I watched a fascinating program by VS Rachmandram where he discussed patients feeling pain in ‘phantom limbs’. An example might be pain in an arm that’s been amputated where the person feels their hand is permanently clenched into a tight fist. To solve this problem the brain is tricked by using a simple box and a mirror which makes it think the amputated limb is ok, the hand is open, and the pain disappears.

This serious subject highlights the power of the brain and how powerful visual stimulus is.

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There are times when our brain can actually fool us in to seeing or feeling things that are not there. If, for example, we are looking at a chart that’s not well designed we are likely to make assumptions - and we all know how risky assumptions can be.

Further, our brain hasn’t evolved that far away from our distant ancestors, so the thing that really makes a chart or table interesting is if it appeals somehow to our basic instincts:  can it feed my family, gain me an advantage, even make me more attractive!?  (Unlikely, I know.) 

In the world of work, these basic needs are expressed through analogues: hitting your sales target, getting promotion through recognition, or spotting that upwardly trending product. However the information that triggers these appealing insights is too often buried under ‘chart junk’ – stopping you seeing what’s really there. In his book The Visual Display of Quantitative information Edward Tufte wrote:

 

“Sometimes decorations can help editorialize about the substance of the graphic. But it's wrong to distort the data measures—the ink locating values of numbers—in order to make an editorial comment or fit a decorative scheme.”

So how do we make sure this doesn’t happen? Well, the old acronym K.I.S.S (Keep it simple stupid) applies.  Airport and road signage are a good example of quiet design. They get you where you want to go without most people consciously noticing.

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It’s not complicated, it’s not flashy and it just shows the information needed. So when you design your next dashboard always keep in mind why you are doing it.  It’s not usually so you can show the latest info graphic or cool chart type.

I am not saying when you create a dashboard it shouldn’t wow the eyes and excite the brain but, like a super model with a PhD, it must not only be gorgeous but genius as well.