Thursday, June 13, 2019

Spatial thinking, abstract thinking, and visualization

There are many kinds of nonfiction books. Some feel like walking through a historical building following a fixed path with the help of a tour guide who points out whatever we should pay attention to. That type of book takes you from point A (not knowing) to point B (knowing more).

Other nonfiction books are playful and meandering. They seem not to be structured like linear narratives with a beginning and an end. They feel like if the aforementioned tour guide met you in the lobby of the building, opened all doors inside it, and told you: “I'll give you a brief introduction to understand where you are. After that, explore at will; you can find more information about the wondrous objects inside this building in labels next to them. Feel free to read some and ignore others.”

The goal of this type of book is not so much to teach; it's to inspire you and give you leads to new ideas, references, readings. If you remember the island of knowledge metaphor at the beginning of The Truthful Art, books of this kind may not expand your personal island, but they reveal promising directions to do so in the future. Maybe we should coin the term “hyperbook” to refer to them (after hyperlink).

Barbara Tversky's recent Mind in Motion: How Action Shapes Thought belongs to this second type. After a few chapters that sounded a bit too basic, I felt enthralled by the breadth of the book. I underlined many passages, took copious notes on the margins and on the first blank pages, and wrote down the titles of many papers and books mentioned. If you work in design, or if you're interested in the inner workings of the brain, Mind in Motion is for you —maybe not because of its content per se, but because of the many thoughts it'll rouse.

Here are some relevant passages (apologies in advance for not transcribing them, but I read print books.) The main point of Mind in Motion is that spatial thought is the foundation of abstract thought:

Much —if not all— thinking is action exerted over mental objects:

Because of how useful they are, spatial skills should be more broadly taught. This includes graphs, maps, diagrams, infographics, and the like, a point I've made in recent talks and that I suggest in How Charts Lie:

The book offers suggestions on how to get started with that educational program:

The first half of Mind in Motion ends with a reflection about the relationship between perception, imagination, and action. The more we perceive, the more we can imagine; the more we can imagine, the more we can do —and the more we do, the more we can perceive:

The second half of the book is even more relevant to visualization and explanation graphics designers. Here's a passage about the importance of context and purpose; Tversky doesn't mention the audience as part of that context, although I think it's implied that that's the case —how much or little you guess your audience knows about the topic of your graphic should influence the way you design it:

Some thoughts on the design of information graphics, ending with some elementary rules of thumb, which may sound familiar to some readers of this blog:

And comments about whether visualization conventions are always really just conventions, which is why it's important to think carefully before going against them:

Tversky also describes multiple experiments related to the effectiveness of graphics, explanation diagrams, maps, animations, and many other representations, and she extracts general design lessons from them. I'd get the book just because of these and the references related to them at the end. Enjoy.