Prof. Pieter Adriaans: New skills required for processing information

In the past few decades, our world has become much more complex, but our brain hasn’t evolved during all these years. If you’re an employee or a manager, how can you deal with the increasing amount of (visual) information? And how do you convert the right information into knowledge and insight?

Pieter Adriaans, a professor of computer science at the University of Amsterdam who specializes in AI and data mining, has considered these questions – but not only as a scientist.
Since he’s also a painter, he thoroughly understands how to transmit visual information and what technology’s role could be in doing so. Cornelis Bonnet (Texas Digital) sat down and talked with him.
One hundred years ago, people might see ten paintings over the course of their lives, and each would leave an impression on them. The modern man, however, is constantly swamped with an excess of images that barely register.
Therefore, today’s artists face the challenge of reaching – not to mention shocking – their audiences in visual ways, says Pieter Adriaans. In this context, their choice of topic and style of portraying are more important than ever.
According to Prof. Adriaans, we require new skills at the receiving end. Curiosity used to be a prerequisite for learning, but today, it mainly increases the manager’s risk of drowning in information. There is no doubt that we require new skills to process the current excess of information. A crucial new competence is the ability to filter information – by tailoring it to your objectives, for example. The capacity to assess information is also increasingly important.

New skills for processing information

Filtering has to do with the choices you make – with what you want to show. Or, as Adriaans puts it: information becomes meaningful when you connect it to actions or goals. But once you’ve selected and presented the right, relevant information, how can you entice people to look at it and use it? “Information can provide an overall view, and you can look at the details. In art, you’re also dealing with details – such as the nose, eyes, and mouth, which are parts of a portrait. Yet you can only see the whole when you take a step back and look at it from a distance. Even if the parts are perfect, the whole can still seem unreal. Our eyesight allows us to perceive that at lightning speed.” Adriaans literally steps back to look at a new work of art from a distance, adopting a fresh perspective – a day later, for example.


Our eyesight consists of two parts: central vision, which allows us to see most details, and peripheral vision (which causes us to see less details and hardly any colors). However, it plays an important role when we want to perceive in the dark or detect movement. On the other hand, people’s perceiving ability increases when they move their eyes a lot (in addition to blinking). A signal color such as red is particularly well perceived because of our central vision and attracts our attention. This property is used in art, but it’s also deployed to optimize visual information provision within organizations or for consumers.

Effects of color use

Adriaans explains that even color combinations can have very specific effects. You often see warm colors at the forefront and cold colors in the background. When a cold color (blue, dark green, purple) is surrounded by a warm color (yellow, orange, red), the image is seen as a button; when it’s the other way around, it’s perceived as a hole. Besides this physical logic, the observer’s attention can be further enhanced by working with creative solutions. These require you to consider which information you want to convey in what way.
Adriaans associates creativity with ‘uncertainty:’ nothing new and unique can ever arise if you don’t allow for uncertainty, which is crucial to the distinction between craft and art. According to Adriaans, craft prioritizes a predictable end product, whereas art doesn’t have a predetermined outcome.

‘Actionable information’

In business, you can collaborate with the end user to fulfill the role of creativity in the development of visual information provision. Here’s what remains paramount: the intended recipient should embrace the information. Many other aspects play a role, too. Our short-term memory, for example, which allows us to remember five to nine elements, also known as ‘the magic number seven.’ Or the role and relevance of information in the form of key figures: KPIs, for example, are only meaningful if they tell you something about processes which you can influence.

Information provision affects processes

KPIs can also encourage wrong behavior – just think of the watermelon KPI (green on the outside, but red on the inside). If, for instance, you focus on average call duration in a contact center, using it as a parameter to assess and remunerate employees, chances are that quality will decrease. Things will also go awry if you remunerate individual employees based on a general NPS, as the agent can only minimally influence this score. The same applies to showing abandoned calls on a wall board: it’s information an employee can’t translate into actions. In other words, if you commit to information provision, you need to consider processes and objectives.
Author & Images: Erik Bouwer. Published: July 17, 2019,
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