Visual Thinking: Amplifying Human Stories
Written By: Rosa Torres, Data Solutions Product Owner | Vereti Concepts
I fell in love with data the moment I realized its power--its ability to tell human stories. It was thrilling to watch data unfold and reveal stories of change.
I no longer just saw data on a chart; I saw a human story behind every data point. It became my goal to find the best way to represent that data such that it could tell those stories. Data visualization became my tool and my passion.
The more I delved into my work, the more I saw how truly interdisciplinary it was. Data visualization involves many different branches of knowledge. In my work, I have combined my data analytics background with studies in design, psychology, and my deepest area of study: visual thinking, the process by which people see and process information. I studied the work of Dr. Colin Ware to learn how people visually think.
According to Ware, in Visual Queries: the Foundation of Visual Thinking, “visual queries on displays can be faster and more effective than queries to access data in the brain and this is the reason why we think best with the aid of cognitive tools.” Data visualization is one of these cognitive tools for visual thinking that allows viewers to more effectively see information and store it in their visual memories.
Studies show that a person sees what is in their direct field of vision. This means that we have the ability to see the information we are focused on--everything else will fall to the background.
Try this exercise: focus on the green center of this digital nucleus. Try to count as many of the dots as you can.
Don’t worry, whatever number you came up with, you won’t be tested on it. Do, however, notice that the blue areas, although visible, were not as in focus as the green was. By giving the green space importance, you only truly paid attention to that space.
Now, let’s review some visual content.
Dr. Colin Ware found that we can hold 3 to 5 objects in our visual memory. He also states that our brains are always searching for patterns. It is the identification of these patterns that helps us process information.
Look at the map below; note the first thing that catches your attention.
Did you notice the map of the state of New Jersey or the number of students served? Or did something else drawn you in? Everyone’s experience can be different, but how we can scan and process information is the same.
We scan visual content looking for patterns in order to interpret what we are seeing. We scan shapes, color, space, and words and we associate them in groups that help us discover a pattern and ultimately the story behind the image.
A visual story may have micro stories that work together to stitch together the bigger story. If these stories draw on our emotions, then there will be a stronger limbic system response as opposed to a frontal cortex response. This difference in activation will cause that information to have different perceptual significance and will, therefore, be stored differently. Emotional memories are more readily coded into long term memories than just straight facts. Plain facts need repetition and confirmation, whereas emotional memories can “take a shortcut.”
Learning about the way the human brain senses and perceives information and how it can be utilized to create informed data has become a passion of mine. I believe that data storytelling is vital in taking beige facts and turning them into a rich story that can be followed and related to. My pursuit of purpose has led me to this extraordinary field of data and visualizations through which I can capture human stories and create pathways that create connections, inspire, and drive social change.
 Ware, Colin Visual Queries. Retrieved from
 Tatler, B. W., Wade, N. J., Kwan, H., Findlay, J. M., & Velichkovsky, B. M. (n.d.). Yarbus, eye movements, and vision. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3563050/