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Visualizing Complexity History

Updated: Apr 12

A Long not Short History!

On the subject of Visual SenseMaking: With all due respect to our colleagues over in the Systemic Design RSD9 Conference, we were a little perplexed by the foreshortened description of the history of what was being framed over there as Visualizing Complexity, posted to the conference site last week.

That odd-duck description appearing in the Analyzing Visualized Complexity post by Tore Gulden of Oslo Metropolitan University gives the misleading impression that the field was created by the RSD conference creators in the last few years. Baloney! That appears to be more of an ego-boosting, feel-good statement for conference organizers, rather than industry fact. With the important work of the Systemic Design Association in mind, we would not want to see it undermined by overly aggressive claims, however unintentional they might be.

Even when differing, we like to be respectful of the many pioneers in this business. Taking this moment to point out that the pioneers of Visualizing Complexity are not the folks who arrived into the subject via the RSD conference series but rather many other historical and current figures whose shoulders we all stand on, whether we all know it or not. Those pioneers who have made significant contributions to this evolving subject include: Joseph Priestly, William Playfair, Christophe de Savigny, Willard Brinton, Otto Neurath, Gerd Arntz, Marie Neurath, Jacques Bertin, Fritz Kahn, Ladislav Sutnar, Richard Wurman, Edward Tufte and many, many others.

In addition, Visualizing Complexity, Visual SenseMaking is already an industry with numerous practitioners involved, decades before the RSD conference series and its organizers arrived into the subject. Much has already been learned in the past few decades. The Visual SenseMaking practice community is not starting in 2022!

Otto Neurath and Istotype Institute in particular were working in the 1940s at the scale of complex societal challenges with the intention of using visualization as a mechanism to inform change. Their influence, even today, is gigantic. Richard Wurman optimistically stated that "understanding precedes action". These pioneers were not only engaged in complex challenges and visualization but they had already made the connection to informed action.

What is going on over in the RSD Conference is a direct decendent from that history. Lets just be honest about that, otherwise more and more confusion gets generated. That kind of stuff only works when you are talking to a closed audience.

Welcome RSD conference folks to the already operational Visual SenseMaking "praxis" community with a deep and lengthy history. It is a community that is always in motion.

Note: This post was originally published on the SenseMakers Alliance site, now folded into NextD Journal.]

Image 1: Table of Universal History, "published in Paris in 1858", Information Graphics, 2009, Sandra Rendgen, Julius Widemann.

Image 2: Making Sense of SenseMaking, Humantific, 2005-2023


ReAppreciating Isotype

ReAppreciating Willard C. Brinton

ReAppreciating Richard Saul Wurman

The Karl Weick Question

Data Visualization 1817

Visual Complexity


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