Early on in his (quite good, and recommended) “Information Visualization: Perception for Design,” author Colin Ware aptly demonstrates the importance of visuals, in terms of cognition and understanding.
“Visualizations,” Ware writes, “have a small but crucial and expanding role in cognitive systems. Visual displays provide the highest bandwidth channel from the computer to the human. We acquire more information through vision than all of the other senses combined. The 20 billion or so neurons of the brain devoted to analyzing visual information provide a pattern-finding mechanism that is a fundamental component in much of our cognitive activity.”
That’s an academic way of stating a fact that many project managers have leveraged for years: Getting folks to understand complex concepts is hard, and pictures make it easier.
Human beings have been using visuals to communicate for some 40,000 years. Whether it’s a cave painting of a deer or a complex, computer-generated chart showing the steps involved in building a rocket, the aim is the same: Get the information across as efficiently as possible, in a universally understandable manner. Visuals rely on language and cultural cues significantly less than spoken or written words; in many ways, they’re simply easier for (most people’s) brains to process.