Jonathan J. Halperin
Jonathan J. Halperin
Designing Research, Communications
and Strategies for Sustainability

Beyond Pie Charts

             Easter Island

As our civilization struggles to understand both the meaning and making of Stonehenge or Easter Island, others may someday look back and try to give meaning to the immense pie charts that seem to be scattered over the American Midwest. From the air, perfect circles appear on the landscape amidst the sharp, angular lines of highways and roads.

These immense pies lack legends, but their coloration is clear and crisp as if the Midwest had become a surreal testing range for super-sized PowerPoint creations.

Hydrologists of the future may be able to discern that the pies and slices are the result or massive center pivot irrigation systems not the legacy of a monopolistic software giant seeking to expand into new markets. The designs of nature and of humans are so clearly distinguishable from the air that legends are not needed.

Finney County, southwest Kansas

Finney County, southwest Kansas
(To read more and for photo credits, see the Daily Mail UK article:
Nature's bounty: Amazing satellite images show how man has moulded Earth's geography into geometric art.)

Green trees twist and curve along the edges of waterways, evidence of the slow-motion evolution of meandering waterways. Straight lines dissect the land, homage to the efficiency of getting from point A to point B. These are not the trails of animal powered locomotion, which wind and bend with the contour of the land and its slope, but testament rather to the capacity of fuel engines to flatten the curves of the landscape as we journey over rather than through it.

In a world of efficiency and PowerPoint – not that they are interchangeable – we risk losing perspective. PowerPoint and most other widely used software products, as Edward Tufte emphasizes in his seminars and books, represent a break with past means of visual communication. While it was once natural to tell stories with a combination of words, images, pictures, and drawings all mixed together, today the way much of the software industry operates we are forced to segregate our communications by means of production. Rich text and rich pictures, much less images or drawings are hard to integrate. We draw with one tool, write with another, and struggle to make them collaborate.

Nature, on the other hand, appears to have an internal law that operates at all levels and across all fields of scientific understanding. So argue Adrian Bejan and J. Peder Zane in their fascinating book, Design in Nature: How the Constructal Law Governs Evolution in Biology, Physics, Technology, and Social Organization. When we adopt new perspectives and step outside current conventions it is amazing what we can discern – beyond pie charts.

When I began to unhook from SustainAbility in 2008, after 20+ years, to co-found Volans, Jonathan was working with the US end of SustainAbility — and sent the London end of the Volans team a large cardboard box of multi-colored felt rocks, which initially I couldn't make head nor tail of. I thought he was mad, or overly American.

But I have to say that, over time, those felt rocks have become a central feature of the Volans culture, thrown by team members at other team members (or guests) on the slightest provocation. That aside, he's a consummate professional, creative collaborator, skilled communicator, and keen intellect—and I am delighted both to have had Jonathan as a colleague and to now count him as a friend.

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