• Disinformation visualization

    February 7, 2014  |  Design

    Mushon Zer-Aviv offers up examples and guidance on lying with visualization.

    We don't spread visual lies by presenting false data. That would be lying. We lie by misrepresenting the data to tell the very specific story we're interested in telling. If this is making you slightly uncomfortable, that's a good thing, it should. If you're concerned about adopting this new and scary habit, well, don't worry, it's not new. Just open your CV to be reminded you've lied with truthful data before. This time however, it will be explicit and visual.

    It comes back to the whole "let the data speak" ideal. Data might have something to say, but the analyst, designer, etc still has to translate, whether that's through statistical methods or visualization. Sometimes meaning gets lost when you're not careful.

  • Loving beautiful things

    February 18, 2013  |  Design

    Lance Hosey, for The New York Times, on design, beauty, and functionality.

    We think of great design as art, not science, a mysterious gift from the gods, not something that results just from diligent and informed study. But if every designer understood more about the mathematics of attraction, the mechanics of affection, all design — from houses to cellphones to offices and cars — could both look good and be good for you.

  • Masterful design of the everyday baggage tag

    October 18, 2012  |  Design

    Pilot Mark Vanhoenacker describes the history and careful design of the everyday baggage tag, from the synthetic material it's printed on, to the information each modern tag contains.

    Just as you can track, step-by-step, a package you’ve sent by FedEx, airlines use bar-coded tags to sort and track bags automatically, through the airport, and across the world. That's a huge change from the old days, when bags were dropped into the "black box" of a manually sorted baggage system. But crucially, an ABT doesn't just contain a bar code—it's also custom-printed with your name, flight details, and destination. That made the global implementation of ABTs much easier, because early-adopters could introduce them long before every airport was ready—a huge advantage when it comes to seamlessly connecting the world's least and most advanced airports. And of course, ABTs can still be read manually when systems break down.

    It's funny how something so commonplace like a sticky loop label goes through these iterations. There are people behind these things who think about the ins and outs of how something works, no matter how small they might seem, so that we don't have to. We just tear them off, toss 'em in the trash, and move on to the next one, because that's what they were made for.

  • Show me something good

    September 24, 2012  |  Design

    Visualization is a great way to explain and describe data to people who don't know data. Good visualization lets the data speak, as they say. But this doesn't mean you shove your data into a program or stick it into a presentation template and expect others to care. You still have to analyze and explore the data yourself, find what's interesting, and you present that.

    "But how do I make this graphic look cool?"

    Tell people something more about the data that isn't just, "Here's the data."

    You could use an obscure visualization method in place of your standard one, but what's the point if you just say the same thing? You might catch an eye or two because of the novelty, but those eyes will bolt just as quickly if there isn't any substance.

    So instead of showing the same non-message in different ways, you iterate. You cut and explore the data in different ways, and you make a lot of graphics that never see the light of day. Many will be ugly, and most of them will be uninteresting, but you might also find something worthwhile. Let that something guide you.

  • Nigel Holmes on explanation graphics and how he got started

    August 1, 2012  |  Design

    Some consider Nigel Holmes, whose work tends to be more illustrative, the opposite of Edward Tufte, who preaches the data ink ratio. Column Five Media asked Holmes about how he works and what got him interested in the genre.

    As a young child in England, I loved the weekly comics "The Beano" and "The Dandy." They were not like American comic books; they were never called "books," for a start. These English comics from the late 1940s and early '50s had recurring one-page (usually funny) stories featuring a cast of regular characters. They had names like Biffo the Bear, Lord Snooty, and Desperate Dan. The comics were printed on poor-quality newsprint, which seemed to go yellow as you were reading it, but there was something very attractive about them.

    I like the small dig on Tufte around the middle, while citing the paper that happens to find that Holmes' graphics were more memorable than basic charts.

    My own work at first was a little too illustrative, and Edward Tufte made a big fuss about what he thought was the trivialization of data. Recent academic studies have proved many of his theses wrong.

    It seems the arguments haven't changed much over the decades.

  • Infographics are like Mother’s Day cards

    July 4, 2012  |  Design

    Stamen Design is the cover story of this month's Icon Magazine. Well deserved. On infographics and the growing number of tools to make them:

    Stamen finds inspiration everywhere, but Rodenbeck hopes that the public will stop conflating infographics with data visualization. "The rise of the infographic as a genre is a little depressing. Back when desktop publishing started, people were worried that there would be no more room for designers, that computers would do all the work for you. But this clearly didn't turn out to be the case." While someone without design training [or skill — E] could make use of desktop publishing to create a holiday card or office leaflet or company newsletter, the band at the top for good designers actually grew. In a similar way, he says, "infographics have become the mother's day cards — the company newsletters — of data visualization."

    It's like that with anything that involves creation really. Someone makes some software so that the computer can do some of the work for you, but it'll never be able to do all the work. R can spit out graphics, but you still have to decide what bits of the output to use and interpret what's in front of you. People find this out and what it takes to make something worthwhile when they try to do it themselves.

