Oh the sheer beauty of networks…

I could spend days surfing the 777 different projects that the visualcomplexity project has gathered, some of them amaze me because of what they are about, more of them just because they are so beautiful. Some examples, just to get you started

Nike city runs NYC

“Nike+ involves the placement of a sensor underneath the foot bed of your Nike running shoe in order to collect data about where you’ve run, how long it took and where you can improve over time – since each individual run becomes part of a collective historical database. Even though Nike+ website already gives individual users a variety of features to make sense of their personal data, the collective analysis of this growing database is remarkably promising.

The interactive collective YesYesNo developed an installation for Nike’s retail stores to visualize a year’s worth of runs uploaded to the Nike+ website. With custom software, the installation plays back runs throughout three cities: New York, London and Tokyo. The runs showed tens of thousands of peoples’ runs animating the city and bringing it to life. The software visualizes and follows individual runs, as well as showing the collective energy of all the runners, defining the city by the constantly changing paths of the people running in it.”

Visualizing Databases Stanford
“Using the visualization tool Gephi, Elijah Meeks has produced a series of experiments depicting databases in diverse styles. The images show here are mapping the top contributors to the Catalogue of Life and their associated species, references and databases.

As Elijah states: “While it could be argued that all databases can be devolved into graph databases, and as such all databases are graphs and therefore networks in the most pure sense, I think that there’s something more practical at play here: the importance of network visualization for database aesthetics. Summaries and statistics drawn from within the structure of the database are not enough. If there is to be any real grappling with the database as an culturally-embedded construct, then it has to be done in a manner that reveals the data, the model and the population simultaneously.”

Stephanie Posavec Writing without words Kerouac
“Writing Without Words, by Stephanie Posavec is a series of striking visualizations exploring the differences in writing style between authors of various modern classics. The images shown here are a visualization of Part One from the book On the Road by Jack Kerouac. In this piece, entitled Literary Organism, each literary component was divided hierarchically into even smaller parts – Part, Chapters, Paragraphs, Sentences, and ultimately Words, the smallest branch in the diagram. Stephanie also created different colors to distinguish the eleven thematic categories she created for the entirety of On the Road. Some categories include: Social Events & Interaction, Travel, Work & Survival, and Character Sketches, among others.

This is how NOTCOT describes Stephanie’s work:”The maps visually represent the rhythm and structure of Kerouac’s literary space, creating works that are not only gorgeous from the point of view of graphic design, but also exhibit scientific rigor and precision in their formulation: meticulous scouring the surface of the text, highlighting and noting sentence length, prosody and themes, Posavec’s approach to the text is not unlike that of a surveyor. And similarly, the act is near reverential in its approach and the results are stunning graphical displays of the nature of the subject. The literary organism, rhythm textures and sentence drawings are truly gorgeous pieces.”

5 ways how drawing helps you think better

5 ways visual thinking complete

In the past year I have taken a deep dive into visual thinking and finally, seven years after developing Net-Map in the hot, dusty North of Ghana, I understood why it leads to the insights and transformations it facilitates. And that is because there is something special about visualizing what you know – as compared to merely saying or writing it down.

So how – and why – is drawing different from using words alone to work through problems?

1. When drawing, you work with all you have

5 ways visual thinking heart

This means: you answer your questions not only with your rational brain, but ad what your heart and hands have to say as well. This allows you to tap into your intuitive and tacit knowledge in a way that is difficult to reach with words alone. Often the greatest insights happen when teams look at the network picture afterward and realize they drew things they didn’t even know they knew.

2.  Drawing helps you see the forest and the trees

5 ways visual thinking trees

When you use words to talk about an issue you normally have to choose the level of detail at which you want to describe it. Looking at a picture you can step back and come closer in a second, taking in both, the forest and the trees. When dealing with complex, multistakeholder issues, it is important to be able to see the detail (What does this mean for one of my stakeholders?) and the big picture (What are the larger, political implications?).

3.  Words are sequential, pictures can show everything at once

5 ways visual thinking big picture

When you use words you start with the first sentence, then the next and the next, one after another. While this has the benefit of clearly guiding your listener through the story, this linear way of looking at a problem can keep you from seeing the big picture. And, because you cannot see everything at once, you won’t see larger patterns or connections that are not obvious. This is what a picture allows you to do.

4. Drawing and sharing pictures helps you clarify

5 ways visual thinking clarify

When drawing it is much more difficult to get lost in buzz words. When our teams struggle to agree on how the arrows flow between actors on their Net-Map, they are forced to be specific and explicit. In the process, they often unearth areas of confusion or disagreement.

5.  Drawing helps groups think together out of the box

 5 ways visual thinking outside box

When we do things the way we always do them (e.g. writing a plan) we tend to think what we always think. Our brain is happy to follow the routine and produce the same old and familiar solutions. As we start doing things differently (e.g. drawing a network instead of writing a list) we start discovering new ideas and solutions together.

If you want to learn more about the power of visual thinking, Dan Roam’s book “Blahblahblah, What to do when words don’t work” is a great introduction. And if you are convinced you cannot draw, this explanation to  drawing a stick figure can get you started.