We live in an era of digitally produced charts laden with eye-catching, attention-drawing visualisations. Charts seem to speak louder and more persuasively than words, and there is little doubt that visual representations seem to appeal to a human desire for tidy simplicity in a sea of chaotic complexity.

Charts can undoubtedly help us to understand extraordinarily intricate ideas and see old ideas in new ways. However, as you can probably already tell, I think there is a downside to this. It’s precisely because visualisation in charts powerfully condenses otherwise overwhelmingly complex data collections that misuse becomes an ever-present danger.

Given that many high-stakes business scenarios are characterised by highly charged debate, the power of visualisation may serve to obfuscate the truth rather than reveal it, or it can cross the line between persuasive representation and dishonest manipulation. I suggest that this is precisely where Gestalt psychology becomes indispensable.

I don’t mean to fall back on glib and overused aphorisms such as “If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.” Instead, I believe we can arm ourselves against the misleading effects of visualisation techniques such as charts – and create more truthful and accurate ones – by being acutely mindful of one of Gestalt’s foundational concepts: the interplay and distinctions between figure (what we perceive as noticeable) and ground (the presuppositions that provide the apparently unobtrusive background for the figures we see).

From a Gestalt perspective, figure and ground may appear static and clear while concealing an instability that only intelligently playful (as opposed to uncritically obedient or habitual) observation can expose. The boundary between figure and ground is more illusory and evanescent than we customarily suppose. Stare at the ground long enough, and new figures can begin to emerge – new ideas, new ways of seeing, and new interpretations. In a word: novelty.

Next time, I’ll explore some misleading chart visualisations and some Gestalt-powered correctives.

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