Visualization techniques we all knew at 4 years old

A few years ago my niece sat down at the table with me and drew a picture. Here it is:

An afternoon drawing by my niece. Marker and Paper.

Whether you play with $100k dashboarding tools or the latest and greatest open source reporting solution, they have no secret sauce in the visual thinking department that wasn’t already exhibited when you were 4 years old and drew something for your uncle. 

Let’s walk through 6 principles of visual comprehension I observed after she drew it. The 6 aren’t meant to be all encompassing nor the only way to interpret these visual principles, but they are fundamental aspects of what makes data visualization so special. I like to think of them as parts of the grammar for speaking visually.

Let's see what each principle would say...

Things that are enclosed by a shape will be seen as a group.
— Enclosure

First, she drew me. Yes, that’s me to the right. She started with my eyes, nose, and mouth. Then she grouped those items through the principle of enclosure to say, “Here’s James’ big head and all those facial features belong inside it.” 

 

 Young children learn to read the face first, so this becomes much of your identity to them at an early age. In fact, the rest of my entire body is represented by two lines. Somehow my big head does need to move around after all. 

Young children learn to read the face first, so this becomes much of your identity to them at an early age. In fact, the rest of my entire body is represented by two lines. Somehow my big head does need to move around after all. 

Things that are connected are part of the same group.
— Connection
 

Thankfully, she also acknowledged my hair. It’s not floating in mid-air, but touches the enclosure of my head to say, “While not inside, these things in the group of things that make up James." 

Things that are near each other belong to a group.
— Proximity

Next she drew her face and body next to me — her way of saying, “We have a relationship. I like hanging out with him.” Perhaps, if I was that weird uncle in the family she would have been on a corner of the page, but instead this proximity indicated that we are in the group friends and family. 

Things that are aligned are perceived as a group.
— Continuity

Not only did she draw herself close to me but also on the same vertical plane. She's a rather grounded girl, so, instead of drawing her floating about, she emphasizes that we’re both in the group of things that obey the laws of gravity and stand on the floor. 

  Some other objects around us have the freedom to fly about. They’re just principles after all; not laws.

Some other objects around us have the freedom to fly about. They’re just principles after all; not laws.

We strive to perceive shapes as complete.
— Closure

When drawing her ears (with earrings, of course), you can see how the circles were sure to be complete through the overlapping beginning and ending of those lines. This assurance of closure says, “My little ears can definitely support big girl earrings.”  

Things that share color, size, or shape belong to a group.
— Similarity

I imagine she drew the cactus floating above us because it has a visual similarity to her hair (which she drew after my hair). This is her saying, “What else could I draw that would belong on this page? I’d like to draw a cactus. That feels right.” 

  Lest you doubt it is a cactus, I asked her at the time and, no doubt about it, it is obviously a cactus. The swirling thing to the right is also  obviously  a snail.

Lest you doubt it is a cactus, I asked her at the time and, no doubt about it, it is obviously a cactus. The swirling thing to the right is also obviously a snail.


One thing I’ve learned is that design or visual comprehension principles make more practical sense looking backwards. We all have various beliefs or observations of the world that have been internalized and are unique to us. We probably don’t even know what many of them are — just as I’m fairly confident my niece hadn’t studied the laws of gestalt grouping from the early 30’s when she sat down to do this drawing. When you want guiding principles to guide a new product, look back at what is most natural and pervasive. 

We all were born with this visual grammar, and they have been incorporated in all sorts of data visualizations and products in recent years. One hope of mine is that we’ll start seeing data products that allow us to not just see the data, but see through it to those “aha” moments, where people are seen and lives are truly impacted, where insights are revealed as effortlessly and confidently as drawing a picture on a blank page.