Yesterday, I decided to pull out of the VizThink 2008 conference, for reasons that I will explain. Because I have been advertising my involvement in the conference on this site and previously suggested that you consider attending it in this blog, I want to explain why I’ve changed my mind about participating.
When I was first approached by the VizThink team and asked to speak at their inaugural conference, back when only two or three others were on the list of speakers, I was excited about the conference’s potential. As a specialist in data visualization, I recognized the value of bringing together experts from all visual thinking disciplines. There is much that we can learn from one another. As the list of speakers continued to grow, however, my hopes began to wane and my concerns mounted. Don’t get me wrong! The speakers are experts in their fields. My concern is that as a whole they don’t accurately represent the spectrum of visual thinking, and that the list of topics is heavily skewed, primarily toward the use of drawings to record ideas (such as during a brainstorming meeting) or in printed form to explain something, such as a concept or process.
Until yesterday, out of 38 speakers and 32 breakout sessions, I was the only representative of “information visualization”—and now there are none. This mix misrepresents visual thinking as primarily related to various forms and uses of drawings. As such, it fails to feature what I believe is the most exciting way in which visual thinking is supported by technology today: information visualization—”the use of computer-supported interactive visual representations of abstract data to amplify cognition” (Card, Mackinlay, and Shneiderman, Information Visualization: Using Vision to Think, 1999). I don’t mean to disparage the use of drawings to help people think about ideas and communicate them to others, including those that take the form of comics (10% of the sessions feature this aspect). I just think that this emphasis on drawings gives a lopsided impression of visual thinking, which is not the impression that an inaugural conference on the exciting and important topic of visual thinking should promote.
Besides this imbalance, one other concern also discouraged my participation. I suspect that many of the visualizations that will be featured at the conference fall into the realm of what I consider ineffective. Drawings are fun and entertaining, and when appropriately used and properly designed, they can support thinking in meaningful ways. When they are used gratuitously or improperly designed, however, they can undermine thinking. I believe that this conference should be about effective visual thinking. To meet this standard, this conference should promote the use of visualization only when visuals are the best way to get the message across, and it should feature visual designs that are firmly rooted in an understanding of visual perception and cognition. If the poster below, which was designed and is being used to promote VizThink 2008, represents the view of visual thinking that will be featured, I am inclined to question its merits.
I don’t believe that this an effective way to help people consider the content and decide if they should attend the conference. This poster strikes me as no more effective for visual thinking than a set of PowerPoint slides filled with bullet points is effective for communication. When I see a picture like this, I’m discouraged from looking at it by the visual clutter. I have to work much too hard to glean what’s meaningful from the chaos of visual content. To the degree that VizThink 2008 ends up teaching people to use visualization in this way, it will do a poor job, both of serving their needs and of representing the potential of visual thinking.
I realize that by expressing this opinion, I am opening a can of worms and inviting debate. I’m doing so intentionally, because discussion could be helpful. I know that my concerns are shared by others who have nevertheless chosen to speak at the conference, hoping to nudge it in the right direction. Again, let me clarify that I am not questioning the potential benefits of visualization media of many types as aids to thinking. What I’m arguing is that we need to approach visual thinking critically, test our methods for effectiveness carefully and responsibly, and make sure that they conform to what we already know about visual perception and cognition based on years of established research.
Visual thinking is an important topic that has much to offer the world. For this reason, I wish VizThink well and hope that, given time, it evolves into a conference that provides a balanced view of visual thinking, promotes only those practices that are effective, and builds a strong multidisciplinary community of practitioners. If and when it does, perhaps I will be invited again to participate and will be able to accept the invitation with enthusiasm and without compromise.