Sunday, March 14, 2010

The fox and the hummingbird: new thinking from Dan Roam

There's no VizThink conference this year, but a lot of the visual thinking crowd is at SxSW in Austin, Texas, right now, and I've been "virtually there" by following their tweets (status updates) on Twitter. Dan Roam spoke there today, and some of the comments about his talk, "Blah Blah Blah: Why Words Won't Work" were:
  • One of the smartest guys I've heard speak.
  • This is probably the best presentation I've ever seen. Ever.
  • Hands down best preso I've attended so far.
  • He could be the smartest guy on the planet.
Interesting that a great speaker and presenter used a lot of visuals and was perceived to be very smart! Could it be that he's onto something?

A lot of tweets repeated concepts that were familiar to me from his two excellent books, The Back of the Napkin and Unfolding the Napkin, but I was intrigued by some new ideas.

More and more people are familiar with the concept of left brain and right brain, and their different strengths. He's got an updated version of that concept for distinguishing between our verbal mind and our visual mind. He likens the verbal mind to a fox - clever, linear, analyzing - and the visual mind to a hummingbird - spatial, spontaneous, and synthesizing.

I don't know much about foxes or hummingbirds, but it will be interesting to see how he uses and develops this idea. Here's a short YouTube video of each:

Another new mnemonic he introduced was "ViVID" thinking: Visual-Verbal Inter-Dependent thinking. Despite the title of his talk, Why Words Won't Work, he's not against words; he thinks we need to use both words and pictures in order to thoroughly explore and share ideas. "ViVID" encapsulates that idea brilliantly. There was even a suggestion that he's working on a new book, to be titled Vivid Thinking.

Check out the original tweets by searching Twitter for the hashtag #whywordswontwork .

Dan is a great voice for visual thinking, and, thanks in large part to him, the business world and wider public are starting to wake up to its value. I'll be watching Dan's blog, and any other public appearances, for more.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Getting linear

When you're excited about something, you want to share that excitement with other people. But sometimes that comes across as "this is so great, you've got to try it!" which isn't very compelling. Just because you're excited about it, doesn't mean that they will be.

I've had a hard time communicating why I think mind maps (and other visual tools) are so great. I just found something that helps me do that on the Knowledge Games blog. James Macanufo outlines a process for crafting a product elevator pitch. As he says, "The better and bigger the idea, the harder the pitch is to write." This is just what I have been struggling with, so I decided to experiment with it, and found it worked really well for me.

Here's what I learned as I worked through this process.

I tend to generalize, and see mind maps as a multipurpose tool that can be very helpful for almost anyone in many situations. This has made it hard for me to verbalize concrete descriptions of their benefits. This exercise helped me to focus on one beneficiary at a time and be specific about how they could benefit. I needed a tool like this to help me be more linear.

When I got down to crafting a single elevator pitch, I found that I thought of new and more specific ideas, that were more applicable, than the ones I'd initially brainstormed for each field.

I haven't word-smithed these yet, or tested my results on friends or potential customers. But I feel I have something more concrete, that I will be able to communicate more succinctly, than I have had in the past. This increases my confidence and comfort level.

This came at a good time for me, and I plan to do the same exercise for some other products and services.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

New ways of seeing

Storyline threads

My husband has sometimes wished for a way to track characters in a book as he's reading. He often reads several books at a time, so progress through one is slow, and it's easy to lose track of events or who's who. Today he came across an example of one way someone did that for several films (it should work equally well for books, I think). It traces intersecting story threads in a simple but effective way. We've both wondered whether authors use such devices for themselves when plotting a book.

Looking at the top map, for Lord of the Rings, the creators used different colors to represent hobbits, elves, men, and other creatures. Time flows from left to right, and important events and locations, such as Bilbo's party and Isengard, are represented in different places on the map.

It's interesting to compare maps of different stories, on the bottom row. The map of 12 Angry Men shows 12 parallel threads. Without seeing the movie, this is ambiguous, because it could be interpreted either as all interacting together the entire time, or having no interaction. (Adding context, such as an enclosing space labeled "Jury Room", could help.) It looks like Primer would be confusing: Just three characters, whose lives intertwine messily, with no landmark places or times, and whose final fates are unclear! I suppose some lives feel like that at times. (I found out it's about time travel, from this Wikipedia entry.) From xkcd, via Flowing Data.

