Discover the power of visualisation
The most important instrument of thought is the eye Benoit Mandelbrot
The French mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot had a point. Plenty of us readily admit we have no ear for music, but it is rare to find someone who happily confesses they have no eye for art. There is good reason for that. Far be it for us to argue with God, but in the beginning there wasn’t a word but an image. As Victor Hugo noted, “All characters were once signs and all signs were originally images.”
The Last Supper by Leonardo Da Vinci (Alamy)
Today, visualisation isn’t just for painters, it’s used by athletes, designers and conference speakers. Design has long been about making stuff visible – the sofa will be this big and this orange – but it can also help a company visualise systems and processes. For example, a service designer could map out a call centre – which has probably grown chaotically and organically – to isolate anomalies or bottlenecks.
The man who cannot visualise a horse galloping on a tomato is an idiot Andre Breton
But visualisation isn’t always good. Baroque organograms, flow charts that don’t flow and the dull bullet-point slide only help those with the superior ability to breathe in the hours of boredom. Here are 10 examples of visualisation at its finest.
The first and last
It took Leonardo da Vinci three years to create a painting that would inspire the world’s bestselling novel, The Da Vinci Code. The sketch below, dated to 1495, shows his attempts to perfect the arrangement of his party.
Sketch for The Last Supper by Leonardo Da Vinci (The Royal Collection)
For this complex, ambitious work, Leonardo prepared many sketches and studies, adapting the characterisations. You can read into the painting what you like, but it’s impossible to argue that the apostles are not positioned precisely as Leonardo wanted them.
Modern automobiles, like this Audi Shooting Brake concept, may be astonishingly complex, but they often start life as a sketch in a drawer, a clay model or a doodle on a computer.
In 1990, after Chrysler’s then boss Bob Lutz watched the 007 flick Thunderball, he persuaded the company to show a two-piece Voyager based on the yacht owned by the villainous Largo, which separated in two. Alas, the idea never caught on.
In 1973, 11 years before Apple introduced the Mac, Xerox developed, for research purposes, what was probably the first true desktop computer with a graphical interface and a mouse. Sadly, visualising the Alto didn’t persuade Xerox to launch one. But in 1979, a young technician called Steve Jobs visited Xerox’s research centre and realised the Alto could revolutionise personal computing. Today, Altos are rare collectors’ items.
One of the earliest surviving examples of writing records the sale of 300 acres of land around 5,000 years ago in Mesopotamia’s Sumerian civilisation. The symbols, initially a series of pictographs, simplified over 2000 years into the abstract cuneiform – from the Latin for ‘wedge-shaped’ – markings. Etched into clay tablets by reeds, this script used unique signs drawing on the human body, nature and musical instruments.
Walt Disney presenting a storyboard (Corbis)
The Walt Disney studio developed the first storyboard in the 1930s, for Three Little Pigs. Gone With The Wind was the first film to be completely storyboarded and today the Coen brothers use the method to raise money from investors. For designers, storyboards have become a useful tool to persuade clients to confront inconvenient truths, by showing them how their customers really experience their company.
Whether you believe Newton was hit on the head by a falling apple or just saw one drop from a tree, the fruit will be forever identified as the instigator that made Newton question whether the same force that made the apple drop to the ground also kept the moon orbiting Earth. A versatile soul, Newton also invented the cat flap as a device to stop his cat opening the door and letting in enough light to ruin his experiments.
What does Tiger Woods see when he’s about to make a putt? He sees the ball falling into the hole. He has visualised it so often that his vision invariably comes true. On top of his game, he will average just 1.713 putts per green – better than any of his rivals. “Visualisation is a major part of my game,” he says, “especially when it comes to shaping for shots.” If only English footballers could apply that principle to penalty shoot-outs.
Professor Edward Tufte argues that ‘slideware’ presentation programmes like PowerPoint elevate format over content, leaving speakers dominating their audience. As we can only take in 40 words per slide – about eight seconds of reading material – many slides are shown sequentially, making it hard to grasp context. Tufte says: “If your words or images are not the point, making them dance in colour won’t make them relevant.”
Thinking in pictures
Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) truly was a visionary genius. The Serbian scientist had such an acutely detailed visual sense that he could picture a machine in his head, test it, check it for wear and tear and envisage the blueprints. He could even instruct machinists directly from his mental image. His resonant transformers known as the Tesla coil (above) pioneered the wireless transmission of electricity, helping to inspire the invention of radio.
If the photo fits
The image of John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln’s assassin, starred on a photographic wanted poster in the US in 1865. In 1959, police began to use Identi-Kit®, hand-drawn foils in a wooden box, to generate facial composites. The computerised E-Fit system was unveiled in 1984. Mafia boss Bernando Provenzano was captured last year after this image, showing how he may have aged during his 43 years on the run, was released to the media.
The obscure we see eventually, the completely apparent takes longer Edward R. Murrow
Article first published in Design Council Magazine, Issue 3, Winter 2007