Recasting Dynamic Visualisations, and slack time

Bret Victor has some wonderful demonstrations of software for direct manipulation and realtime visualisation of dynamic systems, such as Drawing Dynamic Visualisations and Stop Drawing Dead Fish. There is a familiar language to these and other videos of Bret’s - a way of presenting dynamics without requiring drawing every frame, learning symbolic manipulation or relying on tooling-specific methods. This approach is supposed to unlock creativity, discovery and understanding because there is less of a barrier between raw thoughts and the creation.

It’s not a free lunch. A new approach carries with it a new investment to learn. Bret calls this out directly in his notes:

When considering “who” would or could use a tool like this, realize that we have a cultural gap of sorts. We’ve grown a set of people who are good at thinking in procedural abstractions; they’ve been trained to manipulate code, and they call themselves “programmers”. And we’ve grown a set of people who are good at thinking in pictures; they’ve been trained to directly manipulate those pictures, and they call themselves “designers” or “illustrators”. Because we haven’t had a means of directly manipulating abstract procedural pictures, we don’t yet have a set of people who think that way. I expect that it will take time for such people to grow, and I’m excited about what they will create once they’re here.

It makes me think of utilisation and slack time. The most hardened Lean management experts will tell you to make sure there is slack time scheduled in, and there’s research that backs1 them2 up3. I’m a fan of hard work and find it hard to book in what feels like down-time, so I find it a useful reminder to think of Bret’s “cultural gap of sorts”. A few hours a week of catch up time will not bring down the mindset barriers of years of training, but casting off the stimulation and setting aside the jobs list creates space and energy needed for a deeper level of learning and improvement.

  1. Browning, T., and Heath, R. (2009) Reconceptualizing the Effects of Lean on Production Costs with Evidence from the F-22 Program.
    “Since instability can hamper learning, buffering (notably in the form of spare capacity or slack resources) can facilitate learning (March 1981; Wiersma 2007)." ↩︎

  2. Lawson, M.B.B. 2002. In Praise of Slack: Time Is of the Essence. ↩︎

  3. Wiersma, E 2007. Conditions That Shape the Learning Curve: Factors That Increase the Ability and Opportunity to Learn.
    “I find that this variation in learning rates is explained by the percentage of temporary employees used, the level of excess capacity, the degree of product heterogeneity, and the degree to which regions face problems in other important performance dimensions." ↩︎