Visualising complex issues
August 9, 2001
I've been a big fan of Robert E. Horn's work since his seminal 1989 "Mapping Hypertext" (now sadly out of print and unfortunately his follow-up "Visual Language" was disappointment). InfoDesign spotted a nice example of Horn's work in action. They're similar to the "infographics" found in some newspapers, but deal with summarizing far more complex information, and consequently could be quite useful for presenting issues to clients or team members.

Several of the examples are quite dense—one summarizes what would've been a 60-page report—so it's tough to assess the effectiveness to the presentation in conveying information without the background knowledge that those involved had. I'd suggest starting with the map for Genetically Modified Food Debates, particularly this example, which is among the easier to follow.

My main problem with Horn's work is his continued insistence on using bad clip art. He does this consciously because he believes his mapping process should be usable by non-graphic designers, but it's distracting. And particularly when the subject gets complex, such as his "Multnomah County dynamics and dilemmas knowledge map," a skilled graphic designer could've added some much needed visual improvements in clarifying the diagram.

However, despite these problems, they provide some good examples of how a visual presentation of information can make it easier to help people get an overall mental model of the issue at hand.
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