Shocked by Complexity

Have you ever been so confused by the complexity of a map, chart or diagram, that you didn’t know where to begin to make sense of it?

If so, you may be a victim of "map shock" or "visual shock", according to Donald F. Dansereau, Ph.D., of Texas Christian University. Don is Professor of Psychology and Senior Research Scientist in the Institute of Behavioral Research at TCU, and teaches graduate statistics and cognitive psychology.

I’ve been intrigued by the concept of "map shock" ever since I first heard the term, so I thought I would find out more about it from Don.

ShockIt turns out that during his research on cognitive approaches for improving education, drug abuse prevention, and treatment, Don found that students often became "lost" upon first seeing a type of complex map. The results were a sense of "not knowing where to start or where to go next," he said. "This makes processing less efficient and may even bring it to a halt."

Hmmm – sounds like a familiar symptom of many PowerPoint slides I’ve seen, not to mention a good number of printed materials.

Read more about Don’s findings on "map shock" and "visual shock" in my recent interview with him here.

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7 Responses to “Shocked by Complexity”

  1. Project says:

    Map Shock

    I use Powerpoint much more than I would like to and I find Cliff Atkinson’s “Beyond Bullets” blog one of the best sources for information about what makes a good presentation. But a recent article on visual complexity ended up…

  2. Displaying complex graphs or charts is about the only time I use animation in my PowerPoint presentations. I can show bits at a time, explaining them, then add the complexity as I go.

  3. says:

    First week, new gig – drinking from the firehose

    By the end of the week, “drinking from a firehose” became my massively overused one-liner to describe how the week was going. Still, nothing that was unexpected; new organization philosophies and theories, new terminology for familiar concepts, new “…

  4. UML 2 = Visual Shock?

    Arnon and I are working together on the architecture of a C4ISR project these days. Anyway, between us Arnon is the UML expert while I pretty much draw whatever I feel will get my point acros…

  5. I’m Calling in Sick – I’ve Got Map Shock

    Beyond Bullets has some interesting information on how busy charts can actually prevent people from processing information. This is yet another reason to pitch the slide show. Your presentation probably still stinks!

  6. Visuals to support your story-tellling

    The group of managers that I mentor completed their story-telling
    exercise successfully. Some of the stories blew away my expectations.

  7. rwild says:

    My goal is to produce the “most shocking” maps ever drawn. I try to increase the cognitive load my maps entail, to unheard-of-heights.
    See for links to many outstanding examples of this phenomena. You’ll quickly see that I play at the opposite end of the spectrum from Edward Tufte.

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