Evolution of thinking

I have trouble, sometimes, committing myself to a conclusion, because I recognize that my understanding is always evolving as I get more information and consider more points of view. Many scientists and others seeking "truth" can probably relate. The evolution of one scientist's thinking over the course of 13 years is traced in a visualization of changes in six editions of one of his books. With different colors representing each edition, if you let this play out, you see how words are added and removed, and, dramatically, how an entirely new chapter is added. I also discovered that if you hover your cursor over a section, you can read the words, in the color representing the edition in which they were added. The work traced is Charles Darwin's famous On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, first published in 1859, with the 6th edition published in 1872. From Ben Fry, from this CNN article, "A new way of looking at the world", via Flowing Data.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Elephant Egg 5

I was one of 5 presenters at the latest Elephant Egg event on Oct. 22. This was the best one yet, in my opinion. None of the presenters used bullet points, or read us their slides! In fact, all used the medium in the way recent research says is most effective: the visual content on the slide and the presenters' spoken comments complement and support each other.

"Dr. Kate" Kathleen Ireland, a science teacher at Seabury school, shared her experience of the trip of a lifetime, going to the Galapagos Islands with other teachers. She told us how excited she was when her application was accepted: she felt like Charlie, in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, winning the golden ticket. She told us that all the animals, and even the people, bark, and used that as a metaphor for getting people's attention to recycling and other ecological concerns.

Uncovering Pa`u
Linda Lindsay gave a graceful and dignified presentation about her current film project, a documentary about the pa`u riders - Hawaiian women who ride horses - and their traditions, a piece of Hawaiian culture that few are aware of. You can follow her work by becoming a fan of her Facebook page.

Visual Language

(Click to view a video of my presentation on YouTube. I'm mostly a silhouette in the shadows, but the presentation and audio are pretty clear.)

My presentation had an audacious goal: to teach the audience a new language! I provided a worksheet to make it an active learning experience and was pleased to see almost everyone participating. Having a table full of friends to support me made it so much easier to make my first public presentation - thanks for being there for me, Jeff, Jeff, Francine, Ann, and Don! And thanks to Gabe, who couldn't be there, but suggested doing the video.

Here's the presentation on Slideshare, if you'd like to review it or read through at your own pace.

Paul Wood, a writer and educator, did a multi-media performance piece accompanied by music by Duke Ellington, commenting poignantly on a current issue, the diversion and restoration of Maui stream water.

Maui forest birds
Mike Neal came to Maui years ago to surf, but has recently discovered a new passion in the cloud forests on the slopes above us, photographing and working to preserve native birds of Maui. These birds are extremely rare, with only a few hundred individuals (of some species) surviving in the world.

The presenters, from left to right: Kathleen Ireland, Mike Neal, Linda Lindsay, Paul Wood, Karen Bennett.

Thanks again to Maggie Sutrov and Ian Blakeslee for organizing this evening of inspiration! They are planning another event next month which promises to be fascinating: The Reverse Origami Film Festival, which will feature short (5 minutes or less) videos by Maui film makers, on Nov. 21.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Simple pictures for complicated situations

"Solving problems and selling ideas with pictures."

That's the subtitle of Dan Roam's best-selling business book, The Back of the Napkin. Wait, did you say business book? That sounds like a pretty "lite" title for a business book. Well, a book doesn't have to be ponderous or dense to be useful. In fact, the more accessible, the more likely the ideas will be considered and adopted. Dan's book is clear and well-organized, teaching how to use visual thinking to analyze business problems and communicate clearly about them.

Political issues rarely get this kind of treatment. Buzz words and emotion rule, with little rational analysis or explanation for the average citizen. Dan and a doctor decided to provide some perspective on the current health care reform debate. He posted a 4-part presentation on his blog, using simple hand drawings, to explain the factors involved, the types of proposals being considered, and how individuals will be affected under each. It was such a breath of fresh air that Fox News had him go through some of it on-air, and Business Week magazine and named it the best presentation of 2009 in a recent contest.

Another example of the power of a simple drawing is the "rich picture." I learned about these a few years ago. Last week, Dave Lash turned me on to a useful diagramming tutorial site which is part of a university-level systems thinking curriculum. For 6 different diagram types, self-paced Flash movies explain when each is most useful and how to draw them. Transcripts of the narration are also provided.

