Data visualisation can be fun, but remember to convey the information

I presume we’ve all heard the saying that ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’? This isn’t meant to be taken literally of course. Some pictures are decorative, some merely set a mood — but some really do convey information.
The point behind this somewhat overused statement is to underline the communication value of imagery, in a sense the importance of showing as well as telling. This is highly regarded in teaching; ‘multiple learning styles’ is a common education mantra and it makes a lot of sense. Not only do different people favour different ways of learning information and ideas, we all tend to learn faster when we absorb stuff in multiple formats. And of course graphic ways of representing information can be very effective and memorable.

(Okay, I know I said that the ‘1000 words’ thing isn’t to be taken literally, but there is one way that it can be: in terms of freelance rates. It is roughly true, in many publications, that a single graphic — photo, illustration, whatever — will earn the creator roughly as the same as the rate for writing words to fill the same space. A thousand words is around a page and a half in MacUser and many other magazines… and the fee for writing that is similar to the fee for producing an image to fill that space. Of course that’s really just a distraction here, but it might be of personal interest to freelance writers and designers.)

The most informative pictures don’t exactly replace words, they embody them. If you want to see images that really pack textual information into visual form do a quick search online for infographics. These things are graphic representations of information (hence the rather obvious name), created to show information clearly and in broadly graspable forms. The simplest infographics deal with basic concepts, symbols that represent statements or instructions such as Stop, Haircut, or Men At Work. These are so familiar that we translate these without pausing for thought. In a sense they become the concept they represent without the intermediary of textual language.

The Italian sign indicates “caduta massi da sinistra”, which means falling rocks to the left. If this was in words I’d be none the wiser.

More complex infographics are often used in maps, the logical simplification of data being the key to how complex spatial information is digested into regularised 2D graphics. Our modern handling of maps was kicked off in the early 1930s by Harry Beck, an engineering draftsman in the London Underground Signals Office. It began as a personal project (much like many of Google’s offerings), and in 1933 it was presented to the public in folded map form with a short message on the front asking for feedback. It was an immediate success. Despite throwing out any attempt at representing real geographic distance between stations, the simple, circuitboard-like design conveyed the core information far more clearly than any previous design. Beck eventually taught typographics and colour design at the London School of Printing (now London College of Communication), and his map design became one of the single most influential pieces of graphic design ever. Practically every modern transit map in the world draws directly from his London Underground map design ideas.

Pre-Beck: Before Harry Beck’s redesign in 1931, the maps of London’s ‘underground railways’ were geographically accurate but visually very complex.

Today infographics are everywhere, but they’re hardly new. Medieval icons were a kind of infographic, although they weren’t done to convey statistical data in visual form. To the original users these were a kind of visual story-telling. A typical icon would present a religious concept and often a situation that people could ‘read’, even if they were illiterate in the normal sense. The use of colours, the positions of items and their size, the depicted gestures and so on would have strong, codified but decipherable meanings. Tellingly, Byzantine artists used to speak of ‘writing’ icons rather than painting them. This can be a difficult area to research, but if you want a good place to start then look for Linette Martin’s book, Sacred Doorways: A Beginner’s Guide to Icons.

Back in the present, if you consider tag clouds to qualify as forms of infographic then the whole thing comes full circle. A tag cloud is a pile of words, each scaled, coloured and/or tinted according to frequency, importance or some other metric. These take textual data and represent it in graphic-driven type form, possibly the purest and certainly the simplest way of conveying rich information graphically. They were in vogue online for a while as representations of search terms or blog keyword tags, but recently their use has lessened. Getting a tag cloud onto your site can be a little on the fiddly side, largely because you need to hook it into a dynamic source of data. Creating a tag cloud-like graphic in print is much simpler because you don’t need to accommodate dynamic updating of the cloud contents. As with all data-rich forms of infographic, you’ll need to collate your data, work out the numeric ranges, decide how you’ll represent it (how the data range will be represented visually) – and then get funky with lots of different bits of type. It is generally easiest to do this in Illustrator, but QuarkXPress and InDesign are also useful.

Distorting well-known shapes to demonstrate data is a common trick used in cartographic data visualisation. This shows the relative GDP for different countries.

Going deeper into infographic creation, dealing with full-blown data visualisation, is definitely a job for Adobe Illustrator, as you’ll be creating and customising possibly very complex graphics. The real trick, though, lies in finding or gathering the data in the first place, in Numbers or, if you prefer, in Excel, then organising it and deciding how you’ll use it.

The GDP map example by Rekacewicz et al (source: bit.ly/eTIswo) takes the various countries of the world and scales them up or down using pinch and bloat graphic filters to produce a world map with countries scaled and coloured using a normalised form of their relative GDP per capita. Presented as regular numbers this would send most people to sleep, and even as a bar chart it would be tedious. This graphic is a clever way to present fairly dull, dry data in an instantly graspable form. True, as with most infographics this sacrifices numerical precision for visual impact. If this was a plain numeric list you’d have accurate figures — but you’d probably be too bored to go over it.

Some of the best and most creative examples of infographics and data visualisation are in the book Information Is Beautiful, by David McCandless. This explores hundreds of different sets of data in innovative graphic form, and I definitely recommend it to graphics and data junkies. It takes all kinds of data sets and presents them in graphics, some simple and others built from complex, interwoven logic. Sometimes, though, the simplest methods are the most effective. For example, the book’s ‘Most Profitable Stories’ section presents simple graphic arrays that organise films by profitability in the Y axis and average review score in the X axis, with a ‘worth watching’ line placed at around the 77% review rating mark. No flashy artwork, just cleverly condensed and organised information.

If you’d like to play with data visualisation yourself without starting completely from scratch or just want to read a bit further, take a look at datajournalism.stanford.edu, a site with a lot of research and information about this field. It includes links to the uuorld.com site, where you can download the uuorld data visualisation software. Play with this to see how it produces semi-automatic visualisations from data sources, then think how you might do the visuals yourself.

One last thing before I finish; I hope you find this infographic, data visualisation thing inspiring. It is an odd, info-driven part of graphic design, but it can be a really creative one. Just remember that the idea is to inform, not to decorate. If anyone says “that looks marvellous… what does it mean?” then go back to the drawing board and start again. An infographic that doesn’t inform in some way is a failure.

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