Visualizing Complexity

Visualizing Complexity: Why Does it Matter?

Edward Tufte, author of numerous works on representing data graphically, gives a chilling example in the day-long workshop he's been running for years. Engineers working on the Challenger space shuttle mission failed to convince NASA that the lower temperatures expected on the planned launch date, and the possible failure of the o-rings, would constitute an unacceptable level of risk. They had data, they had graphs, they had diagrams of o-rings, but the launch went ahead. As we all know, the Challenger exploded.

What if their presentation had instead featured a graphic like this?

Challenger disaster visual of risk of low temperature

(Tufte proposed a simple, elegant graph that showed the likelihood of o-ring failure in direct proportion to dropping temperatures. In all communication, understanding your audience is key.)

Consider something complex but not quite as distressing: the map of the London Underground. In 1931 Harry Beck, a former employee of the Underground, produced this map, still recognizable to us almost 100 years later:

London Underground map from 1931 by Harry Beck

Earlier maps had followed the city's geography more closely, which is not relevant if you're traveling underground. Subway maps around the world have been modeled on London's, giving passengers information about transfer points and the number of stations between them and omitting extraneous geographical detail.

Mapping the human genome, mapping complaints, mapping where items are found in the aisles of grocery stores: maps are visual tools that can help clarify complexity.

Next week: What complexities are found in your organization, and how might they be made visible so as to render them more understandable?