In order to sprinkle some star dust into the contents of my book I've been doing a few interviews with various professionals from data visualisation and related fields. These people span the spectrum of industries, backgrounds, roles and perspectives. I've only scratched the surface with those I have interviewed so far, there's a long wish list of other people who I haven't approached yet but will be doing so. My aim is to publish a new interview each week through to the publication of my book around April/May 2016 so look out for updates!
I gave each interviewee a selection of questions from which to choose six to respond. This latest interview is with Isabel Meirelles, a Professor in the Faculty of Design at OCAD University in Toronto, Canada. Thank you, Isabel!
Q1 | What was your entry point into the field: From what education/career background did you transition into the world of data visualisation/infographics?
A1 | I studied architecture and my first master was in history and theory of architecture. After working as architect and later in different capacities in art museums, I transitioned to graphic design, more specifically editorial design, and I worked for almost six years in magazines in São Paulo, Brazil. In the late 90s, with the advent of the internet, I became fascinated by the potential of incorporating time and interactivity into the communication of information. To scrutinize the possibilities offered by dynamic media, I went back to school to pursue a second master later in life. My thesis “Dynamic Visual Formation: Theory and Practice” examined the creative process of image-making in computational media toward a theory of dynamic visual language. One of my advisors was Krzysztof Lenk, a Polish/American pioneer in information design, who introduced me to methods of mapping information. He broadened my understanding of the field and my brief experience with devising infographics while working in magazines. That was the beginning of my ongoing examination of all aspects of information design,that includes studying the histories and theories of representing information visually.
After graduating from this second master, I started teaching at Northeastern University in Boston, which opened up opportunities to collaborate with researchers in other disciplines who saw the value in my research. As you know, my research focuses on the theoretical and experimental examination of the fundamentals underlying how information is structured, represented, and communicated in different media. It was through the collaboration with colleagues in the sciences and the humanities in interdisciplinary projects involving the visualization of information that I was finally introduced to the challenges of working with large datasets. A long story to get to the point of your question, my apologies.
Q2 | What is the single best piece of advice you have been given, have heard or have formed yourself that you would be keen to pass on to someone getting started in a data visualisation/infographics-related discipline?
A2 | The agreed upon approach of spending as much time as possible with examining the data, that includes “data sketching”, is always a great piece of advice. To that I would add that we should also pay as much attention to understanding the project’s goal in relation to its audience. This involves understanding principles of perception and cognition in addition to other relevant factors, such as culture and education levels, for example. More importantly, it means carefully matching the tasks in the representation to our audience’s needs, expectations, expertise, etc. Visualizations are human-centred projects, in that they are not universal and will not be effective for all humans uniformly. As producers of visualizations, whether devised for data exploration or communication of information, we need to take into careful consideration those on the other side of the equation, and who will face the challenges of decoding our representations.
Q3 | We are all influenced by different principles, formed through our education, experience and/or exposure to others in the field - if you had to pick one guiding principle that is uppermost in your thoughts as you work on a visualisation or infographic, what would it be?
A3 | My education as an architect provided me with several guiding principles, and rather than selecting one, I will briefly introduce three that have been influential throughout my career in information visualization. The first guiding principle derived from architecture that I would like to mention is the relevance of contextual information. We learn to consider diverse contexts surrounding architectural problems, from the functions to the people who will inhabit or use these spaces, from geography to cultural, social and economic factors. There is a well-known saying by the American architect Eliel Saarinen that says, “Always design a thing by considering it in the next larger context: a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.” Architecture also provided me with methodologies for examining problems in structured and systematic ways. Furthermore, it taught me to consider representation as a system of representations. Given the complexities of architecture, which is by nature three-dimensional and encompasses many layers of information, including layers of “hidden information” such as structural or electrical systems for example, we learn how to communicate using several representations, each serving different purposes and for different audiences. The set devised for electrical wiring is not the same as for structural engineering, to use the same example as before. They might share same items though with different levels of details. Finally, architecture is a collaborative endeavour, and we learn to consider several interdisciplinary approaches while solving architectural problems (e.g., sociology, ecology, etc.). One result is that most of the time architects work across disciplines and collaboratively. We see similar types of collaborations in the way we now work in large projects involving the visualization of information.
Q4 | As somebody who is involved in educating others, what are your observations about what attributes separate the successful students from the rest of the pack? What capabilities are you most eagerly looking for as they enter the programme - or during - to decide if that person has got 'it’?
A4 | Similar to other design practices, information design requires a lot of discipline and perseverance. On the other hand, I also believe that flexibility and curiosity are essential to the design process of visualizing data, in that information design is both systematic and iterative.
Q5 | What do you feel is still the big unknown in data visualisation? If you could undertake one research project (assume any funding needed, plenty of time, good collaborators, justification are all in place) what do you feel would make the biggest difference to the field at large?
A5 | The more I think about your question, the more I come to the conclusion that there are many open areas, which is great, because there is room for everyone, and we can continue working as well as educating future generations to join our efforts. In any case, I will give you two examples that interest me. Interestingly, visualizations of textual data are not as developed as one would expect. On the other hand, there is a great need for such visualizations given the amount of textual information we generate daily, from social media to news media and so on, not to mention all the material generated in the past and that are now digitally available. There are opportunities to contribute to the research efforts of humanists as well as social scientists by devising ways to represent not only frequencies of words and topics, but also semantic content. However, this is not at all trivial. Another area that I think requires further work is the representation of spatio-temporal data. Human mobility, diffusion of information or the spread of diseases are examples that involve changes over time and space and present challenges in how we represent them.
Q6 | If you could somehow secure 3 months to do anything you wanted, what would you love to be able to spend your time doing to enhance your data visualisation capabilities further? (Eg. Reading, making, learning new tools etc.)
A6 | All of the above! I have so many things to learn. I would love to spend more time reading, especially about cognition, but also all the research that is conducted in our field, which is a lot! I would also love to learn new skills, especially programming languages, as I feel I am getting behind in this aspect. Our field moves very rapidly and I always have a feeling I am lagging behind...