The Visual Channel
Everywhere I go, I carry a pencil and a small notebook in my back pocket. I don’t use them every day, but they are there just in case I can’t express an idea in words and I have to rely on visualization to communicate. It happens more often than I’d like to admit. However, I don’t think the old adage “a picture is worth a thousand words” is quite right. Recent cognitive research shows that words and images are partners in understanding. Pictures are processed differently than language in our brains, so when text is accompanied by images, together they enable more complex comprehension of ideas.
Earlier this year, professor of music composition at the University of California, Santa Barbara (my alma mater) Joanne Kuchera Morin presented the Allosphere project to the audience at the Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) Conference in Long Beach, CA. This project is a venue for extreme visualization. The Allosphere is a three-story, high-resolution video and audio chamber that is the output device for a supercomputer. It was built as a collaboration among scientists, artists, and engineers at UCSB for the purpose of visualizing and interacting with complex data such as atomic or cellular behavior. Here too they understand that the multiple cognitive channels can enhance understanding. In one of the most compelling combinations of visual and aural information channels afforded by this tool, they remap the emission spectra of an atom into the human audio spectra so that the sonic activity of the atom can augment a viewer’s understanding as they manipulate the massive atomic visualizations.
This type of visualization has helped us to understand our universe in planetariums for decades. It has also helped fictional characters solve their dilemmas, such as in the use of the Stellar Cartography lab in the Star Trek Generations movie,
or with the “Cerebro” device that Professor X used in the X-Men series. The Allosphere shares more with the latter examples than with a planetarium because it is an interactive space. The interactivity between idea and visualization is the key to helping people understand and innovate.
Our world is full of written proposals, specifications, spreadsheets, and articles that serve the linear, language channels of our brains very well. But without accompanying visual media, our brains may only be partially engaged. The non-linear experience we have when we see a symbol, an image, or a chart is fundamentally different than when we process language sequentially. Linear information leads you down the path in a very orderly way. If you are trying to convince someone to get from point A to point B without engaging the creative brain, it is probably the best way to present information. If, though, you are working on a problem, there are better ways.
In Dan Roam’s book, The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures, he highlights the reasons why I carry a notebook. He explains an elegant method for anyone to explore ideas visually. Most of us don’t have an Allosphere, nor do many of us consider ourselves accomplished illustrators. The simple act of drawing, though, can enhance a conversation and lead to better solutions. Some of Roam’s best advice is to not let your lack of drawing skills get in the way of using pictures to solve problems. We all have adequate skills to get our ideas across visually with a pencil.
In addition to pencil and paper, you may also want to try a couple of other excellent tools for visual communications. The first is text-mapping software like MindManager or FreeMind (which I used to map out this article). Although these tools use text as a basis for organizing ideas, they allow it to be mapped spatially. Moving text in Cartesian space, instead of only up and down on the page, better engages our visual processing, which can lead to more creative solutions. Google’s Sketch-Up is an also an impressive program. After completing a few online training modules you will be able to create 3D spaces and objects that illustrate ideas in a much more sophisticated way than can be done with most other drawing tools in the same amount of time.
Visualization has always improved understanding, encouraged the synthesis of ideas, and enhanced creativity, but the benefit of feeding our brains with multiple media channels has not always been as well understood as it is now. It doesn’t always take an Allosphere—a pad of paper and pencil can often be enough to clarify and enhance the way you think.