How to use visuals for analysis and discovery

I was recently speaking with a researcher about her dissertation, which involved interviewing doctoral students about their research process. What she shared really struck me: her participants were most excited about how instrumental their visualization software had been in helping them form their own understanding of their data. Yet, they only mentioned the software briefly in their methods section.

I think this is because researchers often think to use visuals to present findings, overlooking the fact that to effectively communicate they must first fully understand the information. While researchers may be surprised by the role visuals can play in their process, professional creatives like myself use visuals for observation, analysis, discovery and presentation.

Researchers from all fields have a long history of using visuals as tools for analysis and discovery. No matter what purpose it serves, the type of visual that is best used all depends on what is being compared.

Sketches and photos for observations

Hand drawings have long been used to compare characteristics, particularly in the natural sciences. Consider Charles Darwin, whose keen observations of finches led him to one of the most fundamental scientific theories of all time.

Beatrix Potter, Wikipedia Commons

Beatrix Potter, Wikipedia Commons

There are many more examples from across the sciences, including:

Leonardo da Vinci, Wikipedia Commons

Leonardo da Vinci, Wikipedia Commons

Of course, photographs are also visuals created from observation. Photojournalists investigate current events through their lens, physicians use medical imaging to diagnose pathologies, and remote sensing photography allows geographers to better understand landscapes. Diane Arbus documented marginalized people while Ansel Adams captured pristine Western landscapes.

Here are some tips for using sketches or photos for analysis and discovery:

  • Train your eye to search for and pay attention to the smallest of details.

  • Use measurements like distance and scale to note patterns.

  • Develop a regular practice as it will take time to master creative skills.

  • Try to connect with other “trained eyes” so they can help you refine your craft.

Diagrams for abstract systems and possibilities

As philosopher and comic artist Nick Sousanis talks about in depth in his book Unflattening, using visuals allows us to think outside the limits of language and, therefore, our current cognitive frameworks.

So it isn’t too surprising that many ground-breaking researchers have have used visuals to both better understand and describe the systems and concepts they were studying:

If you want to use diagrams for analyzing abstract ideas, here are some suggestions to consider:

  • Start simple: map out processes and systems that you already know, such as a flowchart of your research process or a genogram of your immediate family

  • Experiment with different types of diagrams, such as mind maps, feedback loops, PERT charts, decision trees, and network maps.

  • Try developing visuals with others in real time. This is often referred to as “whiteboarding.”

  • Set aside any pre-occupation you may have with accuracy and give yourself permission to explore your imagination.

Graphs and charts for numeric data

Some researchers can spend the bulk of their time, energy, and process ensuring that their data is both reliable and complete. It can be easy to overlook opportunities to integrate visuals into all stages of your work.

If we are comparing amounts, computers allow us to quickly process massive datasets and instantaneously perceive patterns. Before computers, many researchers used maps and graphs to understand and communicate patterns, including in:

John Snow, Wikipedia Commons

John Snow, Wikipedia Commons

Here are some ideas for how to use visuals as you collect and analyze data:

  • If you are a beginner with software, choose a user-friendly program such as Excel, Tableau, or Kumu and start using it regularly. Utilize online and/or in-person communities to support you as you learn how to use the program for all of your research needs.

  • Ask your network about how they’ve used software to visualize data throughout their research process. For example, I know geographers use GIS and some qualitative researchers use Nvivo to “see” their data.

  • Keep in mind that usually the software that is great for visual analysis is not great for visual presentation. You will likely have to learn how to make the most of it, learn another program, and/or work with other professionals to communicate your ideas.

No matter what type of research you do and what type of visuals might best support your process, consider building partnerships with creatives who are accustomed to using visual tools as part of their own processes. Just like skill with numbers is only one aspect of research, artistic skill is only one aspect of creative work. We are all interested in understanding and conveying ideas. Visuals are powerful because they allow us to do both - and that’s certainly something to get excited about!

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