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A labyrinthine journey – visualizing qualitative data

22 January 2015 - IN coding, data, design, frequency, graphic, PhD, qualitative, visualizations, word

In design, we espouse iterative discovery. And yet design research often adopts a conventional linear approach: an investigation followed by its exposition. Another self-contained entry on an academic résumé.

Listening to the echoes

But I’ve found that if I listen to the echoes of my own research, there are hooks for further exploration and fresh re-tellings.

That’s how an open discussion amongst senior educators at an annual conference ended-up as a graphic labyrinth at the following year’s conference.

I conducted an open-discussion during which twenty five senior educators related their own journeys of employability. The participants knew that the themes of the discussion were to be become a graphic design.

Graphic by design

Whilst infographics are well established in conveying quantitative data, I was curious to explore how graphics might deal with qualitative themes. The graphic design process has research at its heart - about the audience, the form, the medium, and the message. Designers’ intuition and experience provide shortcuts, but I wanted high-fidelity of the meanings of the discussion - within a single design. A graphic poster, perhaps?

The poster is a classic form of graphic communication, and a mainstay of the liminal spaces of academic conferences. But the wordy conventions of the academic poster seldom utilise the powerful potential of the medium. Often a composition of enlarged typed pages or shrunken slides end-up ill-suited to their new purpose. Their audience have other activities competing for their attention - drink, food, networking, or simply passing quickly between by adjacent presentations.


I had previously used NVivo to code photographs of shop windows for a multimedia exploration, but that analysis had been semantic - words rather than meanings. In that previous endeavour the shop window photos provided visual interest, but in this research I was creating it afresh from the emergent themes. NVivo provided the pathway from the semantics of my audio recording to the semiotics of my graphic design.

It elicited the meanings and undertones that my design would need to convey.

The process was lengthy but simple in NVivo, beginning with transcription of the audio. Initial coding of the text provided first crude indications, followed by a period of merging of codes into analogous themes. A quick sort of frequency provided clear indications of the top emergent themes. Amongst them were ‘Dissonances’, ’Twists & Turns’, and ’Risk & Resilience’. These were the key messages for my promised graphic.


The NVivo qualitative analysis confirmed my initial sense of the emergent themes, and strengthened my conviction for the message of the design process. After research around labyrinths and red thread, I decided these represented well the quest and voyage implied by the themes.

The words of the journey of each discussant would form the red threads through twenty five interwoven labyrinths. Each would converging to a central point representing the time and place of the discussion itself. The A0 (84cm x 118cm) design also incorporated a hierarchy of the most significant emergent themes. And it was accepted as a poster at the following year’s conference from which it was derived. Because of its scale, a series of postcards with extracts of the design were provided as take-aways too.

Was it successful? Well, it managed to combine the original data set and the high-level analysis of its themes in an impactful design. One might argue that it doesn’t provide opportunity to delve into where each and every theme occurs in the text - but then neither does a traditional academic paper. So how might it have been developed further?

One option would be to create interactivity - the audience able to touch a theme in the design to highlight the appropriate coding of text. Another, to recreate the design on a very large scale so that people could walk through the data. Create literal research impact by the audience trampling over the words themselves - renegotiating the life pathways of the participants. I pursued this option, and lined-up a manufacturer to digitally print an 8x5 metre carpet, but alas couldn’t extend to its £1,500 GBP production.

So given that my field is graphic design, are these valid terminal outputs of research? Or does the source research and its themes require the conventional form of expositional prose? The audience were split, also providing an opinion that the production of the poster should form the basis of an academic paper. This was particularly resonant to me because my PhD is by practice. So how about a compromise? My poster remains as terminal output with the reassurance that it was based on strong qualitative analysis through NVivo, and then I write a blog post about its production. Sorted.

You can hear Ian Sharman's latest talk on education at Creative Mornings - a breakfast lecture series for the creative community.