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Learning the language of the eyes and of the mind

We are bombarded, constantly flooded, with information. There is more information, data, now than ever before and its availability and presence in our lives is growing exponentially.

Many see this as a bad thing, an overwhelming din and a burden. But others think otherwise. David McCandless, a former journalist and now author on the subject of data and visualization, said in his TED Talk two years ago that, rather than agreeing with the axiom that “data is the new oil”, “data is the new soil, because for me, it feels like a fertile, creative medium.” I like that way of looking at it. So if we till the soil with more purpose, perhaps we can grow things that we have not yet envisioned.

If we grow amazing new things, we want to communicate them; share them. And to do that, in the midst of the din, we need clarity. So what does “clarity” mean in this context and how can we achieve it?

I believe that design is central and fundamental to answering this question.

We hear lots about “design”: just look in publications like Wired and Fast Company, or in your weekend newspaper. But what’s “design” got to do with this? What does it mean, for instance, for research, business intelligence, and communications?

I work a lot in evaluation and performance measurement: what does this mean for these fields? Well, I think spending tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars on a program evaluation and communicating poorly at the end is nothing but a waste of time if your audience fails to grasp the full meaning of the findings. Worse, it can result in uninformed decisions that can hurt the organization’s brand, its clients and its bottom line.

Learning to clearly and effectively communicate critical facts, findings and ideas offers the single greatest return on investment that many organizations, public and private, could earn. I’ll explain.

The computer was perhaps the most important new tool of the last millennium, but now we need to take back the ground and make computers work for us. Stephen Few, a leader in the visual business intelligence field, writes: “Despite great technical progress in data acquisition, the business intelligence industry has largely ignored the fact that intelligence in human beings resides in human beings, and that information only becomes available when it is understood, not just when it is made available.” http://www.perceptualedge.com

So now we need to work with how we, not the computers, are built. But how are we built and how does it matter?

A good way to illustrate this is an example used by David McCandless in the TED Talk mentioned earlier. In this example, he presents the data of a Danish physicist who converted the bandwidth of our senses into computer terms.


We are “visual animals”, where the vast majority of the information that we take in comes in through our eyes. We also see how little of the information coming at us at all times is consciously perceived.   This strongly suggests the need to communicate visually and effectively if you want your information to even register, let alone achieve clarity and persuasiveness.

To McCandless, this suggests that there is a “language of the eye and of the mind”. I think this is true, and so I think it is important to communicate messages in that language, using that huge visual bandwidth.

We now know much about how we have evolved relying on the sensitivity of our eyes to patterns, shapes and (to most), colours. We know that the effective use of data graphics makes use of the way our short term memory captures information to ensure that the point is transmitted clearly and instantly.


We have also evolved such that we tell each other things by use of stories. Here is another place where I believe the adoption of “design” into our thinking in the communication of facts, figures and ideas will be a powerful new tool.

Verbal-visual communications, like PowerPoint presentations, can capture and engage the audience if they are purposefully and well designed. That means incorporating structure, story, tension and release, just as in music (another kind of story telling) and using strong supporting visuals.

See the Duarte Design website for more on this. http://www.duarte.com

It’s all about ensuring that your message gets across clearly and with impact: visual and structural design gives you clarity.

Virtually none of us were taught these things as researchers and policy makers in training and even professional communicators may not have seen much of this thinking and technique.

But in today’s environment we must all become professionals in communication and we need to know this: we must learn the language of the eyes and mind and to harness the full power of our story.