The visual communication of complex or less known topics (e.g. science, medicine, mathematics) in simpler and clearer ways appeals to users and readers’ visual reasoning. Visual reasoning is the process of both analysing information presented in visual form (e.g. pictures, diagrams, drawings) and solving problems based on visual logic combining verbal, mathematical and visual analysis. As with other types of reasoning, McKim (1980) explains that visual reasoning can be deductive: we move from abstract to concrete ideas (e.g. reconstructing an image when a part is missing). Or it can be inductive: we start with concrete visuals or images, and need to figure out the underlying abstract principles or ideas.
We all think visually: e.g. we choose what to wear in the morning, we organise the pile of books and papers on our desks, we choose the best looking apples when doing food shopping. Visual thinking is a key part of visual reasoning as helps us develop the necessary skills to use visual logic (e.g. pattern-seeking, categorising, pattern completion). In the same way we all learn critical and logical thinking to solve problems, any person can learn visual reasoning skills. These skills are part of nonverbal intelligence, which means that to solve visual problems or process visual information ‘a person does not have to use [verbal or written] language’.
Visual reasoning skills are essential to deal with many real-life situations. Daily, we use deductive and inductive visual reasoning to make sense of and interpret information displayed in visual form, such as traffic signs, navigate museums following wayfinding systems, and read maps and diagrams. We also use these skills to understand the relationships between visual information (e.g. traffic signs), written information (e.g. words, numbers) and their context (e.g. roads, highways).
How does visual reasoning work?
Let’s have a look at the London Underground diagram:
When we look at this diagrammatic map, our visual skills and cognitive abilities look for:
- Information types. We have to identify the different types of displayed information (e.g. names of stations, tubes lines, other transport systems in addition to the tube) by reading highlighted words and noticing icons and any other graphic attributes used to code information in the diagram (e.g. colours, textures).
- Meanings. We then use our visual reasoning skills to make sense of the information and decode the meanings attached to the icons (e.g. rectangles = stations / black & white circle = interchange/transfer stations).
- Relationships in context. Finally, we need to understand the relationships between its different parts and components in terms of meaning (e.g. stations, lines, zones = denote a transport system that can be used to commute from A to B), but also understand the relationships between visual components (e.g. icons, colours, shapes, etc.) and the object their are representing in that particular context (e.g. how to navigate London using transport systems).
What is the role of information design in visual reasoning?
Diagrams, drawings and other artifacts that communicate information can be considered visual reasoning tools. However, not all information made visual is an effective visual reasoning tool or successfully supports the process. Information design is essential to make visual reasoning effective. Communicating information in a visual way involves more than simply making a drawing or applying colours. To translate data and content into visual form and enhance its understanding, information designers should have a strong conceptual design skills, follow cognitive (e.g. breaking data into smaller chunks to reduce cognitive load) and perception principles (e.g. alignment, balance, proximity) while applying systematic thinking and logic.
Particularly, the role of information design for visual reasoning is crucial when we need to ‘communicate essential aspects of phenomena that are tool big, too small, too slow, or too abstract for normal sensory comprehension’ (Siegel, 2008). The work of Will Burtin is an excellent example of these types of challenges. Most of Burtin’s exhibits for the Upjohn company focused on unpacking ‘too small’ processes (e.g. brain functions, metabolism process) and component parts of the body (e.g. cells, atoms) for which he used information design rationale:
- Functionality: Spending the necessary time and resources on conceptual design led Burtin to thoroughly organise and simplify data, and accurately depict key components and their functions, creating both a functional and visual pedagogic way to communicate and explicate the unknown and the unseen of the topics he was working on.
- System thinking: Thinking each project holistically helped Burtin break the complex topics up into smaller chunks with meaning; each of which was then unpacked in different but complementary ways, like models, video, sounds, visuals and journeys, altogether communicating the complete meaning of the topic.
- Multi & Interdisciplinary approach: Working in collaboration with experts and scientists helped Burtin gain deep understanding of the topics, identifying what aspects were harder to comprehend or confusing, which ones were more well-known, and which ones were still unknown to the research community and needed unpacking.
- Research: Getting immersed in and highly familiar with each project topic helped Burtin make supported decisions, and become aware of the wide range of visual ways in which each concept could be explained.
The results were more than mere exhibits showing complex-looking visual forms; his exhibits were engaging learning journeys through which complex topics became accessible to all audiences (experts, students, general public) using visual reasoning.
When a reader/user can apply visual logic and reason to gain a better understanding of a situation, the information design solution is effective: complexity becomes ‘a certain beauty of clear statement’. This ‘beauty is not necessarily a matter of form or style, but a result of order achieved’, stated Burtin.
– McKim, R.H. (1980) Thinking Visually. Lifetime Learning Pub
– Siegel, E. (2008) Too Big, Too Small, Too Slow, Too Abstract: Exhibiting Modern Science. Exhibitionist 27.2:22-28.
– What is visual reasoning?