Q. How did your love of infographics begin?

October 3, 2010  |  Ask FlowingData

Matthew asks:

You say that you blog for fun and out of love for the subject. What kind of infographics give you the most pleasure? Are there kinds of infographics that you look for but don't see?

How did your love of infographics begin?

Also, the recent documentary on info visualization "Journalism in the age of data" raised the question of how infographics can succeed in being beautiful without helping the reader gain insight into the data. As someone motivated by pleasure in infographics, does this concern you? Do you find yourself taking pleasure in this type of work? Can infographics that fail as knowledge tools succeed as art/design? Or when you speak of relishing infographics, are you referring to the pleasure of insight? To belabor this a bit: do you glean more delight from work that is beautiful or that yields insight?

My interest with data graphics goes all the way back to the fourth grade when I first learned how to make a bar chart in Excel. It was for my science fair project on what surface snails moved on the fastest (it was glass). Nothing fancy, and it was probably all default settings, but for some reason, that was fun to me.

However, I didn't start to take things seriously until graduate school. Before then, graphics were just something you put in reports to show your results. I saw this lecture though on the presentation/exploration of data from a design and media arts perspective. Specifically, I remember seeing Bradford Paley's TextArc, and it was like seeing data in a completely different light. It was less... mechanical. I googled visualization right when I got home.

Graphic design came into the picture for me as a necessity when I started a summer internship at The New York Times, and it's stuck with me ever since. I saw how good design and thoughtful analysis can go together beautifully. And that's the type of work that interests me the most.

Oftentimes a graphic will be beautifully designed but lack depth, while other times a graphic seems like an afterthought to a thorough analysis. That's not to say I can't appreciate the two separately though. It's just that it's rare to see both together, so I appreciate those types of graphics that much more.

From an analysis standpoint, I don't necessarily look for work from a professionally-trained statistician. Really, just some editorial oversight. No one needs to see twenty pie charts of random stats mashed together.

As for data art vs. visualization, it comes down to purpose. If the work is hanging in an art gallery, you should expect more efforts towards aesthetics. It's usually more about feelings and reflection than it is about analytical insight. If it's in the news, then it's going to have to be more quantitative, obviously. And if it's in a scientific report, even more so. Take that stuff into account, and as long as some basic rules are adhered to, then I'm pretty openminded about what qualifies as great work.

In the end, the graphics that I love the most are the ones that tell a good story. Or in the words of my favorite statistician, John Tukey:

The greatest value of a picture is when it forces us to notice what we never expected to see.

Thanks to Matthew for sending in the question. Do you have a question? I'll try to answer it. Send it my way to [email protected].

4 Comments

  • Good questions, Good answers!
    Now I have one for Matthew: Should the value of a given infographic be judged in context to its purpose or simply on its general aesthetic qualities?

  • Hi Mac,

    I don’t have any answer for you. I think that critique from the video is dead on – many info graphics are spectacular but not illuminating – but I don’t have a horse in that race. I’m personally far more drawn to the art side of the equation.

    Having said that, I don’t think it is an accident how successful many data visualizations are as art. There’s an interplay between the the info designer’s approach and the outcome of beauty. For one thing, I think the thoughtful designer is reverse-engineering the reader’s brain, thinking about how our brains visually uptake information. The motivation is practical, but it leads the designer down paths trodden by artists.

    Take, for example, Edward Tufte’s dictum: “Maximize the data-to-ink ratio.” This coincides neatly with an Art History cliche: “(S)he wasted no stroke of the brush, etc.”

    Anyhow, I think these are fun questions to consider, that educating the mind and delighting it are indelibly interwoven pursuits.

  • Matthew,

    Your response is better than having an answer:)

    I’m really looking forward to how all of this is applied in many fields. It’s eclectic, stimulating, and endlessly interesting. It’s inspiring to see the sense of purpose on the faces in Geoff McGhee’s documentary.

    I think it is extremely important to identify, validate, and celebrate the designs that work and at the same time consider and appreciate the artistry as all of us will benefit as the process evolves and diversifies. I also hope the trends regarding the tools of the designers and artists remain open and diverse. I hope that those creating these new communications take the hard road as opposed to the easy path or the high road. There are too many variables to consider in the craft to be lead down a proprietary development path.

    With that said, I do support the idea of using entry-level tools as pathways for the masses to discover and manipulate data. Data grammar and visual literacy will grow with both awareness and access to great examples.

    Geoff McGhee’s documentary, especially in its online context is a hyper-resource for those examples. Flowing data is another. Thanks to all of you for sharing these resources.

    • Mac – thank you for the reference to the documentary. I’ve created primitive data visualization methods ad hoc for a decade and have been doing some more determined research in the area to bring myself up with the state of the art. I was all over Tufte and I continue to learn. Great stuff here to everyone to contributes!

      Lisa

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