I’ve been reading Unflattening by Nick Sousanis, a fascinating graphic exploration of the relationship between words and images. Drawing from science, philosophy, art, mythology and literature, Sousanis uses comic illustration to discuss how humans acquire knowledge and how visual thinking through a variety of vantage points can expand our understanding beyond what we normally apprehend.
In the design community, we talk a lot about perspectives. How important it is for us to understand the perspective of our clients. How important it is to help our clients understand the different perspectives of their audiences. How critical is the outside perspective we bring to facilitating group discussion and collective visioning. When we strive to understand another person’s viewpoint, we are building empathy. In fact, this is the only way to achieve empathy. And empathy is paramount to creating healthy, productive relationships within and between organizations and their constituencies.
We seek to understand one another’s viewpoints because the layering upon layering of viewpoints is what creates a dynamic, multidimensional vision. What makes our work and lives meaningful are truths that can only be seen when there is an integration of multiple perspectives. Through multiple perspectives we can discover new ways of doing things and open up new possibilities.
Unless you are blind in one or both eyes, you naturally live with a dual perspective. As Sousanis points out, literally the way we see gives us the ability to create multiple perspectives. The distance between my right eye and my left eye results in a difference between what each eye sees individually. If I look at an object with my left eye closed, my view will be slightly altered from a view of the same object with my right eye closed. But is one of the two views wrong? Of course not. There is no single correct view.
Let me repeat that: There is no single correct view.
The distance between our eyes creates a displacement of the single-eye views. It is this displacement which allows us to perceive depth, to have stereoscopic vision. We need multiple views from different vantage points in order to understand the depth of an issue.
“Nothing changed, except the point of view — which changed everything.”
– Nick Sousanis, Unflattening
What connects separate vantage points is communication. Through communication — verbal, visual, and physical dialogue — distinct viewpoints combine, interact, and inform one another to create new perspectives. This interplay of separate perspectives creates common ground. And for any group of people to get anything done, they absolutely must find common ground and form a collective vision for what is to be accomplished. This doesn’t mean that we ignore or abhor individual viewpoints for the sake of unity. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. We need the distinct ideas and opinions that make up our tapestry of knowledge so that we can have a comprehensive and truthful understanding. When attempting to gain consensus of a group, the focus then should not be on converting dissenting opinions to the popular view but soliciting all opinions and facilitating a dialogue between them so that a new, collective perspective can emerge.
Unflattening also explores the distinctions and interplay between verbal and visual modes of communication. Verbal communication is linear, a sequence of words spoken or written, one after the other. Visual communication is non-linear. It happens all at once with multiple starting points. Verbal is about while visual just is. Just as multiple vantage points come together to create a more truthful understanding, both verbal and visual expressions are necessary for messages to be understood in their entirety. Sousanis poses the question: If we rely only on verbal communication as the primary means of understanding the world, what are we missing that falls outside its linear construct?
Understanding one another requires mental visualization. We cannot walk in another person’s shoes or see the world through another’s eyes. So we have to imagine how they’re thinking and feeling. Our ability to understand others and thus our capacity for empathy expands when our imagination is assisted with both verbal and visual cues.
The idea that each hemisphere of the brain neatly maps to a specific mode of communication — the left side for verbal and the right side for visual — is not entirely accurate. Modernists instead see the left hemisphere as focused inward on things that are immediate and on parts of a whole, while the right hemisphere is focused outwardly addressing the whole in its context. Thank goodness for these dual perceptions, because the human race wouldn’t have made it very far if we could not focus on making tools or gathering food while also remaining alert to and preparing for dangers in our surroundings. So here again, when we’re in a situation of trying to bring a group of people together into a singular vision, the point is to cultivate the analytical as well as the imaginative, the logical as much as the emotional. We need to be able to describe the details of “how” we’re going to achieve objectives in the context of the big reason for “why” we’re doing so in the first place.
The concept of being visually oriented has long been strongly associated with being creative. Thus arose the idea that people who demonstrate right-brain dominance are more creative than their left-brain dominant counterparts. But this simply isn’t true. Creativity is the ability to transcend traditional ways of thinking and doing to create new expressions of ideas. From earlier discussion we know that new ways of thinking and doing are the result of communication between multiple perspectives. Every single one of us has the ability to craft a new perspective. Being creative is not about being artistic, it’s about seeking a new perspective and being courageous enough to express that perspective in tangible form.
Beyond the intricate illustrative journey that unfolds throughout Unflattening, the images I find most compelling are the ones that are not even part of the main story. They’re found on the very last pages of the book, after the bibliography and the acknowledgements. With no preamble, Sousanis presents the idea maps for Unflattening, his early outline for the book and sequencing of ideas for each chapter. I find these fascinating because it’s a look behind the scenes, a visual doorway into his brain and into the process he undertook to write this book. As a process-oriented person, I am endlessly interested in where ideas originate, how seemingly disparate ideas come together, are organized into a story, and then translated into tangible form. A mix of text and sketches, Sousanis’ idea maps exemplify the ability to organize details in a sequential manner within the context of a complete picture. The maps embody many of the points Sousanis makes in his book: bringing multiple perspectives together through verbal and visual modes of communication in order to provide the reader (or in this case himself as the author) a clear understanding and progression towards an end goal.
All images © Nick Sousanis