Featured Product
This Week in Quality Digest Live
Innovation Features
Having more pixels could advance everything from biomedical imaging to astronomical observations
Chris Caldwell
Significant breakthroughs are required, but fully automated facilities are in the future
Leah Chan Grinvald
Independent repair shops are fighting for access to vehicles’ increasingly sophisticated data
Adam Zewe
How do these systems differ from other AI?
Chris Anderson
How this technology drives transformational change

More Features

Innovation News
Easy to use, automated measurement collection
A tool to help detect sinister email
Funding will scale Aigen’s robotic fleet, launching on farms in spring 2024
High-end microscope camera for life science and industrial applications
Three new models for nondestructive inspection
Machine learning identifies flaws in real time
Developing tools to measure and improve trustworthiness
Advancing additive manufacturing

More News

Jeff Dewar


The Glory of Vision

We’re equipped with a data input tool of enormous bandwidth

Published: Thursday, October 19, 2017 - 11:03

This photo shows the Milky Way (from the Latin via lactea), part of our galaxy as seen from Earth. It’s a barred spiral galaxy, essentially a flat disk of at least 100 billion stars. Our galaxy is just one of about 400 billion in the universe, only three of which can be seen by the naked eye. Which means almost everything we see unaided is part of our own Milky Way.

That ribbon of “milk” that forms the Milky Way is composed of stars that can’t be distinguished from each other by looking with the naked eye. It was only resolved into individual stars by Galileo in 1610 with his new telescope. The reason it looks like a ribbon is because we are inside the disk, looking out. Think of yourself inside a faintly colored white glass plate, inside a black room. As you look out through the plane of the plate, you see a white ribbon on a black background.

The Milky Way: Inside, looking out

The Milky Way’s size is unimaginably huge, as are all galactic distances. It is 100,000 light years in diameter, with a black hole likely at the center. Our little solar system is about 35,000 light years from the center, so any light hitting our eyes tonight left there at about the time the last Neanderthal took his final breath.

When I take a backpacking trip and am favored with high elevation, clear skies, and enough distance from man-made light pollution, I stay up half the night just staring, watching the constellations pass overhead (thank you, Sky Map, and Google for donating and open-sourcing it). It’s a show that doesn’t stop throughout the night, and causes me to ponder how the ancients came up with the names of the stars, their constellations, and what they must have been thinking, given that they knew almost nothing of the reality of what they were looking at.

Vision. Everything I just described is about the glory of vision and what it brings to our consciousness, and especially our comprehension. How could you use words to describe the magnificence of the moving night sky to someone blind from birth? How can you explain it? Color, depth, intensity, distance, shapes, movement, density: The amount of information absorbed is staggering.

Input vs. output

Elon Musk (Tesla, Solar City, Hyperloop, SpaceX, PayPal, etc.) is perhaps a modern version of Ayn Rand’s Hank Reardon (although Musk has been cited as an inspiration for the Iron Man movies, a modern-day Tony Stark). Musk has often said that the problem with our ability to communicate is with our output bit rate, which is limited by our “meat sticks” (fingers), i.e., typing on a keyboard. As dictation technology improves, written communication speed will increase, although maybe by just double that of typing. But input... that’s a different story. As Musk says, we have an enormous inbound bandwidth, primarily due to vision.

Elon Musk: Output and meat sticks

Of course, reading is done through one’s vision, and some of us can read at rates that are double, triple, quadruple, or more the speed of speaking or typing. Nevertheless, for the purposes of this article, I’m referring to the data that vision receives largely outside the written word.


Static pictures are powerful communicators in their own right. If you’ve ever assembled an Ikea product, there’s barely any text in the manual, and there’s not much to them. Yet, I find their instruction manuals to be the most complete assembly instructions I’ve ever worked with.

Ikea’s comprehensive and comprehensible assembly instructions

Brilliant! Right down to illustrating the right way and wrong way (with a big X across the wrong way), the use of shading to indicate the correct side of the panels, detail zoom-in, alignment lines, etc. Ikea’s investment in these diagrams instills more confidence in the consumer and illustrates the path to quicker assembly, using our most powerful data input tool—vision.


