Collapsing the dimensions of communication space

In June, I was lucky enough to attend Information+, a phenomenal data visualization and information design conference at Emily Carr University. One of the keynote speakers was Colin Ware, renowned for his pioneering work on visual thinking and cognitive processing. At the end of Ware’s talk, Yanni Loukissas, assistant professor of digital media at Georgia Tech, asked him: “Don’t we have an ethical obligation to consider people who have colourblindness or stereoblindness in our visualizations?”

Ware responded, “As a designer, I always want to use of all of design space,” suggesting that limiting the palette only to the colours that people with colourblindness can discern, for example, would be too restrictive.

I’ll come back to Ware’s comment in a bit, but first I want to focus on the concept of design space, which refers to the universe of choices—media, typeface, type size, colour, and so on—available to the designer. The metaphor doesn’t tend to be used outside of design, which is a pity, because it’s handy. I’ve found it useful to think of design space as a subset of communication space, which itself is a subset of creation space.

Creation space is the universe of options available to you when you decide to create something, and it starts out with infinite dimensions. At that moment, your options are limitless.

T-shirt with an illustration of a man in a suit pointing behind him with this thumb and caption that reads, "I went to Hilbert space and all I got was this lousy T-shirt."
T-shirt from the Canadian Undergraduate Physics Journal, 2003. Hilbert space is an infinite-dimensional vector space. Design by D. Zeibin.

Once you decide to create some type of communication, you collapse some of those dimensions and restrict yourself to the smaller communication space. Here are some of its features:

  1. Communication space is infinite.

Although you’ve limited your creation to something meant to send a message or convey information, communication space itself still has infinite dimensions, and the possibilities for your communication are endless: you could imagine skywriting a letter to your sister in Hindi, for example, or making a video of a racoon you’ve taught to use British Sign Language. Some of those dimensions are continuous (like type size), and some of them are discrete (like the set of typefaces). But once you start making decisions about what and how you want to communicate, you begin to shed some of those dimensions.

  1. Your communication occupies a subset of communication space, the boundaries of which are defined by a multitude of constraints.

Some constraints you control and others are imposed. Examples of the latter might be your budget, your schedule, the laws of physics, government censorship, and so on. You collapse the dimensions of communication space when you decide what media, what cultural context, what shapes, hues, sounds, textures, tastes to use. You further refine your choices by limiting each of those dimensions to a feasible range (like, say, only wavelengths in the visible spectrum).

A series of random green shapes superimposed on a set of axes. One blob is labelled "language," another "culture," and a third "media." There are several unlabelled blobs.
I can’t draw in infinite dimensions, so I’ll trust you to use your imagination. The green blobs represent your communication’s collective subspace in the larger communication space. (By the way, I’m hoping these illustrations will clarify the sometimes abstract concepts only; don’t read too much into location, size, and shape of blobs I use.)

Ultimately, you define your subspace when you decide that you want your communication to be effective. Which is why I’m communicating this information via blog post rather than a series of armpit farts in Morse code.

  1. The various dimensions aren’t necessarily independent, and parts of your subspace can be interconnected in unexpected ways.

In reality, the axes defining communication space are skewed, so a choice in one dimension may affect or restrict your choices in another. For print media, for example, page size will affect the range of type size you can use, and the type of paper you select will affect texture. Reducing one part of your communication subspace may expand another, kind of like squeezing a half-filled balloon: choosing to restrict your vocabulary by not using a racist term or homophobic slur, for example, could broaden the cultural part of your subspace.

The same green blobs superimposed on a skewed set of axes. The text says, "Squeezing this bit," pointing to a small bit of the language blob, "might expand this bit," pointing to an enlarged portion of the culture blob.
The axes don’t always meet at 90 degrees, and changing one part of your communication’s subspace can change the size and shape of other parts.
  1. Each member of your target audience inhabits their own part of communication space.

A series of purple blobs superimposed on the same set of skewed axes. One blob is labelled "language," another "culture," and a third "media." They are different shapes compared with the green blobs, and they are bigger.
The purple blobs are an audience member’s communication subspace. Each person’s subspace is different.
  1. To communicate with an audience member, your communication’s subspace and their subspace must overlap in key ways.

No communication happens if there’s not enough overlap.

The purple blobs and the green blobs on the same set of axes. The language blobs overlap. The media blobs do not overlap.
If your communication is in a medium the audience member doesn’t use, the message doesn’t get through.

Miscommunication happens when the intent of the message and the interpretation of the message come from different parts of communication space.

