Recently I’ve started to use “visual deliberation” as a catch-all term for the various mapping techniques and activities we use in our activities at Austhink (argument mapping, IBIS-based issue mapping, etc.).   Happily, the more I use it, the more apt it seems.  What we’re typically doing is helping people to deliberate more effectively, and we do this by making the thinking more visually accessible.

But is this the “right” way to use the term?  How do other people use it?  How should they use it? In short, what does “visual deliberation” mean?  Here’s an attempt at definition (semi-descriptive, semi-prescriptive).

In general, visual deliberation is the use of visual aids to support deliberative processes such as debate and decision making.   By “visual” I mean anything that can be, literally, seen, but not including text (words and sentences).

There are many kinds or “flavors” of visual deliberation depending on what sorts of visual aids are used, how they are deployed in the service of deliberation, and the extent to which they are used.

(1) The most familiar kinds involve the use of charts, graphics, diagrams, tables, and the like, sprinkled through the main verbal argumentation like glace cherries in a fruit cake.  For example, the famous movie An Inconvenient Truth includes various charts presenting information in a non-verbal (or largely non-verbal) manner, and the case being made depends on this information.   The deliberative activity is thus a kind of melange of textual and visual presentation.  Edward Tufte has of course written elegantly and at length about how such visualizations can aid deliberation and how to do this well (see e.g. his Beautiful Evidence).

Aside: not every use of visual aids in the context of deliberation is visual deliberation.   The graphics in An Inconvenient Truth include photos which, while thematically relevant, are incidental to the actual reasoning; if they weren’t there, nothing of any consequence would be lost from the case being made.  Such visuals may be playing a rhetorical or persuasive role, by e.g. activating emotional responses, but are not playing a logical role.  And sometimes of course visuals are pure eye-candy.

(2) A very different kind of visual deliberation is found in the “mapping” tradition which includes Wigmore’s charting method, Rittel’s IBIS, and Conklin’s Dialogue Mapping.   Here the focus is on identifying the core conceptual elements, such as questions, ideas, options, reasons, and objections, and displaying these elements and their relationships in diagrams intended to encompass or “map out” the thinking in all its complexity.  In this kind of visual deliberation, the visual elements are not just ingredients or components within a larger verbal superstructure.   Rather, the superstructure itself is given visual expression in box-and-arrow diagrams.

(3) In a recent book Noveck has identified a third, very different way in which visual ingredients can aid deliberation.  The basic idea here is that visual aspects or elements of a computer’s user interface can help shape deliberative activity: “I argue for what I term visual deliberation, namely, ways of using the computer screen to mirror the work of participating groups back to themselves so that they can organize and function as networked publics.” (p.22)

Sometimes multiple modes of visual deliberation are integrated into one complex, highly visual activity. For example Robert Horn’s argumentation maps, such as the well-known Can Computers Think series, embed graphics within maps.  Online collaborative argumentation systems such as Debategraph and bCisiveOnline, and Shum’s IBIS/Compendium-based design rationale, support the creation of maps within software interfaces providing visual clues guiding collective deliberative activity.

In practice, even traditional verbal deliberation usually involves at least some visual elements.  Speakers and debaters rely not only on their words but also on their gestures.  Argumentative texts such as reports or opinion pieces rely on font, paragraph and document formatting to help convey how verbally-expressed points hang together as argument.   There are deliberative activities involving no visual element at all (think of two people trying to resolve their differences over the telephone) but these are the end point of a spectrum, and shouldn’t necessarily be seen as the pure or paradigm cases.

At the other end of the spectrum, deliberation cannot be  purely visual.  Deliberation essentially involves argumentation, which in turn essentially involves relationships among propositions (claims) which must be expressed verbally.   In each of the three modes identified above, textual expression plays a crucial role.

Now, having said all that, it is useful for me to narrow the focus a little.  My work these days is concerned primarily with the second or “mapping” kind of visual deliberation and its deployment in practical contexts.  So for me visual deliberation usually means, specifically, aiding deliberation through the use of diagrams displaying the structure of that deliberative activity.  As in, this sort of thing: