May 18, 2011

Visualization Tools for Sustainability

Want to get your point across in a matter of seconds? Well, presenting a page of words as this posting does isn’t going to do it. A body of text is useless unless one has a few minutes to decipher its meaning. An effective visual on the other hand is immediate. It catches the eye and speaks to the gut and the heart. That should come as no surprise given that 70% of the brains neurons are allocated for organizing and creating meaning out of what is seen with our eyes.

S2's May 3rd's training, Visualization Tools for Sustainability with instructor Burr Stewart, was designed to give an understanding of what is an effective visual tool and why.

So, what makes an effective visual you ask? Well there are some important things to keep in mind. For starters, the brain has a limited working memory and generally can only consider three variables at once. It is also important that within a graphic representation the proper scale and relationships are chosen for the variables. Stewart referred to visuals with effective scale size as being within the “lumpy zone”. Being in the “lumpy zone” allows the eye to easily understand contrast.

Once there was an understanding of what contributes to an effective visualization and what detracts from one, the remainder of the morning was spent viewing and discussing different types of visual representations and effective or ineffective characteristics of each.

In part two, one point of interest was presenting the motion, peaks and valleys of a speech visually. The key to both a speech and any effective visual is understanding your audience and how to reach them. If there is collective agreement on the baseline situation, then you can show the audience from there, what could be. In a speech it is easy to show this dynamic a series of times, by bringing the audience back to the baseline and addressing obstacles one by one. Both verbally and visually, it is valuable to cast the audience as the hero and either yourself or your visual as a mentor or guiding light, thereby empowering the hero(s).

The afternoon featured two guest instructors in addition to Stewart. To start, Laura Musikanski of Sustainable Seattle presented a re-grounding is sustainability, challenging everyone to draw an image that conveyed their inner truth after a seven minute meditation. Then, the class was asked to choose one word and share it. The exercise, for me personally, allowed me to consider how I needed to feel in order to best do the work that I do. Although I wasn’t certain that there was a correct way for me to capture that visually, a graphic representation was much more meaningful than choosing a single word, which was too general to be an accurate descriptor.

The meditation was a nice change of pace before we shifted our brains 180 degrees to apply what we had learned to computer software. There are a number of different software programs that facilitate the creation of visuals. On Tuesday we were led using Tableau. Leading us in the software lesson was software engineer and test engineer at Tableau Software, Melinda Minch. We learned how to design and craft visuals using publicly available data; London buses, the recent Gulf oil spill, and electric car chargers in Seattle. It was interesting to see the last data set develop as a month to month time lapse and speculate whether it was coincidental or why there were sudden large increases in the data.

Some best practices that the class came to consensus around were to make certain that there was meaning behind the placement of data or information and meaning behind the length and size in a visual. To reiterate from earlier, allow the brain to easily process the image by using three variables or less and try and keep the scale of measurement within the “lumpy zone” showing contrast. The one general key in any visual representation, (and we examined many different approaches) is to balance simplicity and attraction.

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