Carefully visualised data can be a joy to engage with. Even a basic bar chart provides our minds with the opportunity to explore and examine information in a way that words alone can’t.
There is great pleasure to be found, and new truths to be discovered in thoughtful combinations of patterns, colours, shapes, sizes, words and numbers. Indeed, their message can often feel more powerful because we are uncovering the information ourselves.
And with time being such a precious resource for all of us, a well designed visualisation that gives us powerful new insights in seconds can feel like a much desired shortcut.
Such power and pleasure is what lies behind the work of data-journalist and information designer David McCandless. Quite a few of us at Signal are fans of David’s, so we jumped at the chance to attend his recent workshop dedicated to conceptualising and producing data visualisation.
He took us through his process; from the importance of finding a strong initial question to build the research on, to choosing the correct format, and techniques for visually encoding and representing the information.
In following such a process, stories can often be told in a way that words alone may have to explain. McCandless’ ‘Billion Dollar Gram’ is a great example of this:
Beyond a certain threshold, big numbers can become impossible to grasp. But a simple visual treatment can provide a wider context that puts each figure into proportion, helping us draw comparisons and create our own stories and meanings. Most strikingly, contrasting colours help highlight startling discrepancies between what we spend on war, the environment and foreign aid.
But care needs to be taken. When encoding information with visual techniques, detail can be glossed over due to misleading design decisions. Even more worryingly, we can be persuaded by statistics of questionable origin. As Giorgia Lupi explains in her TED talk, oversimplified data led to an inaccurate reflection of the voters intentions in the 2016 US presidential elections, giving a false impression of public feeling. Data is not infallible, and its interpretation needs to take into account any imperfections and be sensitive to human nuance.
Similarly, designers and data journalists need to check their allegiances, particularly when formulating visualisations which are more language based, such this depiction of the political left and right, also by David McCandless:
At the workshop McCandless spoke about needing to check and recheck his language in this piece. He was well aware that his own political and ideological opinions could influence his reporting, and the way he was positing the two ends of this spectrum against each other.
The same tension can also arise when trying to balance the need to tell an accurate story and an engaging one. At either end of this spectrum there are different types of associated representations.
For instance, a bar chart can be seen as a solidly objective and rigorous method of encoding information, whereas a less structured infographic can incorporate many aspects of visual communication and is open to flair and editorial artistry. Both, however, are valid players in the information design world.
I was inspired by the workshop to put together my own visualisation exploring the spectrum of choices that are apparent when designing information:
Thinking about data visualisation in this way highlights the need to choose visual techniques which align with our overall intention. Interestingly for the digital space, by incorporating interaction and allowing the user to take control, a good balance is naturally found between the need to engage and present the facts.
By introducing filters and enabling the data as a navigable entity, stories can become personal to individual interest. You may not have seen all the films listed in McCandless's analysis of ‘true story’ films, but you can change the results according to what’s of interest to you.
In its many varied forms, data-vis can can be a great content ally in this attention-zapped, noisy world. It can cut straight to the heart of your message and compel your reader to think and feel differently, and even prompt them to take action in response. And we are always on the lookout for opportunities to encourage these kind of 'aha moments' for our clients and their audiences.
Do you need a new perspective on a complex challenge? Get in touch if you'd like to chat about how we can help.