I promised I would get back to the topic of infographics, so here I am. Still not swayed by most of the eye candy that claims to be information design, but I realize it is not going to go away soon and there is a reason for that. People love fast food. So here is my (updated) take on this. Only that I would not call it an infographic still.
I’m going to pursue this further and see what happens when porting this web poster art across different media. I’ll also be looking at different kinds of diagrams and how to use them to their full potential to convey meaning. Veracity is the key concept here. Stay tuned for more.
“What responsibility should you, a consultant, acknowledge for a ninety-minute presentation? You should acknowledge the vast gap in responsibility between you, the consultant, and the audience members, all of whom work with children in classrooms where the constraints on the imagination are much, much tighter than they were for you when you were at your desk reading TechCrunch or Seth Godin.”—Dan Meyer, a media savvy math teacher, is underwhelmed by his experience of a presentation at ASCD 2011. He moves on to dissect the speech in very helpful detail. Underlying problem: The speech was more about the presenter than about the needs of the audience. Don’t be that guy. Learn from this. Also, check out Dan’s blog. Pearls of wisdom abound.
Terminology matters which is why Tom Slee ponders abandoning the social media misnomer. What I commend him for is trying to delienate the social, the economic and the technological mechanisms that connect people to the construct we have come to name the Internet. I can’t stress this enough: If you want to use a medium to its full potential, you need to establish an understanding of how it works. So go ahead and treat yourself to some food for thought.
In the aftermath of a catastrophe we see humans struggle. Beggars and barons, mentors and crooks, friends and families are scrambling to rise from the ashes and the rest of the world is struggling by proxy. Part of their struggle is making sense of a world where fellow human beings are put in the spotlight, clinging to dear life. This is where communication becomes an act of creating reality. Constructivism is never more visible, never more tangible than at times where reality has struck for us to rethink what we took for granted.
Today we can witness how people we never would have known without social networks are readjusting their reality. We can observe how societies share a vantage point and we can begin to understand where their respective world view differs. Both in the traditional mass media and on twitter it was very clear that the framing of the earth quake, the subsequent tsunami and finally the crisis at the nuclear power plant differed between countries, cultures and clusters of people. Whereas German mass media quickly focused on the issue of a possible meltdown echoed by the German twitterverse, in American headlines it took almost a whole day for this sentiment of a possible worst case scenario to top the manifest humanitarian crisis.
While the fear mongering agenda of mass media across the globe did eventually focus on the nuclear issue (feel free to correct me if your outlet differs in that regard) the domestic implications that focusing on the issue brings still differ. This is where the agenda of key players weighs in heavily on the reality we construct as a people. In Germany nuclear power has been a controversial issue on the public agenda for quite some time, the public is much more sensitive to the topic than in the US.
It would be folly to assume that any communication is unbiased, let alone in a topic where vested interests are put in jeopardy. Yet when we see an issue polarize like the discussion of a possible meltdown it need not be because there is a conspiracy at work. In some respect it makes sense to tell people that everything will be allright. I want my Japanese friends to be able to focus on the problems they can handle as opposed to those that are out of their reach. In others it is very much justified to take a stand now and rally to rid the world of the spirits that we called, lest the man get a chance to revert it to the former status quo.
Among the voices on opposing ends of the spectrum that both claim the monopoly on reason there might be the occasional agent speaking against better wisdom. Some misinformation might be seeded by sinister forces. But ultimately what we mostly see are ordinary human beings trying to make sense of their world. Doing so they do what people always do. People believe what they choose to see, be it the soothing statements of pro-nuclear engineers or hyperbolic alarmism that helps them maintain a sense of structure, of right and wrong.
This is true even for the engineers risking their lives to solve the problem. I place my faith in them and trust that their expertise on the matter is surpassed by none. Yet fukushima is a black box. While I start to be cautiosly optimistic that the worst outcome can in fact be avoided, we or even the people at the site know nothing for certain. What experience and psychological studies tell me is that people are great at deceiving themselves and sometimes rightfully so. If the engineers could not maintain a feeling of control, even if it were fictional, how could they even hope to function when we need them to be rational thinking machines instead of angst ridden human beings?
The natural reality distortion field of human perception is exacerbated through communication. When scarce information cascades through the framing of issues the frame becomes the message. This is almost McLuhanian. Even the properties of the medium play second fiddle to the frames that are weaved into a message. These frames are what filters reality. These frames are also a social construct. These frames are how people create their respective worlds.
Judging from statements of friends whose engineering expertise I value an escalation to the scale of Chernobyl is almost out of the question. Still, damage much greater than what is officially stated is also quite possible. Most importantly though they stress that anyone claiming authority on the matter is out of line, regardless of their level of expertise. Too little is known about the state of the plant to make any call beyond outlining competing hypotheses, especially considering that Tepco, the company running the plant, has a reputation for doing things outside of the books.
My current reality is this: Thankfully my friends in Japan are alive and managing as best as they can, aided by ingenuous engineering and a society that has long relied on communal strength to face the hardships history has bestowed upon it. Their world is a shifty one, it has just been turned upside down. Who am I to tell them what sense to make of that world when all the information I have is filtered through layer upon layer of frames?
For my friends I am prepared to be taken up on a promise that I feel is inherent in friendship. I hope that this message carries through all the haze: Not only do I keep you and your kin in my thoughts - if you need me to be there for you, I’ll give it my all to see your world change for the better.
For design to be successful it can take helpful cues from psychology. Success after all is about the human experience with a design, not about l'art pour l'art. Charles Mauro is kind enough to give us insight on how he perceives success can be traced back to functional application of concepts rooted in psychology. His tear down of the Angry Birds game is a lengthy read, but well worth it.
Rich or lean: The role of the medium in communication
When we communicate, much of what is conveyed depends on the medium we use. If you are on the phone your facial expressions don’t give away your feelings about the words you are saying, for good or bad. When you are typing in a chat window, there is no tone of voice that would add helpful information to the sentences you write. This makes sarcasm or irony a particularly dangerous choice of communication on Twitter: A lean medium transmits less information than a rich medium.
To offset the lack of nonverbal information the message you do want to transmit via a lean medium is enriched in the verbal domain. You use more words to help the recipient of your message avoid misunderstanding. There is a certain systematicity to the way we do this and it has to do with a concept from the layers of meaning. The concept at the core of enriching your verbal channel is contextualization (wow, Wikipedia at a loss for once). You provide more context by explicitely stating it, if contextual information is not readily available to the recipient of your message.
An example are the conventions of chatting: When several people engage in a conversation in meatspace (also known as the real world) you can tell by the gaze of the speaker who she is talking to. A pronoun like “you” suffices to mark the addressee of an utterance. In a virtual chat conversation speakers must specifically name each addressee for lack of visual contextual information. Hence a convention of using “@name” has been established to overtly mark whom you are addressing in chat.
But there is also a way of tracking the flow of conversation through marking competing topics which can be traced back to the people introducing them. You might have seen this before in the form of “#topic.” This convention of chat rooms has been picked up by the Twitter service, giving it new prominence under the moniker of hashtags.
As you can see, the way in which you shape your message to be understood by your addressees is very much governed by the constraints of the medium you use. If you want to compose compelling messages, it is paramount to address those constraints with purpose. Get to know your medium. Is it rich or lean?