Complexity, Infographics, and Filters

A collection of apparent disparate thoughts on complexity, infographics and filters and a casual attempt to tie them together.

In Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan writes:

For the ideogram is an inclusive gestalt, not an analytic dissociation of senses and functions like phonetic writing.

It reminds me of a remark by a journalist and ex-colleague:

As information goes digital, people are becoming more visual.

I’m not sure if this was her own observation or a quote. It sounds like something Marshall McLuhan may have said – clever, puzzling and provocative. I’ve never come across this statement again, but in my work as a designer I think of it almost every day. What does it mean? My interpretation is that in the digital age people will read less, and increasingly respond to patterns and abstract symbols in a direct and instant way as a means of understanding.

I’m hopeful to discover the author of this quote someday. I think there is something in it, especially when considering the appearance of infographics and icons on digital interfaces. I see it as a new hieroglyphics, the beginning of a meta-script for the digital age, understood by all.


The world is too complex to take in at a single glance. I get overwhelmed quickly when thinking about the issues we face, and our seeming inability to solve large scale problems: new models to address mass transport, food production, green energy, wealth distribution, pubic health, work life balance etc. Maybe this is the wrong approach. High complexity needs deconstruction to digestible chunks, or abstractions, that can be understood and manipulated, formulating solutions then becomes possible. We need lenses to deconstruct the immersive complexities that numb our senses and thinking.


Infographics provide a lens that we can use to digest complexity in a simplified and ‘aesthetic’ manner. The aesthetic appeal is perhaps key because of the challenging nature of some data sets. “Information is beautiful,” a new catch phrase, which seems an anomaly or a graphic designer’s obsession with beautiful surfaces perhaps. Data is a mental object, its beauty rests in the thinking patterns we invent to understand it. We now live in a world where we have tools to actively mine data, it seems that all this data is not making us smarter or enabling us to make better decisions. In a world of diminishing resources there should be no justification for making decisions not based on verified information that lead to real world improvements.


Everyday objects can be used as filters to explore complexity and to selectively filter information. For example, take the hardwood used on the neck of an electric guitar. Where do these trees grow? Are there communities and animals affected by cutting down trees that need more than a hundred years to mature? Mobile phones are interesting, considering there are more of them on the planet than us. What are the impacts of mobile phone related mining and manufacturing on communities, and the environment, from Africa to China? Every object we see exists as part of a complex web that extends far beyond us in both space and time.


We need more data visibility and ‘free’ knowledge to make better decisions faster. We live in a world were we need facts about the products we buy, for every product we use represents the end of a journey, traveling to the origins of those journeys you’ll more than likely end up in a troubled place.

My hope is that the start of the ‘visible data age’ is the beginning of such a world. The flip side is a world where databases are a new kind of ‘mineral’ and if old models are anything to go by …