    Whenever a new site pops up to make infographic creation a snap, my Twitter feed bubbles with gripes and scoffs. Once all those applications come out of beta though, I think we (the data folk) are still gonna be okay.

  • Analysis versus storytelling

    April 23, 2012  |  Design

    Robert Kosara contrasts my version of the pay gap graphic with the NYT original and notes how small changes make a big difference in how a graphic reads.

    But what Nathan's version is missing is the story. The additional data mostly adds confusion: move your mouse over the year in the lower right, and what do you see? Lots of points are moving around, but there doesn’t appear to be a clear trend. The additional categories are interesting, but what do they add?

    Not much. When I was putting together the graphic, I was hoping for a clear trend — something so obvious that didn't have to be explained. Instead I got fuzzy results. And that's where I stopped. On the other hand, the NYT version explains those fuzzy results, namely the outliers, such as women CEOs who work for non-profits or the greater percentage of men in medical specialties like surgery.

    In analysis, assuming the users are experts of their data, annotation is less important. It's about allowing them to stay nimble and ask/answer a lot of questions. Graphics that tell stories with data, however, already have something interesting to say.

  • Too many axes

    April 11, 2012  |  Design

    Kaiser Fung talks about the suck of overlaying plots to show a relationship.

    When the designer places two series on the same chart, he or she is implicitly saying: there is an interesting relationship between these two data sets.

    But this is not always the case. Two data sets may have little to do with each other. This is especially true if each data set shows high variability over time as in here.

    This seems to happen a lot when people take the data-to-ink ratio too literally or they're trying too hard to be clever within a given space. Overlays work on occasion, but I can't think of any that did off the top of my head. Most of the time it's better to split up the layers into multiple charts.

  • How businesses approach infographics

    April 10, 2012  |  Design

    The Washington Post asked three "young entrepreneurs" how their company uses infographics. They responded with similar sentiments. The first one said:

    Infographics can be great as part of presentations, newsletters or other research content. It keeps people's interest by lending a storytelling and visual element to what can be sterile research.

    The second said:

    Infographics are outstanding for bringing life to content that would otherwise be dry, uninteresting or unshareable.

    And the last one, who to be fair, seems to know more than the first two, said:

    At the end of the day, the main use for infographics is to create content that can potentially go viral and drive traffic, links and exposure to a Web site and the brand.

    If I were new to these infographic things, my main takeaway here would be that they're used to make boring material interesting. Shouldn't it be the other way around though? Information graphics are interesting because their foundations of data and um, information are worth looking at in the first place. Don't fall into the trap of trying to make something "visually compelling" without anything to compel with.

  • Fast and slow visualization

    March 8, 2012  |  Design

    James Cheshire ponders the difference between fast and slow thinking maps, and the dying breed of the latter.

    So do the renowned folks at the NY Times Graphics Dept. prefer fast or slow thinking visualisations? I asked them what they think makes a successful map. Archie Tse said what I hoped he would: the best maps readable, or interpretable, at a number of levels. They grab interest from across the room and offer the headlines before drawing the viewer ever closer to reveal intricate detail. I think of these as rare visualisations for fast and slow thinking. The impact of such excellent maps is manifest by the popularity of atlases and why they inspire so many to become cartographers and/or travel the world.

    A graphic that takes a little while to understand doesn't always mean it was a failure in design. It might mean that the underlying data is hard to understand. Likewise, a graphic that isn't what you expect might let you answer different questions than from the usual standby.

    [Spatial Analysis]

  • Van Gogh for the colorblind

    December 22, 2011  |  Design

    Starry night blind

    After a chat with his color deficient friends about how Vincent van Gogh's paintings seem to appeal to all eyes, Kazunori Asada used visual filters to see how the paintings looked to the colorblind. The experiment produced some interesting results and musings:

    Was van Gogh partially color vision deficiency (anomalous trichromat)? Perhaps using a strong color vision deficiency (dichromat) simulation was the wrong approach. How about carrying out the simulation by removing the middle portion of normal color vision, maybe then I could see van Gogh’s pictures in a better light?

    The color choices for van Gogh's popular paintings seem less out there with the filters. The greens in the sky of Starry Night, for example turn to yellows.

    A colorblind van Gogh though? Probably not. Either way, don't forget to pick your colors wisely. Asada has an easy-to-use tool to see what your own images look like to others.

    [Asada's memorandum]

  • Substratum: A series of interviews with smart people

    December 8, 2011  |  Design

    It's always nice to hear from the people who are the best at what they do. Data visualization studio, Interactive Things has an interview series going, Substratum, that asks designers and artists the same set of questions. The most recent issue is with Amanda Cox from The New York Times and Nicholas Felton, who you know from his annual Feltron reports and now at Facebook.

