Have you seen Justin Timberlake’s “Filthy” video? It’s pretty goofy. The star of the video is an animated robot that dances just like JT. What I like about it is that the robot in the video defies physics. It moves in ways that robots of that size aren’t even close to being able to do. That’s what artists do – they bring life to things that seem like they can’t be done. They draw the impossible.
I just started an info viz project and I’m struggling a bit. So yesterday I hit the books and was reminded of some useful questions to get me started:
- Is my visualization conceptual or data driven?
- Is my visualization aiming to declare something to the reader or is it asking the reader to explore something?
The visualization I’m working on is for a proposal for something new so it’s definitely conceptual. As for the second question, my viz need to state a hypothesis so it’s declarative, “If we do X, then Y will happen.”
The next question is, “What types of visualizations express conceptual and declarative information?”
Maps come to mind. But maps seem cliche. A storyboard might be a better fit. The proposal is kind of like a script with specific actors playing specific roles with specific actions. There are some Yoda types who offer wisdom and encouragement and there are some Skywalker types who are on a hero’s journey.
I google “hero’s journey” but am unsatisfied with the visualization that I find: an individual hero on a lone path. That won’t do because our proposal has more of an “It takes a village” flavor. Our visualization needs to express a virtuous cycle as the Skywalker types become the Yoda types for future generations. That’s an important part of the story.
At this point, I put down the computer and pick up the pencil. It’s time to sketch.
This headline caught my attention the other day:
Pebble [smart watch] is dead and hardware buttons are going with it: The future is all touchscreen, for better or for worse
Eh not so fast. Sure, it’s true that touchscreens are the status quo for interface design. But as with anything status quo, the players that are invested in it are well positioned to defend it. It’s easy to confuse their power with permanence.
But the status quo changes. There are plenty of artists and inventors working on tangible, gestural, and conversational interfaces that don’t involve touch screens at all. While these inventors acknowledge the economics and reality of the status quo, they don’t let it limit their imagination or their drive to change it.
If you think that the status quo can be changed over time, then you have to be a systems thinker. System thinkers have specific habits and ways of understanding and interacting with the world that helps them identify where to intervene in a system in order to change it. If you were lucky enough to go to college, then you have probably studied systems thinking in one form or another. But it sure ain’t being addressed in primary school. Though some folks are trying to change that.
The Waters Foundation aims to bring systems thinking education to k-12. There is an excellent interactive graphic on their website called “Habits of a Systems Thinker.” The graphic illustrates 14 habits and if you click on each illustration, you’ll get a little more information. The 14 habits are:
- Seeks to understand the big picture
- Observes how elements within systems change over time, generating patterns and trends
- Recognizes that a system’s structure generates its behavior
- Identifies the circular nature of complex cause and effect relationships
- Makes meaningful connections within and between systems
- Changes perspectives to increase understanding
- Surfaces and tests assumptions
- Considers an issue fully and resists the urge to come to a quick conclusion
- Considers how mental models affect current reality and the future
- Uses understanding of system structure to identify possible leverage actions
- Considers short-term, long-term and unintended consequences of actions
- Pays attention to accumulations and their rates of change
- Recognizes the impact of time delays when exploring cause and effect relationships
- Checks results and changes actions if needed: “successive approximation”
Systems thinking is a necessary skill for artists and inventors. If you are making something new and putting it out there in the world, you are in effect saying that the status quo is broken and what you are making and sharing is part of the way forward to something new and better–a new way of thinking or behaving or interacting or engaging.
When you ask folks “Why aren’t there more women working at this tech company?” they point to a pipeline problem: not enough qualified women are applying.
When you ask folks, “Why aren’t more women applying for jobs at X company?” they point to a pipeline problem: not enough women are studying technology in college.
When you ask folks, “Why aren’t more women studying technology in college?” they point to a pipeline problem: not enough teenage women are interested in technology in high school.
When you ask folks, “Why aren’t more women interested in technology in high school?” they point to a pipeline problem: girls lose interest in science and technology middle school.
The problem with pipelines is that they are opaque and that opacity creates segmentation. The problem with segments is that they have specific owners who aren’t coordinating with owners of other segments. For example, it’s hard for the high school guidance counselor to track their former student once they go to college. Yes, the counselor helps the student get into college, but whose job is it to help that student succeed once they are there? And what useful information might the guidance counselor be able to give and receive if s/he were communicating with the owners of segments up and downstream?
