Data and Design, Rebooted

We’ve all seen bad infographics in newspapers, online, and on television news; you know, where irrelevant data is presented in flashy typefaces on illogically proportioned geometric shapes. This for example:

Note that the circle representing a quarter of respondents is much bigger than that representing the majority… Not sure what they meant by this…

Yale statistician, philosopher and computer scientist Edward Tufte‘s The Visual Display of Quantitative Data has been at best extremely influential on the way business, media and governmental agencies present their data, and at least a reminder of how horrible some of the graphics we produce really are at presenting information. The principles of his approach to information visualization rest foremost on solid, well documented conent, and suggest that in viewing data visualizations, viewers with little knowledge of the subject should be able to make comparisions between multiple types of data, infer causality, and interact with the data in meaningful ways. Information design should avoid at all costs, Tufte would say, “chart junk,” or unnecessary and often deceptive graphical elements.

But with the absolute numerical density of some of the information contemporary society generates, and the new technologies available to render it, are we moving towards more profound understandings of the quantifiable forces at work in our world? Or have we simply been able to create more and fancier than ever “chart junk?”

This TED talk by data journalist and designer David McCandless highlights the “beauty of data visualisation,” where design, and interactivity have allowed even more enormous multivariate data sets to be compared and visualized in more ways by the average viewer. His designs are elegant, legible, and at their best, hint at a beautiful unity of information. However, does this beauty give us power over information? Does it invite us to investigate it? I’ll end with an image of what Tufte considers one of the best visualizations of information in the history of design, an 1860’s infographic by retired French engineer Charles Joseph Minard of Napoleon’s tragic march to Moscow… The beauty in this image is that without special effects, CGI, or overtly approaching art, it manages to interrelate a massive amount of data from time, movement in longitude and lattitude, numbers of troops, significant events, and temperatures on the march back from Moscow. Incredible.

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