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The value of mistakes, reading clouds and other visual mysteries.

Keep Learning

July 31, 2015

The value of mistakes, reading clouds and other visual mysteries.

This is one in a series of posts where we take a look at one of our company values and how it manifests in what we do. The value for this post is: keep learning.

"The hardest people to teach are the ones who never make mistakes", I heard or read this in the context of learning to fly. It makes sense: you need to learn how to get out of predicaments when you are flying and you need to know how to stay calm in the process. How do you learn to stay calm in a predicament if you never get into them in the first place?

Some predicaments are born of not knowing what you are looking at. Being able to 'read' what is in front of you is akin to understanding the visual language you are presented with. Everyone knows someone who sees something different in their surroundings to us – either it is the brand of clothes someone is wearing, or the type of clouds forming in the sky, or the type of car that just roared past – detected simply by the sound it makes. These, except the car sound, are all visual languages that can be read by those in the know.

Context is king. Isn't that meant to be content is king? Maybe, but content without context, to the uninitiated, is meaningless drivel. The uninitiated. Those people for whom the data is not information, people who 'don't know what I am looking at'. All they see is visual noise, or people wearing clothes, or clouds in the sky, or cars. Those in the know see brands, weather or particular car types.

I made a mistake on landing when I was flying recently. The mistake happened because I didn't know what I was looking at. The information in front of me didn't have meaning – it was just data. But it was a fantastic opportunity to change that meaningless data into knowledge – all I needed was context to make sense of it.

I asked an instructor to explain the context for the data so that I could avoid the same mistake in the future, in different locations. The key was to find the right, repeatable context so that location no longer played a part in understanding. Having understanding linked to familiar cues can be a huge trap if you need to move that understanding to a different location.

Context is they key to turning data (content) into information. Only then can that information be filtered through personal experience and the AHA! moment happen when you know that knowledge has developed.

You can't jump the steps in the process but as designers we can enable to process by placing data within the context that makes most sense to the audience. Different audiences may require different contexts or visual languages for the same data.

Some years ago we worked on an interesting project where diagrams that had been used by engineers to explain concepts need to be shown to politicians. The diagrams had to be redesigned to provide the new audience with the information they needed.

The politicians didn't have the same engineering understanding as the original audience so the context for the content had changed and a new visual language developed.

Without context data remains data. Wrapping data in the right context will lead to it becoming information and only then, can our experience turn it into knowledge.

We understand through our experience.