Category Archives: books

New ways of seeing

Storyline threads

My husband has sometimes wished for a way to track characters in a book as he’s reading. He often reads several books at a time, so progress through one is slow, and it’s easy to lose track of events or who’s who. Today he came across an example of one way someone did that for several films (it should work equally well for books, I think). It traces intersecting story threads in a simple but effective way. We’ve both wondered whether authors use such devices for themselves when plotting a book.

Looking at the top map, for Lord of the Rings, the creators used different colors to represent hobbits, elves, men, and other creatures. Time flows from left to right, and important events and locations, such as Bilbo’s party and Isengard, are represented in different places on the map.

It’s interesting to compare maps of different stories, on the bottom row. The map of 12 Angry Men shows 12 parallel threads. Without seeing the movie, this is ambiguous, because it could be interpreted either as all interacting together the entire time, or having no interaction. (Adding context, such as an enclosing space labeled “Jury Room”, could help.) It looks like Primer would be confusing: Just three characters, whose lives intertwine messily, with no landmark places or times, and whose final fates are unclear! I suppose some lives feel like that at times. (I found out it’s about time travel, from this Wikipedia entry.) From xkcd, via Flowing Data.

Evolution of thinking

I have trouble, sometimes, committing myself to a conclusion, because I recognize that my understanding is always evolving as I get more information and consider more points of view. Many scientists and others seeking “truth” can probably relate. The evolution of one scientist’s thinking over the course of 13 years is traced in a visualization of changes in six editions of one of his books. With different colors representing each edition, if you let this play out, you see how words are added and removed, and, dramatically, how an entirely new chapter is added. I also discovered that if you hover your cursor over a section, you can read the words, in the color representing the edition in which they were added. The work traced is Charles Darwin‘s famous On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, first published in 1859, with the 6th edition published in 1872. From Ben Fry, from this CNN article, “A new way of looking at the world”, via Flowing Data.

Simple pictures for complicated situations

“Solving problems and selling ideas with pictures.”

That’s the subtitle of Dan Roam’s best-selling business book, The Back of the Napkin. Wait, did you say business book? That sounds like a pretty “lite” title for a business book. Well, a book doesn’t have to be ponderous or dense to be useful. In fact, the more accessible, the more likely the ideas will be considered and adopted. Dan’s book is clear and well-organized, teaching how to use visual thinking to analyze business problems and communicate clearly about them.
Political issues rarely get this kind of treatment. Buzz words and emotion rule, with little rational analysis or explanation for the average citizen. Dan and a doctor decided to provide some perspective on the current health care reform debate. He posted a 4-part presentation on his blog, using simple hand drawings, to explain the factors involved, the types of proposals being considered, and how individuals will be affected under each. It was such a breath of fresh air that Fox News had him go through some of it on-air, and Business Week magazine and named it the best presentation of 2009 in a recent contest.
Another example of the power of a simple drawing is the “rich picture.” I learned about these a few years ago. Last week, Dave Lash turned me on to a useful diagramming tutorial site which is part of a university-level systems thinking curriculum. For 6 different diagram types, self-paced Flash movies explain when each is most useful and how to draw them. Transcripts of the narration are also provided.

A rich picture is a sort of hand-drawn info-graphic, used in the very early stages of an analysis to explore the issue and surface assumptions. This diagram examines a controversial situation in England a few years ago. Here are some comments on the diagram by its creator, from the accompanying transcript (I’ve emphasized some points that make rich pictures so valuable, in my view):
I don’t think rich pictures can be used to depict everything in a problem situation, I think they are devices for some kind of discrimination – you are actually saying what you think are the important issues, and you have to decide on what’s important according to the purpose the rich picture is being constructed for, for a particular problem situation.

In this case my purpose was just to try and gain a general understanding about the miners’ situation.

It can be used as a personal device, so you can explore your own understanding. When you begin to put symbols down on paper and to draw the rich picture, you begin to question your own understanding and it can throw up questions for yourself about what you understand and what you don’t understand. It begins to put some structure on the problem situation from your own personal perspective.

It’s probably got a number of faults in it, and I think that’s one of the strengths of a rich picture. It makes you begin to declare assumptions, and because you are declaring and discussing those assumptions, they can be challenged by other people. So your understanding of the situation can be explored, challenged and modified by the debate that ensues. The power of a rich picture is that it provokes that kind of debate, there’s a bit of visual interest there that can spark off thought, you can visit the rich picture randomly, you can move around on it which is stimulating for debate in itself.
I haven’t had a chance to go through all the diagram tutorials in detail yet, because I’m preparing a presentation for the next Elephant Egg night. (In developing this presentation, I’m experimenting with the methodologies of Cliff Atkinson and Andrew Abela, who have both recently published excellent books aimed at helping people communicate more clearly in presentations.) If you’re on Maui, you might enjoy stopping by Moana Cafe on Thursday, October 22 at 6:30 for an evening of serendipity and new ideas!

Beyond Bullet Points

We developed another presentation last week, and I used Cliff Atkinson’s Beyond Bullet Points approach to structure it. It wasn’t a full-on BBP presentation, because a large portion of the time was devoted to working sessions, and because my partner wasn’t that familiar with the approach, but I found it a helpful development tool. The Word template helped me to focus, order, and limit our ideas. I sketched out ideas for some of the slides’ graphics, and actually wound up using some of my crude sketches in the final presentation, as the hand-drawn look, though casual, conveyed the important concepts. I kept a consistent look and theme through the “call to action” and three key point slides.

There were some glitches, but they could be traced to the rushed timeframe and limited review cycle time, rather than the methodology.

The title slide and 8 key BBP slides (Setting, Role, Point A, Point B, Call to Action, and 3 Key Points) are shown above. Get a copy of the BBP Storyboard Sketchpad PDF (below) here. Also see my May 26 post, Walking his talk.

Art & science

In Dick’s color class Tuesday we were exploring colored light, and talking about the difference in colors between sunset and sunrise. Kit Gentry proposed a theory about more color at sunset due to more moisture and particulates in the air. I confirmed this later in The Nature of Light and Colour in the Open Air, by Marcel Minnaert. I was reminded again of the common drives shared by artists and scientists, curiosity and exploration, and their common disciplines of observation and experimentation.

I love this quote from Edward Tufte, because it helps me make sense of my parallel interests:

“Science and art have in common intense seeing, the wide-eyed observing that generates empirical information.”

(from Beautiful Evidence, 2006, p. 9)

Artists and scientists used to be the same person – daVinci, Goethe – the modern gulf between them is artificial and detrimental. This is one of the ideas of Dan Pink’s A Whole New Mind: We need to unite these world views. Dick’s class does. It teaches artists to see more carefully and scientifically, and shows how this rational approach can enhance their creativity.

This is why I’m so excited about visual thinking and visual communication – it is consistent with more of who we are.

(Photo by Kit Gentry)