August 26, 2014 0

The Thinking Eye



“Land Mammals”, by Randall Monroe, Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 2.5


In early August, I attended an advanced workshop in Seattle called “The Thinking Eye”. The presenters were info graphics pioneer Edward Tufte, graphics creator Randall Monroe, Maria Popova, creator of and Jonathan Corum, science graphics editor at The New York Times.

This eclectic group of people presented on subjects ranging from design architectures for information to diagrams, interfaces and presentations. All the presentations asked and attempted to answer a fundamental question: how do you get and communicate ideas?

Jonathan Corum’s presentation focused on technical and practical information. He discussed how to avoid the trap of pretty but useless infographics, and went over various diagrams and how they could be improved. An interesting tidbit I picked up was what he termed “the ugly sketch.” He showed us sketches of very elaborate data visualizations. These sketches were often just a squiggly line and few numbers, and yet they represented the essence of the idea and the final visualizations merely elaborated on them. Don’t be afraid to be ugly, Jonathan advised. Get the idea out there; the simpler you can make it for people to read, the better. You can see some of his work here.

Maria Popova’s presentation was more philosophical. She spoke about her frustration with traditional academic structures, and how that rigidity rids people of creativity. She saw how this approach translated in her workplace, where her coworkers recycled the same information and ideas within the same field over and over. To combat this, she began to send interesting links to her coworkers: five links at a time, once a week, on various topics that she found interesting, and most importantly, that were outside the field that she worked in. Unbeknownst to her, Maria’s coworkers were sending these links to their friends, and they to their friends. The newsletter grew to the point where Maria quit her job and focused her career on it. Maria is now a fierce proponent of the cross-discipinary approach. She believes that it makes people more creative because they can see links and make connections between previously disparate fields and ideas. You can sign up for her newsletter here, follow her on Twitter or Facebook.

Randall Monroe is a former NASA roboticist who creates a webcomic, XKCD, which on the face of it, is a light-hearted look at the world of scientists. But look a little closer, and you’ll see maps, charts and diagrams that ask questions that only an unrelentingly curious mind would ask. And then he answers those questions with accuracy, solid facts, and great design. His graphics prove that statistically correct information needs be neither scary nor boring.

Finally, Edward Tufte is a man who has dedicated his career to understanding the connections between science, technology, and art. I’ve written about this statistician/computer scientist/sculptor before. This time around, he discussed his ideas about how to stay curious, and how to look at the world around you with a “thinking eye”. He spoke about the importance of that moment when you see something for the first time without knowing exactly what it is and before you know how to label it. That is where creativity resides. Prolong that moment as much as possible, he says, because that’s where great ideas come from. He has written quite a few books on data visualization and you can find them on Amazon or in most bookstores.

All in all, it was an informative, refreshing workshop. I enjoyed how wide the range of topics was. I think the most important idea I took away was how much we can learn when we widen our scope and we don’t allow traditional barriers between fields to stop us from making connections and seeing things in a new light.


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