When I hear someone say, “Yeah, I had to replace my garbage disposal last weekend,” and I ask, “How much did the plumber cost?” I hear, “I didn’t use a plumber; I found a three-minute video on YouTube, and it explained what to do.” Then I ask, “Why didn’t you download the product manual?” Answer: “I did, but it’s quicker to watch a video, and you can see what it’s all about. Sometimes I don’t understand what a manual is talking about, and there’s usually not enough good pictures.”

So there it is. Vision. Photography, as powerful as it is, is static observation, but video, is “moving” photography. A photo is a snapshot in time. Video is 25 photos per second, plus audio.

A nearly universal filter that is applied to finding a YouTube video is the running time of the video. People want information that is concise, direct, and to the point, and don’t want to hear anyone babbling on. The image to the right is a list of videos (111,000 came up in the YouTube search) with their running time. How many people do you think start with the longest one, wanting all the information they can possibly get? Not many. We usually want the greatest input of data in the shortest possible time, i.e., a short video.

YouTube’s running-time icons

My kids recently impressed me with their knowledge about repairing a car stereo, and I teased them by asking when they got so smart. Their smart-alecky answer? “We’re experts now. We watched a 30-second tutorial on YouTube.” It’s become part of the culture.

Quality, kaizen, lean, and continuous improvement

Quality, kaizen, lean, and continuous improvement are intimately intertwined with vision. Visual management, visual workplaces, visual controls, and visual factories are all part of the landscape. But the opportunity is very simple. As my colleague Gwen Galsworth, an expert in visual thinking, says, “Let the workplace speak to your eyes.” For purposes of improvement, she has taught me to ask a very simple question: “Can a text-based narrative (e.g, a report) be converted to a visual signal, delivered in real-time, with all the glorious data inherent in using vision, to the people who can use it to add value?” Similarly, can verbal instructions be transformed into visual ones?

In most situations, yes, any verbal or text-based information can be transformed into visual data. But in many ways it requires thinking like an artist. In other words, how can you convey an idea, instruction, or question (a form of inspection, perhaps?) into something visual?

An artist can imagine how he will transform a blank canvas into an enchanting portrait. Many have said the incredible Yuehua He’s portraits are so realistic they look like photographs. Watch how he unveils the many layers of construction of his art; it’s simply unbelievable. (It’s eight minutes long, but just skip along; you’ll get the idea.)

If we could only grasp a tiny fraction of what he sees, and apply that to our workplaces, it would change the world.

When I visit a workplace, I am often asked how it could be improved. My response is simple: “Can your team use their vision to understand what’s happening, to see what they must do, how they are performing, and where the problems are?” The managers will often give a couple of examples of visual management in action, but then all I have to do is ask an employee to show me something she deals with day in and day out, and invariably, it does not have a visual component to it. If the issue occurs all the time, why not use vision to address it?

Final thought

A friend suggested that we’ve become lazy and instead of applying ourselves to deciphering the written word, we’re taking the easy way out using illustrations and video. I don’t buy it. Since Homo sapiens first walked the planet perhaps 100,000 years ago, our species has used vision for our greatest data input. Only now do we have the technological tools that truly amplify the power of vision to communicate.


About The Author

Jeff Dewar’s picture

Jeff Dewar

Jeff Dewar is CEO of Millennium 360 Inc., Quality Digest’s parent company. During his career he has presented quality-related topics to thousands of people on six continents, all but Antarctica.



All things come full circle... the earliest "written" communication is found in cave art... pictures of the hunt, the battle, etc. With the passage of time, detail became suplanted by pictographs or icons and later words. (Now being supplanted by emoticons.)

Some future archeologist will wonder what ☻❃ಠ⌣ಠ☕☂

Great example!

And a good laugh at that last sentence! Thanks.