Visualisation Reflections: #8 Visualisation Designer

This is a follow-up post to my eighth 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?
I first came across Nathaniel’s Timeplots designs a couple of years ago and was instantly charmed by the intricate detail and beautiful execution of the designs he and his collaborators produce. In an era when we are (rightly) excited by the potential of interactivity and (also rightly) fatigued by the proliferation of bad practice infographics, it is reassuring to such pure visualisation art form shining out.

I approached Nathaniel for this interview to discover more about his background, his design influences and the methods he employs.

Impressions prior to the interview?
Without wishing to repeat myself, my main impressions of Nathaniel’s work were formed about the careful and deliberate design practices he deployed. The subtle use of colour, the lack of attention-grabbing visuals, the complete attention to detail, the dedication and depth of research, the perfect balance of composition – all the classic visualisation and information design methods are on show here and every visual element adds value to the information exchange.

I knew from information on his site that Nathaniel had a keen interest and background in politics that clearly influenced his focus on political subject matter, I also knew that he had experienced a highly successful and privileged education at some of the most outstanding establishments in the US and had enjoyed a successful career to date. I was keen to hear more about what motivated him to translate this passion in to these detailed infographic masterpieces.

Impressions after the interview?

I get the impression that Timeplots represents something of a ‘labour of love’ that provides Nathaniel with a perfect vehicle through which to pursue long held interests and highly tuned capabilities:

I wanted… to produce something tangible with an aesthetic component. I had some ideas (like a visual history of the senate) that had been something I had wanted to do for 20 years. I wanted to learn new things and acquire new skills. I had a long-standing interest in data visualization and I wanted an excuse to pursue it. I wanted to meet people in that space and learn from them.

He has a deep history in programming/computer science and a long-time passion for data/stats which led into, and beyond, political science and an interest in statistical methodologies. He is clearly a naturally gifted analyst and somebody with a keen eye for conceiving visualisation solutions to communicate complex issues. Coupled with his considerable technical capabilities this makes him the ideal visualisation all-rounder.

One of the most interesting elements of the interview comes when he references an old blog post, published back in 2005, in which he describes being reminded of a class he took at Yale with a certain Professor Edward Tufte:

[The class] was an introduction to an essential tool for learning how to think, it was also an appeal to numerical honesty in marshalling an argument, and thirdly (an especially distinguishing matter for me), it was informed with an aesthetic sense. If I had not taken that class, I would certainly not (for better or worse) have gone on to graduate study in the field that I chose.

A striking observation made is the remark that it wasn’t necessarily Tufte’s principles that left the greatest impact on him rather the admiration for the quality of Tufte’s beautifully crafted books.

If you are not familiar with Tufte’s superb books on the visual display of information, you ought to be. A review that he cites called them “cognitive art” and that’s precisely how I think of them. If you are like me, you will wish you had written those books, or books of similar quality in whatever happens to be your subject.

A common theme that runs throughout this interview is the respect Nathaniel has for people, especially those involved in craft, who pursue their passion, have the conviction to do things their own way and achieve great standards in their work.

Another interesting remark is his recognition of a personal desire to find the time and resources to do things really well. This is especially important to him as he observes “as much as anything, I wanted these posters for myself“.

A section that also really struck me in my interview with Nathaniel was the clear motivation he has that these pieces of work have an enduring quality, something that commands engagement beyond the initial reactive glance.

I like seeing people stand in front of one of the posters, trying to puzzle it out.  My work is not generally meant to be absorbed in one passing.

Every product is created to be lasting information art that reveals new patterns and details upon repeated viewings.

This is something I feel is very important in visualisation. We live in an age where consumers want things in an instant and don’t want to work to obtain something. People occasionally, and wrongly, measure the effectiveness of a visualisation by the immediacy of interpretation. In certain contexts that is clearly an objective (such as in Air Traffic Control or in the environment of Stock Exchanges), but otherwise complex issues and stories represented in visual form shouldn’t be ‘dumbed down’ for immediate consumption, rather just made more accessible irrespective of how long it takes to draw insight.

Its important to also acknowledge the point Nathaniel makes about demonstrating some flexibility with his design execution, experimenting with the inclusion of features such as imagery to test the popularity of reaction. This encapsulates the difficulty, once again, of the curious nature of judging the reaction to visualisation work:

I wanted them to be a bit more accessible that the previous prints we’ve done, so I’ve allowed myself to put in more images and photos, which I generally steer away from.  I’m curious to see if this makes them more or less popular.

Finally, credit to Nathaniel for generously mentioning the likes of Wallstats and Historyshots because I would also recognise these as been exceptional examples of a similar art to Timeplots.

Many thanks again to Nathaniel for agreeing to take part in this interview – it has proven to be a great insight into the world of a visualisation designer. I wish him and his colleagues at the Timeplots all the best for the future.

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