Visual Representations ☆

| September 20, 2010

While we listened to the presentation today regarding human tendencies in the perception of time and space in visual representations, I thought about my pre-educational life doing graphic design for marketing. In that environment, I was introduced to the work of information design giants like Edward Tufte. Tufte, who was recently appointed to the Recovery Independent Advisory Panel, immerses himself in studying the way human beings represent information. He has offered some of the most eloquent critiques of visual phenomenon like our use of PowerPoint, and his books collect and explain some of the finest examples of visual representation you can find. One of my favorites is Charles Joseph Minard’s graphic showing the losses suffered by Napoleon’s army in the Russian campaign of 1812. It’s genius, so feel free to check it out when you have a moment.

You may think I completely meandered away from education, but here’s my point: I had an explicit education in graphic arts after I left school. I don’t remember explicitly being taught to read charts, graphs or other visualizations in school, though I remember discussing them as components of textbooks in just about every class I took in high school. Although some people are more spatial than others, these are skills that can be learned and must be taught.

As educators, we have three responsibilities. One is to offer explicit instruction to students in reading and creating visualizations, making sure that they understand the pervasiveness of this type of data representation. The second is to model good practices in creating and interpreting visuals.  Too many times, I see shoddy, imprecise visualizations used in classrooms because teachers don’t feel they have the time to learn new tools or create a complete product to present to students. If we acknowledge that this type of literacy is important (and all the research says that it is), we need to consider it as we plan our courses. Finally we need to hold test designers, textbook manufacturers and other designers of visual representations that make their way into classrooms responsible for the integrity of charts, graphs, diagrams, etc.