Focusing on the blobs labelled "culture," the purple and green blobs overlap but not completely. The text says, "You think you're reaching them here," pointing to a section of overlap, "but they're interpreting from here," pointing to a section of purple blob with no overlap.
A cultural mismatch is a common reason for miscommunication.

Although you have control over most aspects of your communication’s subspace, you have little control over your audience member’s subspace. You can ask your audience member to expand their communication subspace to meet yours, but it can be an imposition, and they may not heed your call. In other words, it’s really the communicator’s job to create something that will meet audience members where they are. “You just don’t get it” and “You’re not the target audience” are common excuses communicators use not to be as clear and inclusive as possible.

  1. Intermediaries can help overcome deficits in subspace overlap.

Translators, interpreters, and assistive technology can extend your communication’s subspace into your audience member’s or extend your audience member’s subspace into yours.

The text reads, "A translator can expand your communication's subspace to overlap with this user's space," pointing to an enlarged part of the "language" blob, which now overlaps with a blue blob, representing a user speaking a different language. Another bit of text says, "Assistive technology can make your media accessible to this other user," pointing to an enlarged portion of the purple "media" blob that now overlaps with the green media blob.
For example, a screen reader to turn written words into sound can make a message accessible to someone who has a print disability.

What matters is the overlap between your communication’s subspace and your audience member’s subspace. Your own subspace may inform your communication’s subspace but is largely irrelevant. It’s completely possible for someone to create a communication in a subspace that they don’t inhabit themselves, as long as they’re careful to use intermediaries who know what they’re doing.

Communication subspaces can exclude just as easily as they can include. Deliberately shrinking your communication’s subspace is fine if your goal is to talk only to a specific in-group but is counterproductive if you want the widest reach.

  1. Communication subspaces are always changing.

Words are coined or fall into disuse. New technologies create new media and platforms. An audience member may learn new words, learn a new language, or lose their hearing. A person’s communication subspace can change from one minute to the next, depending on where they are focusing their attention. What matters is the overlap of subspaces at the moment of communication.

  1. There are dimensions of communication space we haven’t discovered yet.

Developments in science and technology may one day give us efficient ways to communicate with people who are nonverbal. And eventually, we may find a way to understand animal language.


The closing keynote at the Information+ conference was Gregor Aisch, graphics editor at the New York Times, who talked primarily about the challenges of having to design for print, desktop, and mobile. With the growth of mobile-only readers, he’s had to give up some types of visualizations he loves creating because they work poorly on the small screen. In essence, he has had to sacrifice some of his communication subspace for commercial reasons—which brings me back to Colin Ware’s comment, in which he showed a reluctance to make a comparable sacrifice for inclusivity.

To be clear, I have tremendous respect for Ware’s contribution to the information design field, but his remark demonstrates that the constraints you put on your communication subspace reflect your priorities, and you will be judged on those priorities and choices.

This point applies to inclusive language as well as inclusive design choices. I can see how pointing out that a term is offensive to a particular group could be misinterpreted as censorship: it feels like an external restriction on your communication subspace. It’s not—you’re free to keep your subspace as is and continue using that term—but people will judge you for it. In fact, you’ve always been judged, and suggesting that you take more care with your choice of words merely made you aware of that judgment.

And I get it—breaking up with words (or designs) isn’t easy. I’ve heard the argument that people who complain about the culture of political correctness simply aren’t creative enough, but I like to cut them a little slack. When I committed a while back to scrubbing my language of sanist terminology, it took me a while to figure out what to use in its place. I understand the desire to cling to pet words and phrases because they are funny, evocative, convenient.

Fortunately, communication space is infinite, with dimensions we haven’t explored to their fullest. There is always more than one way to say something. Some ways are humorous, some are boring, some are sanctimonious, and some are provocative. Some will make a person’s day; others will wreck it.

Being inclusive may involve simple adjustments, or it may involve more substantive changes to communication space—coining words, using different sensory channels (like sonification instead of visualization), and developing new assistive technologies. Inclusive practices might seem to limit certain aspects of subspace, but it can vastly expand others, leading to a net gain in reach.

2 thoughts on “Collapsing the dimensions of communication space”

  1. Thanks for this, Iva! I’m curious: How did you choose to focus on language/culture/media? Did you consider other options?

    I like the way you did it. It’s a very useful way to look at communication and inclusion. Also delighted that you’re discussing how communication and writing are all about choices and decisions. So key, but so rarely discussed.

    Thanks again for this post: Excellent thoughts, excellent read!

    1. Thanks, Dominique! I chose language, culture, and media because they helped me illustrate miscommunication and the roles of intermediaries. You’re right that I could have chosen any number of dimensions—it’d be interesting to examine specific dimensions in more detail.

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