With the amount of data generated these days information complexity is something none of us can afford. The fault does not seem to lie on the user side, though. Rather, it is the content creation tools that appear to be inadequately designed. They facilitate unbounded dispensing of information but neglect to assist us in distilling messages to their core. It is a precarious proposition, one that can severely undermine the potential of our increased connectivity. We need to re-design technology to effectively assist us in communicating or we risk being swamped in a landfill of information.
It is apparent that at least a portion of the information we broadcast can be discarded without compromising quality of the communication. One way to achieve this is to design tools that constrain message footprint. The term “constraint” has a traditionally negative undertone when it comes to self-expression, evoking associations with censorship and conformity. In practice, however, constraints are often the root of ingenuity: Columbus set sail to America because of the Ottomans’ obstruction of the “Silk Road” to Indies, while Galileo developed the telescope to make up for the inadequacy of the human eye at watching the sky. In fact, the computer revolution itself could be regarded as a response to the constraints of human mind. Constraining message footprint may, therefore, somewhat counter-intuitively result in not just more efficient dissemination of information but also lead to better ideas and increased ingenuity.
But not every piece of information that is concise is easy to understand. Mathematical equations are a great example: they can be brutally short, yet without knowing their theoretical underpinnings it’s practically impossible to decipher them. Message brevity on its own isn’t enough; it’s also how we encode it.
Thus, to comprehensively explain an idea using limited footprint every pixel of that space has to pack a punch. One of the most effective ways of achieving this goal is visualizing a portion of that information. This way we can communicate complex information at a fraction of the footprint it would take text on its own. But today visualization techniques are focused on numerical information in the form of charts and histograms. The field sidelines somewhat qualitative data such as ideas, concepts, theories or opinions. To meet adequate levels of comprehension under conditions of limited space we’ll need to encode non-numerical data with the same efficacy as its numerical counterpart.
Easier said than done
The problem remains, though, that crafting a message that’s both simple and meaningful doesn’t usually happen by itself. More often than not it takes some tinkering before the message relays exactly what we want it to. This process is known as “reformulation” which refers to the restatement of ideas, either our own or those of others. Reformulation helps us discover different solutions and is regarded as key to problem solving. It’s an iterative process and maintaining message integrity is a notable challenge. Leonardo da Vinci famously took years to complete his works, meticulously studying every detail of his paintings until they were perfect. Such was the case with “The Last Supper”, which took him four years to complete. Picasso’s “Bull” proves this literally, showing how the Spanish master dissected the image of the bull to its essential features in a series of eleven lithographs until he reached “the absolute ‘spirit’ of the beast”.
Contrary to this, current tools are predominantly built around static content, clipart being the prime example, which you can only resize and move around but not actually reshape into something else. To better facilitate reformulation, however, it must be possible to visibly alter these kinds of elements into drastically different forms from the originals. Such tinkering must occur without the risk of losing previously reached milestones. This will encourage breaking things up and moving them around at will, releasing the previously unrealized creativity needed to find better angles for expressing the idea that we want to communicate. Such design may even enable a seamless feedback loop with the audience who would be able to remix the message and present their own ideas juxtaposed with the original, as well as recycle and reuse old messages without having to introduce new ones.
Time to evolve
It is clear that communication tools we are currently using must evolve as information continues to play an increasingly important role in our lives. To this end it is imperative for them to enable us to craft more thoughtful and refined messages, making brevity, meaningfulness and flexibility the foremost priorities in the way we design them. This way we will be able to reap the benefits that our unprecedented interconnectedness can grant us and not become overpowered by it.