This explains a lot… and it isn’t good.

The incomparable Maria Popova (whom you must follow on twitter @brainpicker) recently posted a review of the incredible book “This Explains Everything” from John Brockman. The book presents 150+ brilliant thinkers’ answers to the question:

“What is your favorite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation?”


A brilliant book with a fatal flaw.

With magnificent insights from Jared Diamond, Brian Eno, Steven Pinker, and Susan Blackmore, the book covers pretty much everything we know — or really should know — about the underlying order of the universe. (In other words, there is a lot to think about in this book.)

But there’s a big problem. A huge problem. A problem that makes me want to either cry or start shouting REALLY LOUD.

Out of 150 brilliant minds introducing their favorite theories, only one* used pictures.

WHAT?!This is crazy — especially since EVERY ONE of the entries I’ve read so far (just passed 50) would benefit enormously from the addition of a simple clarifying sketch.

And these pictures aren’t hard to draw. I got so mad while reading this book on the short flight from San Francisco to Los Angeles, I managed to draw the first three while sitting on the plane. Here they are:

1) Susan Blackmore on Evolution


2) Matt Ridley on DNA


3) Richard Dawkins on how we process patterns


The big takeaway: If we’re explaining a theory, why wouldn’t we use every means available to make that theory clear, memorable, and alive? If we’re going to use words to describe an image, why don’t we just draw the image we’re trying to describe?

It’s not that hard. I did these three in less that 30 minutes, using nothing but a pen and paper. Imagine what a true genius could do in a day.

When the smartest people we have reject the use of simple images to support their own theories, is it really any wonder that more people reject science?

This really upsets me. Come on, smart people: SHOW me what you’re talking about.

(*That one BTW, is Stewart Brand. My new hero.)


Murphy was an optimist. (Or was that ‘optometrist’?)

We know three things about Murphy:

  1. Murphy said, "Anything that can go wrong, will."
  2. Nobody knows who Murphy was or what he said, if anything.
  3. Regardless of point 2, Murphy must have spent a lot of time giving presentations.

Case in point:

There I was at VizThink, thirty minutes before my talk, happy that I had so much time to set up my fancy new tablet PC, connect it to the projector, and test out a few quick sketches.  (With the tablet, I can draw directly on the PC’s screen and everything is projected for all to see, just like a huge whiteboard.)

Of course, since Murphy was in the room, neither I nor the harried A/V guy could get the screen to ‘mirror’ on both the tablet and the projector. It had worked before, and it would work later, but it was not going to work that day with 60 people watching.

The problem was this: I had left many of the pages of my PowerPoint blank, intending to use the tablet pen to draw in the pertinent details before the audience. Cool. Except that now I could choose either to see the pages on my little PC screen only, OR have everyone see them up on the big screen — leaving my PC screen dark.

Remember how I said I has thirty minutes? Not anymore. The room was full, the crowd was getting agitated, and I was getting ready to sweat big-time. The PC-projector combo was having none of it: nothing worked. Finally I had to make a decision: leave the room and never return, entertain the audience for my ninety minutes by slowly strangling the A/V guy, or believe my own rule:

"If you’ve got a good idea and a good whiteboard, you’ve got a great presentation."

I went for it. Balanced between half a PowerPoint and a whiteboard, the wonderful audience and I kept each other laughing (and learning) beyond our alloted time. If you were in that audience that day: THANK YOU!

What else did Murphy say: "The show must go on?" Had to be Murphy. That guy knew his stuff.


Meryl Rules!!!! (And why it pays to back up bookmarks)

Meryl K. Evans is my new hero.


She has just posted the best list of visual-thinking resources EVER. Look here to see the most comprehensive list anywhere of visual thinking, information visualization, data representation, diagramming, and pictorial storytelling ideas.

The reason I’m personally so enthused about Maryl’s list is because a month ago my hard-drive crashed. That tiny little "doubleclickclick" of death said tap-tap-hello.

