Worth A Thousand Words

Looking (hah!) at the value of visual representations of both data and information – even for those of us pretty much wedded to words.


 

Where’s your picture?

I stood there, stumped.  I had taken my impenetrable calculus problem to my then-resident engineer, asking for help, begging for relief, and this was the best he could do?

I didn’t want more questions, I wanted answers.  Or one answer, anyway: the volume of the virtual solid formed by rotating a specified curve around the x-axis.  Does it sound hopelessly obscure?  It was.   

I had worked on the problem for the better part of an hour, unable to get the same result as in the answer key.  Unable, indeed, to get the same result two times running.  Now he was making it worse, which I hadn’t thought possible.

Back at university after the kids were born, I shared math classes with my former paperboy.  I already felt impossibly old, and now this.  They couldn’t hide the truth from me: they just wanted to keep old women of 27 out of programs requiring competence in calculus.  The conspiracy theory was gaining ground.

Where’s your picture?  Hah–a picture indeed.

He dragged me through the logic, kicking and screaming.

You need something visual to check your equation.  It’s too complex to visualize it in your head, so you need a picture.  Where is it?

Like most of the population, I gave up drawing when they started to give me marks for it—bad marks—in grade school.  But I learned to draw pictures of a sort for that calculus class, and the two that followed.  He was right—it did help.  My brain-on-calculus always hurt, but it hurt less with a rough sketch of the problem, and I got the right answer more reliably—always a bonus.

A picture is worth a thousand words.  As useful as pictures were to me in math class, I think it wasn’t an artist or a mathematician who first said this, but someone who was tired of confusing directions, hand-waving and wrong turns.  Et voilà: the first map.

Just as maps help us move through space, other visual aids—pictures by any other name—help us move through the conceptual landscape.  In organizations, we use many sorts of pictures to manage complexity.  Schedules corral a project’s activities.  Process charts sort out who does what, allowing us to diagnose and reduce inefficiencies.  Organization charts form people into productive teams and facilitate management control mechanisms.  Account trees allocate expenses quickly and correctly.  Fan-out phone lists speed notifications in an emergency.

The good news is that drawing skills are not required.  The bad news is that thinking skills are.  The hardest part about these pictures isn’t drawing them—it’s recognizing that we need one, and choosing which kind.

First we have to get past our bias about scale.  Building a bridge or planning an executive retreat—a schedule tames the chaos.  Managing 5,000 or 5 people—a chart clarifies how they fit together.  Writing a 3-volume proposal or a 3-page report—an outline coaxes the points out of our heads onto paper, and organizes them for the reader.  Analyzing a process problem in a worldwide conglomerate or in a single office—a flowchart focuses our attention on the usual suspects.  Evaluating national census data or feedback from a handful of customers—a component picture lets us sort through the detail, see the patterns, find the links.

Once we’ve accepted that even small problems can use a picture, we have to get past our bias about looking at things another way.  Organizations can always be shown as a chart of static reporting relationships, but sometimes it’s more useful to flowchart their major activities, or sketch out the blocks of competing and cooperating interests.  When we get the information out where we can look at it, then we can try different ways of grouping and organizing it, seeing what emerges from a different view.

Charts, tables, maps, schedules, flowcharts, force-field and fishbone diagrams, mind-mapping—all useful at different times and in different applications.  What we need is a simple way to remember to open the toolkit and see what’s inside.  A way to remember to try a different perspective.

Where’s your picture?

Impossible as it seems, it’s been 35 years since I first heard that question, but it’s still a good one when a problem or situation seems impossibly obscure.  In seeing the pieces of a problem, I start to understand it.  In understanding it, I can explain it to others and benefit from their insights.  Together—with a common vision—we even have a shot at managing it.

Get the picture?

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14 Comments

  1. John has been painting outdoors now, year-round, for years: alone in the woods but for his little woodland creatures, he is increasingly on 33 1/3 while the rest of us are on 72. His speech is also minimal at times. One day, I asked him something and he just smiled & made drawing signs in the air. I laughed and said “Use your words!” He repeated the drawing signs in the air. We laughed.

    We are visual creatures that forget we can use our eyes for more than to keep from bumping into things.

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Barbara – Working on projects with tight schedules, I like to put a large version up on the wall. Seeing it at a glance – as opposed to checking it line by line – seems to help everyone ‘get it’. We are, indeed, visual creatures.

  2. Jim Taylor

    I’m glad you included mind-mapping (which I learned as “clusters”). I’ve used them for almost 30 years now, and couldn’t do without them. (Sometimes I even use them to shape my e-columns!) In the days when I wrote speeches out in full, I had trouble understanding why — in the middle of a speech — I had to pick up a paragraph on page 3 while I was still on page 2. Clusters taught me (a) to organize thoughts as a connected network, and (b) that the order really doesn’t matter (except to rhetoric pedants) as long as the audience can make the connections.

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Jim – Tracking the big pieces and their connections sounds pretty obvious… but is often neglected, oddly enough. So easy to get sucked down into the detail and forget to identify the framework on which that detail hangs.

  3. Dave

    Loved it Isabel! Every Stats class I taught over 35 years at the U of A heard me say ” a picture is worth a thousand words.” Sometimes for emphasis I would add on exams “no picture, no marks!” However, so you do not think that was all I required, every problem solution had to be accompanied by a word conclusion in proper sentence form which could be part of a report. So, yes, pictures and proper words as well as numbers and equations.

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Dave – Well, we’ve used simple pictures in trying to understand the most obscurely written schedule requirements from Requests for Proposals. Sometimes that’s the only way too understand what the words mean – or to see that the words don’t make sense! So, yes, the combination can be exceedingly powerful.

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Barbara – I remember that! For those too young to have seen this activity, Barbara is referring to an early 14th century teaching technique (for those who don’t know what a blackboard is, there’ll be another history lesson tomorrow!). We did that in Grade 8, with a teacher who wasn’t able to convey its purpose or value. But I can still see it in my mind’s eye, which at least proves its sticking power…

  4. Very interesting post. I’m a lawyer trained to work with words, but I find that in order to quickly explain an issue to anyone I need to illustrate it with pictures…little bubbles and squiggles and X’s with arrows linking the whole mess together. It makes no sense to someone who hasn’t been there from the beginning but it’s wonderfully clear to the rest of us. As Barbara so aptly put it, we’re very visual creatures. And yes, I remember blackboards. They’re those wonderful things that don’t get ruined when you use the wrong kind of marker to draw a picture.

  5. Ralph

    Nice writing. Even Bio students are surprised when the point is made to them that our brain is not an unbiased, general-purpose computer, but rather a remarkable device with real strengths and real biases.

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Ralph – Odd, isn’t it? We say we ‘believe’ in evolution, but don’t necessarily get the implications thereof. Like that our brains are good at some things (e.g. calculating trajectories) and not so much others (e.g. calculating risks). Or so I’ve read….

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