

This talk came about because two nights ago I was reflecting on an exercise that the DigitalNZ and National Library Online teams participated in earlier this year. Andy asked each person to create a paper or digital visualisation of some aspect of our job or the collections and services we work with. We had one month to make something. At the end of the month we gathered and shared the the things that we made.

I explored an aspect of our technical systems that had concerning me and produced… I don’t know some bloody scatterplot and a hexbin thing… it was fine, and I gained useful insights in the process.

But the amazing moment happened right at the end. The last person up appeared really quite uncertain about what she’d made. She walked to the front of the room, and hung up a large piece of white butcher paper, covered in felt-tip rendering of our metadata harvesting and storage systems, as seen from her perspective. With small yellow Post-Its, she traced paths that metadata documents take as they move through our processes and layers of technology. Punctuating the flow, she indicated the various circumstances where a human might touch the metadata document or contexts where document might change its shape.

I played a large role in designing the systems she described. But I had never seen them like that—through the eyes of the person driving it. The graphic became this incredible prop for her narration. It was a space for her to convey the depth of her experience and to help the rest of our team reach a shared understanding.

… but it was more than that…

You know when someone presents something and you can see they are uncertain about how it will be received? But then they get into it, and what they are saying is absolutely fascinating, and you feel your fellow audience members getting hooked and this glow comes out of them and pushes all the way up to the speaker, which emboldens them further, and the talk gets better and better. Well, that’s what happened. And it was amazing.

I hope that you have similar experiences in your workplaces. I encourage you all to make rough graphics and explain them to one another.

Thank you.

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