An alternative to a pipeline is a pathway. Pathways are open, transparent, and make it easier for all involved to view the entire system. They make it easier for people along it to identify problems in the system and coordinate with each other to fix them. They make it easier for the people along it to see how the pathway and the people on it are succeeding and collectively celebrate that success. This is working.
What other systems–social, economic, industrial, environmental–could benefit from a “pipelines to pathways” transition?
David Letterman has a new special on Netflix – an interview with President Obama. The interview is about an hour long and covers a range of topics peppered with jokes from both Dave and the President. But the note that the interview ends on is the note that I love best. The two are thanking each other for the hour and Obama chimes in with a question for Dave, ‘You know Dave, don’t you think we’ve been so lucky?’ and Dave agrees, ‘Yes, I know that I’ve been nothing but lucky.’
And I know that I’ve been nothing but lucky. Yes, I’ve had challenges and yes, there has been, and there will be pain. That’s all a part of it. But I know I’ve been lucky because I wake up every morning, every morning, thinking about how I can help other people be lucky. How can I help people discover pathways that they thought were for other people and not for them? How can I help people stay on those pathways through the ups and downs so that they stay on long enough to get somewhere beyond what they ever imagined for themselves? How can we help people be luckier? Because good luck begets good luck. For ourselves and for the people that we are free to encourage and mentor and cheer on.
If you missed this video of a woman walking into a room of friends and bursting out in song, have a listen: “I’ll always be grateful”
In 21st-century design manifestos, the terms “co-creation” and “open innovation” abound. Co-creation is the phenomenon of designers designing new products, services, and systems with users and not for users. Open Innovation is the belief that the next big thing could be invented by anyone, from any walk of life, with any level of education.
Tools for prototyping and testing new products, services, and systems play a big role in these two concepts. And let me tell you, these prototyping tools are becoming remarkably accessible. They look like toys right now. Emerging technologies often start out that way. But I hope you can see, and harness, their potential.
Out of production, but never out of style:
Growing up I never saw myself as an inventor. There were signs. I liked lego more than Barbie. I was really good at drafting. But the lack of confidence on my part combined with the absence of signals from the people and the culture around me made it hard for me to find that path. Luckily, ten years after undergrad I discovered Industrial Design. This is what I studied in graduate school and I fell in love with it because I had finally realized myself as an inventor, a maker, a creator of things. And greater than that, a problem solver.
Ever since then, I’ve been on a mission to help other people discover their inner inventor, especially Women in STEM. Why is it important that STEM Women see themselves, and are seen, as inventors and entrepreneurs? Because inventors and entrepreneurs solve complex problems and we can’t have half of the population sitting on the sidelines of that problem-solving. It’s not acceptable. And it’s not smart.
So if you know a STEM Woman who is a great problem solver, encourage her to invent or to start a tech business. If you see a STEM Woman being encouraged to drop invention and move into a role like marketing (this happens a lot), help her explore other ways to use her excellent communication skills to lead. And if you yourself are a STEM Woman who is more comfortable in the lab than with pitching new ideas, I totally get it. But I’m going to ask you to step out of your comfort zone because we need you. The world needs you. The world needs you to problem-solve, to invent, and to lead.
And if you need some help or encouragement, it would be my pleasure: xanthe dot matychak at gmail dot com
I’ve been working on an illustration of a poppy. I chose the subject somewhat randomly. But as I was drawing yesterday I started to ask myself why I’m drawn to poppies.
It’s because they are a symbol of seemingly impossible resilience. The flower is large and bright and spreads it’s paper-thin petals widely. And all of that sits on top of a long, thin, and winding stem. A poppy appears to be delicate and barely balanced, but if you’ve had poppies in your yard, then you know that they can take quite a beating and still stand tall.
I don’t know anything about their biological and mechanical makeup, but I’m guessing that poppies have just the right material and structure in just the right places–the places that take the most stress in a storm. This is resilience.
Our lizard brains tell us that we need to build walls around a system to protect it. Walls keep out the bad stuff. But they keep out the good stuff, too. So let’s think beyond walls to identify the pressure points where a system is likely to break then design flexibility and resilience into those points.
Dr. Sabine Seymour is the Founder & CEO of SUPA. SUPA designs a modular system of trims (like zippers) that performance apparel companies can integrate into their product line to give it sensing and data tracking capability. Wanna make an impact? Design modular systems with emerging technologies for companies that already have distribution.
Seymour is also the Director of the Fashionable Technology Lab at The New School. Check out more interviews with her in this PBS series called “The Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers.”
embedded video via Forbes, Oct 2017