BBC ‘Superpower’ season

The BBC has launched its ‘Superpower’ season, broadcasting a series of interesting programmes exploring the power of the internet.

The image below is taken from the season’s dedicated mini-site. This is the primary interface for navigating around the site’s content. Hovering over each component causes it to animate creating an innovative and engaging experience. The visual design is clean, authoratative and very accessible.

One of the highlighted elements of this site is the ‘Visualising the internet’ content, with a series of visualisations demonstrating its size and growth. The first of these is a treemap which breaks down the unique user proportions of the top 100 sites, grouped by category.

Strangely, the individual squares do not double-up as links to the respective sites. I understand creating a navigation interface isn’t the intention of the graphic but it would seem an obvious by-product. From a design aspect, my main problem is the arbitrary use of colour to shade some of the category collections. Dark grey, blue, yellow and orange (seemingly taken from the site’s ‘idendity’ pallette) appear to represent the four categories that have an option to isolate and zoom into view them closer. However, there is no explanation to support this and these colours seem a bit meaningless.

The second visualisation I want to comment on is the world map which has a timeline sequence plotting the growth of the net around the world. The coloured areas represents the % of that country’s population who are online and the growth is presented annually from 1998 to 2008. On the face of it this is potentially a very interesting visualisation presenting a range of stories about the change in prevalence of internet access. However, its value is significantly undermined by the unusual decision to set 31%+ as the maximum encoded value. This means there is no visible difference between a country with 31% and 91% of its population online. Surely the category values should begin at 0 and go all the way, in consistently sized ranges, towards 100% or, logically, the value of the highest country proportion (as 100% is unlikely)?

Why does a salad cost more than a Big Mac?

Nathan from FlowingData has published a post today which sets out a challenge to rework the graphic below, produced by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) to present a comparison between Federal subsidies for food production and recommended nutritional servings.

The intention of this graph is to show just how out of sync the spending is with the nutrition recommendations, but this design completely fails to present this clearly to the reader. To start with you’ve got the 3D pyramids which make the task of accurately reading the values virtually impossible. You’ve then got the issue of the values within each pyramid being ranked by size rather than a convenient ordering of food types to allow at least some comparison. Furthermore, the food subsidies has meat and dairy separated from nuts and legumes, whereas the nutritional recommendations combine these into a single ‘protein’ group. I could go on with issues like the value labels on the left pyramid standing out in bold but the ‘serving’ labels on the right are not which creates more work for the eye, but I’ll leave it at that.

So how could it be redesigned? Here are a few alternatives that I’ve quickly put together.

The first two were done using Excel, the last one was done using Tableau.

The first task was to standardise the data into comparable units so the food type values now represent % of food subsidies and % of recommended daily servings. I then made the food type groupings consistent by merging the meat and dairy values with the nuts and legumes values for food subsidies. These graphs now provide an opportunity for direct, clear comparison between the two sets of values. Some further design thoughts:

Tufte appointed onto Obama panel

Edward Tufte has announced today that he has been appointed by President Obama onto the four-man Recovery Independent Advisory Panel which will advise The Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, whose job is to track and explain the US $787 billion spent on recovery stimulus funds.

For those of you unaware of Tufte, you could say that he is to information design what Robert De Niro is to acting. This should be seen as a very important appointment for the profile of the subject and the broader field of visual thinking.

Six-panel storytelling

It is well known how the power of a story can add so much effect to the exchange of information. It makes the communication interesting, accessible, simpler to understand and also has more chance of being remembered. It is not always a straightforward task to actually find a story within an a given problem context but, nevertheless, it is important to always at least try and approach such communications with an eye on logical sequence and narrative.

With this in mind, I was interested by the creative challenge run by the Little White Lies independent film magazine to break down any movie of choice into a six-panel comic strip to encapsulate the essence of its plot and overall story. Its an interesting challenge and, ignoring for now the artistic aspect of this competition, is a really useful approach to help all of us with the task of identifying and simplifying a narrative.

Whilst some might feel overly restricted by the thought of having to reduce a communication problem down to only 6 key components, we can learn a lot from the world of comics and their ability to eliminate waste and present only the core to a story.