Not to worry though, because I learned long ago (the hard way) to back up everything religiously. Except it had never occurred to me that I’d need to back up my bookmarks. (I know, DOH.)

Point being, I lost three years worth of web scouring and collecting. And along comes Meryl’s list — which above all IS BETTER THAN MINE! Whoopee! They’re all back, and then some!

Anyway, thanks Meryl.

And yes, I now believe in


Bah-humberg Terminals: When Bad Design Happens to Decent Interfaces

More evidence that designers are the best people in the
world for pissing off businesspeople: Conde Nast’s Portfolio site recently
commissioned three top design firms to create fantasy redesigns of the
Bloomberg terminal, the world’s most widely used financial analysis interface.
The results show us why rank-and-file businesspeople still rightfully distrust
designers: all these designs – regardless of cool they may appear – illustrate
a fundamental ignorance by their designers of the very people who are supposed
to use them.


Color: Ziba recommends the color red to indicate a stock
story. RED?! Are they kidding? Rule #1 in finance: NEVER USE RED – it means


Visual pace: IDEO’s oh-so-refined newsprint look says “the
world is slow and steady and we’ve all got time to sit back and cogitate on it
for as long as we need.” WRONG. Ever sit on a trading floor? You’ve never seen
the world move so fast. It’s a loud, frantic place – and that’s the sense of
urgency that the interface needs to support.


Eye candy: Thehappycorp’s heatmap-share price-lava lamp has
something going for it. All they need to do is strip away all the Photoshop
layers and we might be able to see what that something is.

It’s not all bad: the two things that are interesting are
the proposed interaction devices. Thehappycorp’s recommendation to use a Wii
controller is right on… but not for playing golf, you fools: use it to navigate
the unbelievable complexity of the market! And Ziba’s puck has great potential:
it reminds me of the scrollpads used in the more advanced air traffic control

I’m passionate about this because I’ve recently been asked
to help out on the redesign of a similar financial analytics interface. Just
getting the finance analysts to sit in the room with us designers was already
tough enough – when user-clueless designers start showing this kind of stuff it
makes it harder for the rest of us who are trying to make something that
actually helps.


Key lime pie chart

Experts hate pie charts. They hate them for different reasons, but the underlying distaste remains constant.

Personally, I kind of like pie charts for certain representational tasks. Maybe it’s fond memories of the cognitive challenge of selecting which slice of pizza I wanted vs. which one I was going to leave for my brother. I get suspicious of all these quotes about "differences in angles are not easy to judge for the human eye" whenever I’m at a kindergartner’s birthday party. Those kiddos don’t seem to have a huge problem identifying the biggest piece. Maybe if we called them "cake charts" the experts would relax.

Anyway, I say that in defense of the humble pie chart, because now I’m about to eviscerate one.


I came across this in an annual report for Xcel Energy that I was thumbing through. This lovely little key lime pie chart struck me as so unreadable that I had to cut it out to keep forever.

The unreadability has nothing to do with it being a pie, but it has everything to do with the overly subtle variations in color and the decoupling of the visual from the legend.

I defy anyone to discern the percent of renewable resources. But then again, maybe that’s the point.

Hint: look for a tiny (1%) slice headed southwest.


Don’t quote the bell pepper, but…

It’s not really visual thinking, but this just irks me. Xerox’s new color campaign supports all of us who like color in documents (good so far) but the ads take as their central point a set of "hard numbers" with no meaning and no attribution (not so good).

Xall Color means: 82% more attention, 73% more comprehension, 80% better brand recognition, 39% more memorable impression — these are their numbers, I’m not making this up.

Then again, maybe they are. Nowhere in their print or online adds could I find a attribution to what study is being quoted, what the comparisons are made against (black & white? tomatoes?) or context of any sort.

Yes, these are juicy numbers. Too bad we don’t know what percent real juice.

(It’s really a drag too, cause these would be great numbers to quote in a meeting with publishers.)