Visualize this: Is it information or is it art?

An old infographic chestnut. It’s always been a tricky balance between getting the story across, and making a great image. But thanks to some serious computing power, we’ve arrived at a crunch point. In one corner of the ring is information, and in the other is art, and they’ve been slugging it out.

Big revelation: The biggest trend in infographics right now is data visualization. Taking complex data sets, crunching them through some expensive software, and seeing what comes out the other end. It’s exciting stuff.  Dreary spreadsheets can be transformed into beautiful artwork. Spirals, circles, piles of dots and other assorted shapes. Lots of overlapping info in brilliant colors. Population trends turned into a wheel of interconnecting dots.  I love it, but to be honest, I often have no idea what’s going on.

A worrying aside: My students keep bringing stunning examples they have found on the Internet. But they are rarely able to tell me what the graphic shows.

Yes, in many cases, you really do have to be a rocket scientist to know what’s going on.  In my nightmares, turbo-charged Spirographs are on a rampage.

All of this is not a problem at all, until… wild visualizations start masquerading as infographics.

All Streets by Ben Fry.
Wheat and Wages chart by William Playfair, 1821. Probably the original data viz guy!
Regulation/Innovation by Jer Thorp.

Let’s not lose sight of the end user in this. Unless we’re creating pieces for a gallery, everything in a graphic should work to help people make sense of complex information. Especially now, when we’re being bombarded with info from all sides. All kinds of alarmist “information overload” statements are being made at conferences by people like me. But us infographic folk are uniquely positioned to help. We know how to create some order by applying design principles to information. So let’s do that, and not add to the chaos.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some great data visualizations around, and I applaud them. But it’s a new form, and we’re still learning what to do with it.

In my little world, I like infographics that have been carefully edited and ordered to tell a story clearly. Graphics that turn the light on, not turn it off.  Information first, art second. Follow that mantra, and data visualization is part of an exciting future.

Want to visualize? Click here …

John Grimwade is information graphics director at Condé Nast Traveler and a long time supporter, teacher, mentor for SND infographics.

14 comments

Interesting piece, John. I love a lot of the high-data visualizations that we see out there, and many are absolutely beautiful. But the emphasis of most seems to be on the visualization itself, and few add interactivity or are packaged in a way that lets me get into the data. This leaves me with a pretty picture, but no way to really explore.

I like Dan’s example of the NYT budget graphic, and the roll-overs that pop up specific data are a lovely touch. But one of the NYT’s oldies is still one of my favorites: their Casualties of War graphic at
http://www.nytimes.com/ref/us/20061228_3000FACES_TAB1.html

I know it’s nerdy, but I like the way I can alter the timeline under the “Analysis” tab to see specific slices of time that interest me, and the data update immediately across the entire page. I think many online visualizations would be more engaging and interesting if they used some computing power for this kind of ability.

Interesting question, John, one I often ask myself.

Initially, ‘arty’ and beautiful to look at, but difficult to see and explore the data (if that’s what you want to do).

Agree with both links above, excellent examples of engaging and informative graphics.

A good, concise article.
I’ve just been to the exhibition Decode: Digital Design Sensations at London’s V&A – http://www.vam.ac.uk/microsites/decode/ – and while you can’t but help admire the visual beauty and ingenuity involved, I was left feeling that it lacked what all great art has – the mark of the maker.

When you remove the novelty and technical wizardry all the data does is produce pure maths which in turn produces patterns – everything becomes organic. In the same way the structure of a leaf is stunning, it is still just a leaf.

As you say, there is no editing, no emphasis, no storytelling. The two examples mentioned above, especially Casualties of War, are excellent because the technology is there to serve an idea and has to work in real terms inside a limited size.

And from this, design, comes real beauty

Well done on the blog. And very nicely set up for Pamplona – I think we all need to discuss this at length. Visualising data is an interesting devlopment in the world of mapping and charting. And does indeed seem very pleasing on the eye. In fact most examples I’m sure will line the walls of the Pompidou in 50 years time. Yet quite often, like a painted classic, we feel the need to read 200 explanitory words before we can figure out what the ‘picture’ means. 

Remember so early examples of infographics, the gradients and abominable typography? Right now the world of infographics has never been in a finer state. I guess in five years time, such extreme examples of ‘rampaging’ data visualisation will, I hope be interactive, and be possible to explore in 3d space. Crikey we could even find ourselves involved in a ‘data movie’ like an ‘Avatar’ fiscal deficit spirograph

As you said: In my little world, I like infographics that have been carefully edited and ordered to tell a story clearly. Graphics that turn the light on, not turn it off. Information first, art second. Follow that mantra, and data visualization is part of an exciting future.

I, too, marvel at the data manipulation dazzling my creative self. Storytelling with design is my personal goal. I am still defining that and enjoy posts and links like the one you offer here.

Thanks,
Donna Davidson

I´m not sure that dicotomy exists. Infographics shouldn`t be considered art pieces as long as their goal is representing information. They may be aestetically nice pieces, but not art. I personally think that the goal of an artist is more related with emotion.

I agree with Michael Agar. Infographics today are in a very good shape, and interactivity it’s evolving fast. Have a look at cloudz project (http://cloudz.es) and its delicious feeds visualization experiment.

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