The winning entry, shown below, is an interpretation of Zombieland by David Rigby.

Further information about the winning entry can be found here and images of some of the running-up entries can be found here.

One month in…

Not going to do this all the time, it probably makes for a boring read, but with one month elapsed since this site went live and I published my first post, I thought I’d make some observations…

1. Its harder work writing posts than I expected, especially when you want to strive for fairly original content rather than replicating what everyone else is posting. Keeping the writing reasonably academic, concise and well-structured is not easy (not claiming to have nailed it with the posts so far yet). Credit to those who churn these things out at such high rates. I’ve published 9 posts in month with about 4 drafts started and yet to complete. I’d ideally aim for around 10-15 per month, but only if I’ve something worth saying.

2. 17 RSS subscribers is far more than I expected at this stage so thanks to all 17 of you (well 16 because 1 is me). The Google bots probably haven’t reached much of the content on here yet and I’ve not set up any GoogleAds type promotion so its very nice to have been found by you all.

3. Speaking of RSS feeds, there is a problem with the hyperlinks in posts when clicked from within RSS readers which I need to fix.

4. I’m going to work on more content for the various services I’m offering and also construct a better home page for the site which is more of a portal to the rest of the content within, rather than just leading straight into the blog.

5. I’m also going to enhance the references and recommended resources pages to give readers as much access as possible to the important knowledge that is out there.

6. Posts-wise I’m finishing off the reworking of the iPhone in the next couple of days and have a long list of issues I want to cover representing a wide spectrum of topics in or around the subject of information design and data visualisation.

7. Finally, I need to look into the designing of a logo for the site and my business in general. Some brilliant references out there that I really need to take lessons from.

… as I said I’m not going to do this type of post all the time, its more of a wish list/progress list for my own benefit in all honesty. However, I have read blogs in the past that have documented the process of establishing such sites and I found them useful to understand the decisions, tasks and problems they encountered so others might find similar benefit through reading about my own experiences.

‘OK Go’ music video

This video is for the new OK Go song “This Too Shall pass”. The band is well known for producing highly original and immaculately choreographed videos and this is their latest gem. It is based on a ‘Rube Goldberg‘ style system of ludicrously complex and convoluted action sequences similar to the award winning Honda advert and, to a lesser extent, the wake-up machine sequence in Wallace and Grommit.

This is perhaps a bit off-topic and, as it appears to be doing the rounds on a number of sites, it kind of breaks my rules about the content I choose to post on here. However, I thought it warranted inclusion because of the incredible visual thinking and design work that must have gone into its conception. You have to be amazed by the imagination, planning, patience, choreography and execution on show here. As a viewer you are transfixed by each and every stage of the sequence and whilst the song is fairly incidental, the video commands your attention for the entire duration. To achieve maximium engagement with the viewer is an objective we should all be striving for in every communication or piece of information design.

How Much Information?

How Much Information? is a report published by academics from the Global Information Industry Center, University of California, San Diego. Released in December 2009 it presents the results and analysis of a project aimed at creating a census of the world’s data and information consumption during 2008. It asks questions such as how much did people consume, of what types, and where did it go?

The headline findings reveal that the speed of modern life can be measured at 2.3 words per second and, during a typical day, we consume (not necessarily read, but take in) about 100,000 words a day through emails, internet, TV, text messages, reading and all sorts of other media. Additionally, considering the amount of image, video and audio we are exposed to, we process about 34 gigabytes of information each day.

This provides great evidence about the absolute necessity for improving skills around information and communication design to help modern day consumers of information process this as efficiently and as effectively as possible.

However, it is a shame that the design of the graphs included in this report to present some of the analysis employ largely ineffective and over-decorated design principles. The displays below represent the worst offenders. They demonstrate overuse of colour, inappropriate selection of graph type, unnecessary shading and distorting use of third dimension which requires the reader to exert far too much time and effort to draw any worthwhile insight from. Not much help when we’re clearly already overloaded by data and information.




Click here for the ‘How Much Information’ project home page, here for the report and finally here here for the author’s blog. There is also a report in the Times and Telegraph.