(Originally Published on nmc.org in August 2015)

I was recently reading Bryan Alexander’s excellent post about making effective use of PowerPoint. This got me thinking about the much bigger challenge lurking out there, of which bad presentations are only the tip of the iceberg: Visualization Literacy. This theme has concerned me for some years now. Indeed, arguably it spans the 30 years of my photographic experience, as photography is a struggle to achieve a particular form of visual storytelling. I have given photography presentations in which I discuss photographic composition as a form of visual narrative. There are also many issues that overlap with my yearlong discussion of technology design, which relates to my struggles to both teach and master visual literacy myself.

My presentation on narrative photography on Slideshare

Calling on one of my favorite quotes, Marshall McLuhan said in The Medium is the Message, “The serious artist is the only person able to encounter technology with impunity, just because he is an expert aware of the changes in sense perception.” This is because technology inevitably forces us to reframe our perspectives in ways that are uncomfortable to those who are used to the linear forms imposed on us by industrial and textual narratives. McLuhan dissected this mode of thinking in much of his work, which was written at the beginning of the electronic age and highlighted how the emerging media of the time, especially visual media, had reshaped the largely linear textual landscape. Film, television, and photography were often perceived as lower art forms in part because visualization was perceived as literally “cartoonish.”

The academic and literary elite saw the book as the highest form of art. This has resulted in an inbred bias against visual communication, in higher education particularly. We don’t teach our students how to visualize in part because the vast majority of faculty went through textual training in their undergraduate and, especially in, their graduate experience. That was certainly the case for me.

You see this deficit in a vast range of areas from the aforementioned presentations to textbooks littered with bad visualizations. There are exceptions to this and some disciplines are more forced, by necessity, to visualize their content. Outside of dedicated programs, however, there is little training in visual information creation and presentation. “Technology” programs often teach the mechanics of using software such as PowerPoint, Illustrator, or Photoshop, but there is often little thought given to the purpose and the power of these software packages to reshape narrative.

Why is this suddenly an issue? We now have increasing power to create visual narratives ourselves, and it is in our power to lift dialog out of the linear tyranny of text. This is my attempt to show what I can do with a visual creation tool. It has both a narrative and metanarrative function of illustrating what I’m talking about. It also demonstrates my (and its) limitations in trying to convey exactly what I’m talking about.

Going back to an insight from a great American technologist, Vannevar Bush, one of the key motivations for the computing revolution was to keep up with the increasingly complex, non-linear problems that were confronting society. While the Simple Linear path of text is the shortest route between thinking and understanding, more and more of our problems lie along the path that requires Holistic and Contextual thinking. Visual media are much better at creating an understandable representation of that complexity.

Textual narrative assumes there is a beginning, middle, and end to a story, argument, or problem. Visual narrative is far more fluid. It does a better job of showing the intertwingled nature of many of today’s problems. To cite just one example, there is no beginning, middle, or end of the global warming crisis. There are myriad inputs, combinations of solutions, and outcomes that are often poorly expressed in linear format. This is precisely the kind of problem that motivated Vannevar Bush, Doug Engelbart, JCR Licklider, and Ted Nelson to think about technology in the first place. Yet, we still approach learning and communication in much the same way as was done when they were writing decades ago.
So, how do we begin to address this critical challenge? First, we should enlist the talents of visual artists to explain the potential and unique challenges of visual storytelling. Scott McCloud makes a good start of this in his books and TEDtalk, which he gave a decade ago.
There are a lot of parallels between web comics and MindMaps as Randall Munro has repeatedly demonstrated. It’s all about manipulating perspective and visual representations, that when done well, fundamentally mess with your perspective on an issue. I often enlist my photography in my own visual storytelling, but this is just one way to create a visual narrative.

Graphics created through MindMapping software are a much simpler way to create a diagram or idea flow chart that can be incorporated into presentations. These can even be created live and on-the-fly during brainstorming sessions and meetings in order to capture the complex interrelationships of the discussions that happen (and that are often lost) in the linear albeit fragmented, nature of meeting minutes and notes. I am still looking for a truly collaborative way to make MindMaps. Some of the online mapping platforms such as MindMeister offer some promise for working collaboratively and persistently. There are still some frustrating limitations in this area, but I am confident that incremental improvements will increase the accessibility of visualization software.

The bigger problem, however, is our mental limitations in both teaching and thinking visually. Most classes that “teach” PowerPoint gloss over the narrative changes that it imposes on us through its transition from a linear textual narrative to a nonlinear visual one. They also fail to examine the information transfer capacities of various media. PowerPoint is software that complements a performance and often fails as a container for information. It needs to be augmented by more persistent visual and textual media. I’ve worked around this by creating websites as a mechanism to gloss my presentation; provide background linkages; and to create a persistent, living complement to what happens live. Slideshare fails to do this because it only gives you half of the presentation, the visual part, which may or may not stand on its own. Part of visual literacy is understanding how visual media complements other media, such as audio and text.

Finally, we need to start embedding design thinking into our processes. Design thinking is, by its very nature, closely tied to the visual. Not all design is based on images, but even textual design relies on layout and other visual composition techniques for its power. Most importantly, it teaches us to think about these issues in fundamentally different ways than simple critical thinking and textual composition do. These two strands need to be interwoven if we have any hope of preparing our students and ourselves for the coming challenges of the visual age.

In a sense, technology challenges us all to become serious artists. Those of us who teach or have taught have learned the power of a good visualization in presenting complex information to our students. As the world gets more complex, visualization becomes even more critical to our methods of teaching, learning, and communicating. The trick is not being afraid of it. Get out the finger paints. Try to tell your next story through pictures. If you mess up, play with it and refine it just like you would with text. Above all, apply a visual eye to your presentations, websites, and videos and be aware of the narrative shifts created by the media.