    Amanda Cox, the chart marker, on how her work and goals have changed over the years:

    At one point — I call it my impressionist phase — I was really interested in making things abstract but interesting and beautiful. And then I had a "curves are fun" phase for a while where I was really into curved things. And then I had an "intentional simplicity" phase for a while, like, how stripped down can you make something and have it still be interesting? I don’t know what my current phase is, but it's kind of an "aspirational reporting" phase. I'm not that great of a reporter yet, but I'm thinking a lot about how we can stop using the same information that's already on the Internet and just remix that. I want to start working with more, deeper information, information that's harder to surface.

    This is coming from someone who has won an international award for being the best. So much to learn, I have.


  • On low-quality infographics

    December 8, 2011  |  Design

    This has been sitting in my drafts folder for a few months. Figured I'd just hit publish and throw it out there.

    Obvious statement: there are infographics that are horribly made. Some are way too big for the information conveyed and others are useless because the creator had no idea what he was doing. Some infographics are both. Here's the thing though. There's plenty of suck of everything online, and yet somehow we manage to find the good resources, applications, and sources of endless entertainment.

    A couple of years ago, infographics spiked and even what seems like subpar work now, passed as amusing at the least. It's like the time on the Web when it was pure awesome to have a site decked out with animated GIFs, blinking backgrounds, and delightful MIDIs that were a treat for the ears. Sites like this still exist — some just as an archive of the past and others by someone learning HTML with a book they checked out from the library — but you'd never mistake one of those sites as an example of great Web or interaction design.
    Continue Reading

  • Significant digits and relevance

    November 8, 2011  |  Design

    Lulu Pinney goes over the subtle art of working with significant digits:

    When we say on the phone "I'll be there in half an hour" it’s quite likely we'll arrive sometime in the next 25 to 35 minutes. But for the context of meeting up with a friend "half an hour" will do. If you said "see you in 27 minutes" that would raise a laugh being an odd level of precision for the given context. The same ideas apply to numbers in journalism.

    Important in both accurate representation of data and readability.

  • The Don’ts of Infographic Design

    October 19, 2011  |  Design


    Written by Amy Balliett of Killer Infographics, the post in question is basically tips for how to create linkbait that doesn't work. Or at least I hope it doesn't.
    Continue Reading

  • 5 misconceptions about visualization

    September 23, 2011  |  Design

    Last month, I had the pleasure of spending a week at the Census Bureau as a "visiting scholar." They're looking to boost their visualization efforts across all departments, and I put in my two cents on how to go about doing it. For being a place where there is so much data, the visual side of things is still in the early stages, generally speaking.

    During all the meetings, there were recurring themes about what visualization is and what it is used for. Some people really got it, but others were new to the subject, and we ran into a few misconceptions that I think are worth repeating.

    Here we go, in no particular order.
    Continue Reading

  • Why learning code for data is worthwhile

    July 12, 2011  |  Design

    There are lots of tools that have come out in the past couple of years that make data easier to handle, analyze, and visualize. Maybe you've used them. I use them all the time. However, no matter what software you use, there is always going to be a limitation in what you can do with it.

    Have you ever been using an application (not just for data) and wished it could do something else? If you want a new feature, you have to wait for someone else to develop it, but if you program, you could implement your own features.

    With a little bit of coding know-how, you gain more flexibility — and a little goes a long way.
    Continue Reading

  • Wow vs. Ah-ha for data graphics

    July 8, 2011  |  Design

    After attending the Eyeo Festival, Zach Gemignani of Juice Analytics noticed a difference in the approach of artists and his own practices with business-related data:

    The artists are looking for an emotional “wow” moment; our goal is the “ah ha” moment when a user learns something that can lead to productive action. The question that we so often ask: “what can you do about it?” wasn’t a top priority within the Eyeo crowd.

    One group is telling a specific story and the other is searching for one. That's not to say that one way or the other is bad, however. Each group can benefit from the other:

    Ultimately this art vs. practice dichotomy is natural and healthy. In our work, we are inspired by the fun and energy expressed in artistic visualizations. Data visualization is a tool that can and should be used differently depending on the purpose and the audience. The skill in using the tool can be appreciated equally across these different contexts.

    There'd be a lot less ruffled feathers if we could all remember that.

    [Juice Analytics]

  • Approaching data, a UX perspective

    June 8, 2011  |  Design

    UX designer and consultant, Hunter Whitney, describes a good mindset as you start digging into data, with the end target of visualization. "Why might you want to collect data about something and are you sure you know what you really need? ... How are the data stored? ... How are they summarized (statistically) and modified? ... How are the charts displayed, formatted, and presented in the context of the full interface?"

    [UX Magazine | Thanks, Elise]

  • Chart doesn’t work for colorblind

    February 2, 2011  |  Design

    Colorblind comparison

    In regards to a performance chart posted by Netflix, Andy Baio, who along with around 7 percent of men, is colorblind, explains why it's so hard to read the chart. "When doing the right thing is this easy, it's really disturbing when it's dismissed as a waste of time."


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