Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Visual Information

I have found another amazing example of visual information (a concept known to the nerdy as data visualization). Doug McCune has created a map that shows crime in San Francisco as elevation. The higher the peak, the greater the rate of that particular crime. You can see for yourself at his blog.

Besides being generally awesome, why is this so important?

Human beings process visual information faster than they process any other method of communication. How often do you look at the icons on your desktop and actually read what program they open? Probably rarely. Your brain attaches meaning to the image and acts accordingly. Companies have long understood this and work hard to establish a distinct logo that represents and becomes synonymous with their product. Think about the Starbucks siren, the Nike whoosh, the Apple apple, or the BMW propellers. Even if you didn’t know that the woman on the Starbucks logo is a siren, you know exactly what she looks like, what she represents, and, probably, what her coffee tastes like.

If this is the way our brain works, why do information professionals not take advantage of this more regularly? As providers of information, we should probably be doing more. However, as traditionalists, we do not know how. When we think of information whether on your computer screen or on physical paper, we think of words first. This bias is why I have a traditional blog format and not a visual one such as tumblr. In a world where those who can get the most information the fastest are the most productive and most powerful, I think our profession should embrace visual information. Unfortunately, we have no idea how and partnerships with the business world will be vital in moving us along.

I leave you with my favorite use of visual information--a pie chart of bars and a bar graph of pies via How I Met Your Mother:

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