A rich picture is a sort of hand-drawn info-graphic, used in the very early stages of an analysis to explore the issue and surface assumptions. This diagram examines a controversial situation in England a few years ago. Here are some comments on the diagram by its creator, from the accompanying transcript (I've emphasized some points that make rich pictures so valuable, in my view):
I don't think rich pictures can be used to depict everything in a problem situation, I think they are devices for some kind of discrimination - you are actually saying what you think are the important issues, and you have to decide on what’s important according to the purpose the rich picture is being constructed for, for a particular problem situation.

In this case my purpose was just to try and gain a general understanding about the miners’ situation.

It can be used as a personal device, so you can explore your own understanding. When you begin to put symbols down on paper and to draw the rich picture, you begin to question your own understanding and it can throw up questions for yourself about what you understand and what you don't understand. It begins to put some structure on the problem situation from your own personal perspective.

It’s probably got a number of faults in it, and I think that’s one of the strengths of a rich picture. It makes you begin to declare assumptions, and because you are declaring and discussing those assumptions, they can be challenged by other people. So your understanding of the situation can be explored, challenged and modified by the debate that ensues. The power of a rich picture is that it provokes that kind of debate, there’s a bit of visual interest there that can spark off thought, you can visit the rich picture randomly, you can move around on it which is stimulating for debate in itself.
I haven't had a chance to go through all the diagram tutorials in detail yet, because I'm preparing a presentation for the next Elephant Egg night. (In developing this presentation, I'm experimenting with the methodologies of Cliff Atkinson and Andrew Abela, who have both recently published excellent books aimed at helping people communicate more clearly in presentations.) If you're on Maui, you might enjoy stopping by Moana Cafe on Thursday, October 22 at 6:30 for an evening of serendipity and new ideas!

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Are you in flow?

Artists, athletes, researchers, and others with a passion for their work or hobby know what it's like to be in a "flow" state. They lose track of time, and feel at one with with what they're doing. The flow state arises under certain conditions - just the right amount of challenge relative to the person's skill level - pushing it, but not too much. This graph shows the flow state in the upper right, and the feelings associated with other combinations of challenge and skill.

This graph is from this Wikipedia page, which I found in this note in this blog post by Merlin Mann on how to get past the obstacles that stop you from starting a creative or challenging project.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Elephant Egg 3

The third "Elephant Egg" night of pecha kucha style presentations was held at Moana Cafe last Tuesday night. It succeeded in sharing the presenters' passions with the audience, and giving us some new ideas to think about. See photos on Maui Jeff's blog.

(Click the mind map image above to view it in a readable size!)

Saturday, June 20, 2009

New VISUAL search engine

I just found a great new search engine. You can scan through the results like Apple's cover flow. Check out

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Elephant Egg in Maui!

One night a couple weeks ago, I attended an event called "Elephant Egg," held at Moana Cafe. Maggie Sutrov's invitation promised "Five Presentations by Five Inspiring People." I recognized the format as pecha kucha, which I'd heard of but never experienced (20 slides shown for 20 seconds each, for a total of 6 minutes and 40 seconds). I was out of town at VizThink for their first event, so I made a point of going to this one. It was defnitely worthwhile!

There were five presentations:

  1. An outrigger canoe trip to Kure in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, by Peter Nice
  2. Photos from a trip to India near Nepal (above 15,000 feet!), by Daniel Sullivan
  3. Likability, by Bob Sommers
  4. Spiral Dynamics, by Ian Blakeslee
  5. The future of newspapers, by Maui News reporter Ilima Loomis
The format kept the presentations short and focused, and gave just enough information to be intriguing and open opportunities for questions. They're planning to hold them every couple months, so the next one will probably be in late June.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Art history class 1 summary

Dick Nelson has started an 8-week art history class. We're at the halfway point, and I've been reviewing my notes and starting to summarize them.

In our first meeting, we did two exercises designed to introduce some organizing principles and basic concepts that we'll be working with and going into more depth on in coming weeks. We started by comparing two works by different artists in different periods - see this post. Then we played a game, matching works of art and architecture to their period, to learn "where" in time the periods occurred, and some classifying characteristics. See the game board and more details here.