Visualisation Reflections: #6 Data Journalist & Information Designer

This is a follow-up post to my sixth article in the Visualisation Insights series which I published earlier this week. The purpose of this companion series is to optimise the learning opportunities from each insights article, reflecting on the ideas, issues and observations to emerge.


Why did I choose this subject?

Recalling the purpose of this series, I’m looking to provide readers with unique insights around visualisation from the perspective of its active and prominent participants. As I said in my article, over the past 12-24 months there have been very few higher-profile individuals in the visualisation field than David McCandless.

The launch of his ultra-successful book Information is Beautiful, his accompanying website, appearances on British TV, a regular platform on the Guardian data blog, an invitation to present at TED and many other public appearances have led him to become the face of UK visualisation.

I was naturally delighted when David agreed to an interview.


Impressions prior to the interview?

Having followed David’s emergence closely from here in the UK, I have witnessed the high praise he has received as well as a certain amount of negativity that automatically accompanies such exposure. Interestingly, both acclaim and criticism seems to centre on the matter of beauty. The supporters love the visual appeal and engage-ability (is that even a word?) portrayed in his work, the critics argue that this style leans too heavily on aesthetic appeal to the detriment of perceptual accuracy.

This is not a unique argument in the visualisation field, it is the argument across all of design.

Despite the worthy efforts of the academic community, the paradox of form vs function shows no signs of being resolved – the perception of design continues to be inextricably linked to the volatility of human taste.

Whilst there are occasionally elements in some of the designs in ‘Information is Beautiful’ that emphasise beauty over enabling accurate interpretation, my personal view of David’s vast portfolio is that it is a hugely impressive, interesting and insightful contribution to the field. The creativity displayed is fabulous and he deploys innovative visuals that greatly expand the range of design solutions most of us typically resort to.

I believe he has contributed enormously to the burgeoning appeal of the subject, helping it to reach a broader audience, which is a vital achievement otherwise the popularity of a subject can end up existing within an isolated bubble. To witness a glimpse of how popular David’s work has been start typing the word ‘information’ into Google, and see how quickly the recommendation for ‘Information is Beautiful’ appears…


Impressions after the interview?

There are many fantastic nuggets contained within David’s interview and it should provide a great reference for anyone in the field, whether you are new to it or already well established in visualisation design.

The first highlight concerns his career background. Here is a wonderful exhibition of the many different education and career routes down which you can end up arriving in the visualisation field.

His passion for programming and computer games dominates the early part of his career (presumably inspired by War Games and Weird Science if the timeline is anything to go by!) and through this he gradually migrated towards the world of Journalism.

His visual CV perfectly demonstrates the pace, direction and maturity of capabilities and junctions his career has followed and it is fascinating to observe the sudden expansion of his interests in to design around 2007, as described by his discovery of a visual solution to make sense of, and distill complex information around evolutionism and creationism.

The visualisation field is characterised by its convergence of principles, practices and theories across a wide range of traditionally diverse subjects. David’s career seems to demonstrate this convergence perfectly – the strong competence with technology and a mind geared towards programming, the journalistic nose for a story, pursuing an hypothesis, the copywriter’s ability to eliminate waste and reduce a matter to its essential core, and the designers skill at pulling all this together into an engaging communication. He is hack and hacker rolled up into one:

I’m always going for simplicity and clarity and space. Partly as a response to information overload. But also because journalism and design share a common goal – they want to make things clearer.

His rapid transition from novice designer (with all due respect) to the conception and production of his successful book is remarkable. His journalistic senses seem to have been a major catalyst:

After starting to play with infographics, I suffered a good six months of doubt. My agent wanted me to do another book and asked me what I had. Meekly, I presented this idea of a “mapbook of ideas”. In terms of identifying the visualisation subjects included. I just followed my ignorance and frustration mostly! I set about trying to answer questions I wanted answered. And to fix things that frustrated me about information – the reporting of abstract billions dollar amounts, patterns in media. But I think frustration, ignorance, boredom, bewilderment can be as inspiring as joy or curiosity or conversation. Those ‘negative’ feelings are a sign that something isn’t working. And an opportunity to design a solution.

I’m particularly interested by his observation of how negative emotions can help push you forward and how they have a similar effect to the way positive emotions pull you towards a goal.

Once again, his journalism background strongly influences his thoroughness of preparation and research, as he describes the process of doing a design as being “80% research, 20% design“. This highlights the importance of undertaking and persevering with the often boring and arduous background work that takes place in pursuing data to construct a visualisation. This activity mostly goes unnoticed but only when done properly, otherwise a lack of rigour is glaring.

I mentioned earlier the issue of ‘volatility of human taste’. This was a strong theme in the debate (if you can call it a debate) that David took part in with Neville Brody on BBC’s Newsnight programme. What should have been a healthy and welcome debate on the increasing popularity of information design was greatly let down by the weak and seemingly unbalanced facilitation of the discussion. It is really interesting to hear David’s thoughts on this appearance:

Specifically, I forgot how TV journalism reduces debate down to two opposing polarities: for and against. Which I think for a topic like information design is a lame approach. How can you be against information design? It’s just a technique! So I was caught on the hop a bit and felt quite bemused by what was going on. I thought we might have a debate about its potential and its limitations. But no.

The final observation from David’s interview comes from my question relating to the perceived benefits of visualisation. In what might be seen by some as a surprising standpoint David remarks that visualisation is a means but not the end. This is absolutely true and can be evidenced by the proliferation of needless, un-cohesive infographics that continue to fly around the web:

…I think businesses hungry for new insights and innovations may be disappointed by what this field can offer. I think data visualisations can provide insights – sometimes. But the data has to be worked and moulded and played with journalistically – to reveal those insights. I’m not sure visualisation per se or automated tools can do this. You need a brain. Data needs humans to be interesting.


Acknowledgment
Many thanks again to David for finding time to take part in this interview. I happened to approach him about the article at probably the most high profile period of his year so it is hugely appreciated that he was able to provide such a comprehensive and interesting set of responses to my questions. I wish him continued success during 2011. You can follow David on his Information is Beautiful website and all via his Twitter account.

Look out for future insights articles, with many interesting interviews and interviewees lined up…