Taking a cue from cavemen

Nobody knows for sure why cavemen drew their mysterious images on the stone walls. Yet, their fascinating drawings give us a glimpse into their life, even without knowing their language, ensuring endless buzzing among the hundreds of PhDs interpreting them. Quite possibly, the reports our industry generates by the truckloads will also be more beneficial for future scientists. Eager to reconfirm their advanced degrees, they certainly will find hidden meanings in the reports – gist that alluded the intended audience and even some of the original writers.

The cave drawings are the first known examples of infographics – a visual representation of information. People understand graphics more easily and faster than text. Recall frantically looking for familiar stylized signs of a man and woman in a search of a restroom in a foreign country. Chances are you felt relieved to find the signs and glad they were not depicted in a foreign language text instead. These ubiquitous signs are naturally international and understood even by the illiterate. There was even a visual language proposed last century as a linguistics alternative.

Data visualization, a logical extension of infographics, is a crossroad of anthropology, math, informatics and art. It replaces passive absorption of data with interactivity, facilitating new idea generation. Look at any of Hans Rosling’s presentations and prepare to be awe-stuck, engaged and motivated by the mundane and normally indigestible longitudinal data. For example, if you want to analyze global trends of life expectancy vs. income per person by comparing annual data from, say, 100 countries over 200 years, it is easy to picture dozens (if not hundreds) of bar charts chockfull of data that are unlikely to produce anything except for a bonus to the color printer salesperson. Instead, Rosling’s tool creates a fascinating animation of the trend, showing circles (the size is proportional to the populations) floating as a function of time across the chart. This animation gives presenters a chance to shine as they narrate the trend as it unfolds on the screen as in movie. The tool is publicly available for utilization right now. And the price? This is the best part of the story – it’s free: just upload your data in the appropriate format (see links info below).

Of course, data visualization requires some level of graphicacy, or the ability to comprehend this type of information. Once you become familiar with them, quintessential pie and bar charts are easy to understand (up to the point when their overuse blurs our ability to see the intended underlying story). As with any popular approach, data visualization could be easily overexerted, making the presentation look outright ludicrous. ‘Death from Power Point’ syndrome could be equally caused by the boring endless bullets as well as by overloading the slides with all those bells and whistles carelessly piled by Microsoft in its products. If you were ever stuck in any such presentation, you might wish that PowerPoint was regulated and selectively licensed as a potentially lethal weapon. It is not just a question of applying sophisticated graphing tools – it is using them sparingly and meaningfully, as caviar o’dourves – to indulge the palate and create an appetite for the main meal.

Some argue that we still suffer from atavisms particularly discernible during rock music concerts and excessive clubbing linking us to our ancestors. Yet humans made a huge leap in the last 30,000 years, creating marketing research as the pinnacle of progress. Our audiences, particularly the high-powered ‘cavemen’ of the corner offices, usually are not patient enough to analyze the small digits in tables or even to read text. Historically, this type of viewers seemed to be receptive to infographics originated by our predecessors. Shouldn’t we take a clue from that?

(To help in visualization of the article, I have assembled a collection of links demonstrating the power of infographics and data visualization at www.alexgofman.com/RW).

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Alex Gofman is Vice President of Moskowitz Jacobs Inc. and a Prof. of Marketing at Pace University. You can contact him at [email protected]

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Comments

  1. I’d strongly recommend Edward Tufte’s books, including ‘The Visual Display of Quantitative Information’, and his seminars.

    Kind Regards,

    H. Burden.

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