Recently, I have been working as a writer in a computer lab where visualization software is designed.
With the over-abundance of information, visualizations can make targeted pieces of information easier and clearer for the reader to instantly comprehend. This particular software mines a large database of information and displays what you tell it to find in a visual format.
This is a scatter plot of obesity rates vs. age. Even without a lot of explanatory text, you can see that as people get older, the rate of obesity increases. This is not exactly earth shattering information until you compare this graph with graphs from earlier years and then you’ll see that with each successive year, obesity starts affecting a younger and younger demographic.
I’m fortunate, because I find this use of visualization fascinating and I love nothing more than “going to work.”
But it has me wondering about the role of visualization in storytelling. When people are crushed (and I mean absolutely *crushed*) for time, is there a place for condensing and presenting information in a visual format within the context of a story?
Last weekend I was out of town. My kids decided to surprise me by re-organizing the kitchen. Like any mom who spends a lot of time in the kitchen, I have to admit that although I said “thank you” through somewhat gritted teeth, what I was really thinking was “you did what?!!” My kitchen is my studio, it’s where I create nourishment and where I build our family structure. It’s where stories are birthed. I was a little worried at what I would find.
My son proudly showed me his contribution to the effort. We tend to have a large collection of coffee mugs and his job was to sort through and organize them.
After looking at all the mugs, my son, my little black or white thinker, decided to only keep a set of vintage white Pyrex matching mugs and he placed the rest of the mugs in a box that was headed to Goodwill as soon as I went through them. (Seriously after reading that do you blame me for our house rule – “Nothing goes to Goodwill until I okay it!”?)
My heart sank as I looked at the perfect row of matching mugs, all lined up with their handles facing to the right. If I were to visualize my son’s idea of what mugs in a kitchen should look like, I would use this graphic.
Utilitarian. Nothing else is needed. Identical. In a row. Functional. Move along, there’s nothing more to see.
We’re done here.
But if I were to try to visualize my idea of what mugs in a kitchen should look like, it would look more like this.
See that large magenta flower? That’s my “World’s Best Mom” mug. The lighter rose one behind it is the mug I picked up at the King Arthur bakery when my son and I stopped for lunch after I had picked him up from college to bring him home for the holidays. The spiked purple flower is the “I’d Tap That” mug I got when the kids and I followed the maple syrup trail last year and we all tried a maple syrup injected hotdog.
Well you get the picture.
As we all get busier and busier, visualizations, whether they are used in journalistic articles to convey a great deal of information in an easy to understand format or in storytelling to emphasize a dramatic point, are the way of the future.
We are going to see more and more of this technique being used in writing.
Using visualizations within the context of storytelling (think adult picture books) is exciting, it’s a different way of designing stories and if done effectively, could add much to what we have to say. It will be, however, our ongoing challenge as storytellers to figure out how best to incorporate this information tool into our tales while still keeping to a defined story structure.
Something to definitely think about.
Oh, and just so you know, this is the handmade blueberry pottery mug Marc got for me on our honeymoon.
Matching mugs be damned, this one is going back onto the shelf.
Wendy Thomas is an award winning journalist, columnist, and blogger who believes that taking challenges in life will always lead to goodness. She is the mother of 6 funny and creative kids and it is her goal to teach them through stories and lessons.
Wendy’s current project involves writing about her family’s experiences with chickens (yes, chickens). (www.simplethrift.wordpress.com) She writes about her chickens for GRIT, Backyard Poultry, Chicken Community, and Mother Earth News.