A couple of months ago I discussed the issue of how the excitement and hype around the visualisation/information design field, whilst justified, was a bit too insular and self-congratulatory. We needed improved definitions and more clearly articulated benefits to open up and truly exploit the undoubted potential of visualisation.

An important factor towards fulfilling this potential, and continuing to mature the visualisation field from promise to delivery, emerges from the world of sales and marketing and concerns creating a sense of dissatisfaction with the norm - in this case achieving greater awareness of flawed design.

The science of better

As somebody who studied Operational Research at degree level, I have always been fascinated by the challenge of trying to improve things, do things better. Words like things and better are fairly ambiguous and can be perceived as somewhat unambitious terms but they reflect an intention to follow up a curiosity around trying to achieve improvement. Whether that improvement is to increase the productivity of resources or to enhance the utility, efficiency or effectiveness of a product or service, optimisation challenges permeate every aspect of our lives.

But quite often people are oblivious to the fact that an optimum has not been even nearly achieved. For example, despite my degree knowledge and general instincts, I spent much of my early career in information management blindly creating graphs and information presentations with good design intent but ignorant to the principles of data visualisation. The key point here was that because I'd not been shown or made aware of the subject, I was left to discover it myself. Thankfully, eventually I did.

The primary challenge for achieving any improvement is being able to acknowledge the very existence of a problem or shortcoming - demonstrating an awareness that something could be done better and expressing a desire to challenge what exists.

Understanding design shortcomings

It is with my own experience in mind that, when I critique an example of information design that I feel displays shortcomings, I always try to be balanced, constructively explaining where and why I believe the design has demonstrated flaws.

Yesterday I posted comments about a health poster that entirely failed to fulfil its purpose - that of communicating an important health message to a specific audience. Ultimately, we have to remember that designs like this are most likely to have been created by entirely well-meaning people. The flaws they exhibit are probably a result of lack of awareness of the key principles of design and/or limited skill in executing a quality product.

The majority of us have access to great tools for creating information displays, whether it be graphs, presentations, reports or posters, but only a small percentage of us will have ever consciously thought about best design principles and an even smaller fraction will have received training. Those who haven't been fortunate enough to learn about or be taught better practices should not be discouraged from aspiring creativity, rather they should be encouraged to learn and advance. The first stage of achieving this progression is through awareness.

Awareness, appetite and action

Over the past few years I have worked with, presented to and advised many people about striving to achieve better design of information and the comments I hear repeatedly are:

  • I'd never thought about that before
  • In the future I will change my approach
  • It's so simple to do better

Those phrases, 'never thought' (awareness), 'will change' (appetite) and 'do better' (action), emerge from creating a sense of dissatisfaction amongst these colleagues, clients and customers with regards to their existing design capabilities and techniques.

Specifically, by focusing on simple messages and straightforward examples that demonstrate the importance of deliberate design - ensuring that every design property and attribute is deployed for a reason - this helps spark awareness. It triggers a curiosity and interest which encourages them to seek further, incremental learning and moves them on from novice status.

It is straightforward achievements like this which will provide the foundation on which the progress of visualisation will be built.

Visualising the World Cup: Reflections
Health information overload