Visualizing Ideas

In my last post I mentioned that Prezi helped people visualize their ideas. At the risk of sounding like a Prezi ad, I’d like to explain what I meant. For centuries, we humans have struggled to externalize the current of thoughts and images that runs through our heads. From cave painting to the printing press to the blackboard, we are forever inventing new media to help us convey our ideas. I believe that effective visualization is a key characteristic of the media that have most impacted how we communicate our ideas with others, but also how we develop these ideas in the first place.

We often imagine an idea as emerging fully formed from a long period of focused concentration. Didn’t Einstein come up with his theory of relativity by staring into his notebook during a particularly boring day at the patent office? That’s how the movies portray it. The truth is that most ideas are dynamic, iterative, and nonlinear in nature. An idea may be sparked by an image on your morning commute that a week later blends with a remark made by your colleague that afterward morphs from the echoes of a dreamt conversation. Visualization is key to this process. What is the mind’s eye but our inner observer that visualizes and weaves together our mental media into a cohesive idea?

How do we document this idea so we can remember it, work on it later, and communicate it to others? Why is it so difficult to transfer the idea from our head to the written (or drawn) page? Because our mind is not a linear, 2D, paginated format.

About fifteen years ago, I attended a visual communications seminar taught by Edward Tufte. I was at SGI and steeped in data visualization, but I had no background in communications, visual or otherwise. It was a revelatory day but one aha moment stood out from many others. Professor Tufte asked the class to imagine the difficulty early mathematicians had communicating geometry: How do you describe an equilateral pyramid to someone who has never seen one? Without answering, he reverently held up a 400+-yr-old copy of Euclid’s Geometry and carefully opened it to a bookmarked page. He folded up from the center of the page the three small triangular pieces of paper that formed a tiny pyramid—possibly the first ever pop-up. Ahhhhh. (Tufte is an academic showman who plays to his crowd).

Our mind’s eye is not bound by dimensionality, time, or place. It quietly observes our infinite mental canvas, remixing memories from our past, the reality of the present, and our imagination of the future. It explores various combinations until, bam—an idea is formed.

But there is one thing that does bind our mind’s eye: our mind.

Visualization technologies free us from this constraint. By enabling us to document our mental ideation process, incorporate external media, and more easily collaborate with others, innovations like the blackboard and advancements in cinematography have transformed ideation and idea sharing. When I said in my last post that Prezi was a successor to SGI in terms of mainstreaming visualization, I wasn’t only referring to the fact that Prezi is a dynamic presentation software that is visually engaging. It certainly is that. But that’s not Prezi’s only difference. Because of its open canvas that is not bounded by a linear 2D slide format, Prezi is also a disruptive visualization tool that, like a virtual whiteboard, is ideal for individual or collaborative brainstorming, thereby enhancing the ideation process.

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