See what they mean? - RSA

See what they mean?


  • Picture of John Kellas FRSA
    John Kellas FRSA
  • Behaviour change
  • Digital
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As humans, many of us make intuitive decisions about how much we trust someone or something based on what we see. This article will hopefully draw attention to the power of visual tools for representing data and provide an illustration of some of the possibilities open to us during the last week of May 2017

In 2004, the Guardian published an article declaring that in the UK we are, or were, confronted with more than 3500 marketing images a day. With no recent equivalent study, one can only imagine what that figure is now with the ever increasing prevalence of propaganda, marketing, news, and ‘fake news’. It is dizzying thinking about the amount of money and effort that goes into presenting facts in a way that is appealing, and suggestive of certain things to an intended target audience.

“…depiction, picturing and seeing are ubiquitous features of the process by which most human beings come to know the world as it really is for them.” (Fyfe, G. and Law, J. (eds) - Picturing Power: Visual Depiction and Social Relations).

Considering for a moment, the use of visuals in politics and the UK election specifically - is it reasonable for people to make decisions about the future of a nation based on how much they like the look of someone? For me, the absence of a televised debate between the main UK political party leaders feels like a confusing public loss, particularly as it does not preclude Theresa May or other politicians from making significant investment in getting the image of the party, and the leader right and thereby manipulating public perception. What politicians wear, how they hold themselves, gesticulate, smile and the contextualising scenes we see them in all affect the impression the audience gets.

In addition to how politicians are represented, policy proposals are presented in various visual forms. While images proliferate generally, much information is still presented as written text. Let’s be clear - not all information is always adequately expressed in images or text. Lots of people are accustomed to gleaning information from paper, or digital document based news articles and policy documents directly, but many people are not. The Literacy Trust estimates that there are 5.2 Million ‘functionally illiterate’ adults! The National Numeracy organisation asserts that 4 out of 5 adults have low levels of numeracy. Under such circumstances what chance do people really have of understanding the nuances and implications of policy described in written text?

The recently published Conservative 2017 election manifesto has only one picture inside - of Theresa May at a podium. The Labour manifesto has significantly less words per page and many images scattered throughout. How much of the semantic content (meaning) in the text of these documents is also presented in memes, interviews and party political broadcasts? What really is the state of political or critical literacy in the UK?  

For a good and equitable future important information needs to be presented in ways that people can understand. Discernment is needed between fact and fiction. We must understand what kind of visuals are appropriate for specific audiences and what purposes do they serve – do they enlighten or obscure?

Information can be increasingly easily communicated through effective use of shape, space, colour, contrast, context, juxtaposition and vectors of movement etc. There is always a grammar of visuals, an amount of informational content laid out in different ways. Various symbols and associations put together in combinations that have more or less rhetorical force.

Fortunately, there are many people and projects trying to help democratise design, and access to knowledge. To my minds-eye, each of the following visualisations represent powerful examples of how important information can be presented in beautiful and accessible ways: the political left / right visual overview - a useful distillation of political implicit bias; the RSA animations, Gapminder, Harvard globe of economic complexity, 3D depiction of £1,000,000,000.

The project Our World In Data provides engaging graphical lay curriculum material allowing for a depth of analysis that is notably missing in popularised communication about politics. Sharing the sources of our inspiration and learning is one of the ways that we can support cultural evolution.

Those of you that would like to publish information in novel and potentially increasingly impactful ways should be aware of all of the free online tools that are already at your disposal. There are now many free tools to produce beautiful graphs and image productions:

Over the last few years I have been working with the very technologically and creatively skilled Christopher Reay FRSA on next generation data visualisation tools. We want to improve data literacy and create systems that drive engagement - enabling a cultural ‘level-up’ in data-through-image communication that will make important information accessible to nearly everyone. Our contribution into this space is to offer the free use of Visual Tools, our toolkit that allows people to explore, show and compare data relevant to their learning tasks and lives.

  • Visual.Tools (alpha release V0.6) includes a set of ‘blueprints’ to help you show data about stuff, eg. specific amounts of Money, levels of particulate matter, percentages of people, amounts of coal and wood consumed by using Lightbulbs. The generic quantity / volume visualization tools HowMuch and HowMany also provide simplified, novel functionality to ensure a set of capabilities are available to support an increasingly broad range of people to rapidly create and share data rich images. (Please note that V0.6 currently only works fully in a Google Chrome internet browser).

I’d be happy to discuss the topics covered in this article, or share more about this work with RSA Fellows on with anyone interested. Please do get in contact (see MYRSA page for details). 

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