Knowledge is beautiful (and accessible and inspiring and influential)

A few thoughts about data visualisation after a talk by David McCandless

A group of us recently went to David McCandless’ talk at the Royal Institute. Spoiler – it was brilliant. Here’s how it got a couple of us thinking:

Clementine – Red Badger product designer with a passion for making design effective.

"The clue is in the name, with this one. The main goal of data visualisation is to make complicated concepts and information make more sense in less time. They literally give people the ability to visualise data, mainly in a relational manner, in order to draw comparisons that make the information more easy to understand. They take complex data sets and make them more instantly comprehensible by creating a graphical representation of said data, statistics, abstract concepts or information.

To convey ideas effectively, both aesthetic form and functionality need to share the stage, providing insights into often limited and complex data sets by communicating its key-aspects in a more intuitive way. What David McCandless does with his remarkable visualisations is to apply a visual equality to very different data sets, no matter the content or context, rendering them all and at once beautiful, accessible, calming and joyful.

While the talk was interesting, the visuals were beautiful and the audience was attentive, the message that was literally ringing in my ears was the pure power of data visualisation.

Data visualisation example

Recent years have witnessed a remarkable increase in the adoption of visualisation as a means to convey messages through data. Established and respected venues such as The Financial Times and The Guardian have already popularised the idea of using data visualisation to convey a powerful message, and an increasing number of journalists, scientists, activists, and businesses are beginning to use these techniques. Data visualisation has become a language, but it’s real value and impact are derived from those who read them, interpret them, and use them to drive conversation, collaboration, and innovation.

We know that stories are powerful things. At Red Badger we actively use narrative examples of the methodologies and ways of working that we use to communicate their benefits to clients - stories capture attention, express ideas, stimulate imagination. The very nature of storytelling is looking deeper into the information that you have and trying to see the connection of inputs and outcomes, so as to best communicate the important message that hides within the dataset (or theory, or anecdote).

On the surface, narrative storytelling appears to be the opposite of analytics – anecdotal instead of quantitative. But, not everyone on the business end of a project necessarily thinks in numbers - quantities aren't the only way, or even the ideal way to convey information - connections are more easily apparent through visuals, and thus a story is simpler to tell.

After seeing David McCandless nimbly dissect so many complex issues and topics through beautiful data visualisations, it made me wonder, what impact could data storytelling have on how we communicate what we do?"

 

Sam – works on Red Badger’s brand and communications and is interested in what design can do.

"David McCandless is a great speaker – relaxed, funny, thoughtful and very eloquent. I really loved the way he talked about his work and I reckon those ideas, metaphors and frameworks have relevance far beyond the confines of data visualisation.

He has a lovely way to describe the value of data, taking the familiar and hackneyed “Data is the new oil” and developing it into “Data is the new soil” – and much richer line of thought that suggests the variety and particularity of data in a way that “oil” fails to. I also love that data isn’t something you burn, it’s something that allows things to flourish. I think soil is a beautiful way to think about the fundamental material you have to play with in any project.

He talked a lot about beauty and his work itself is very beautiful, but for him it’s very much a means to an end. It’s the message and the insight that comes first – beauty is just the delivery mechanism.

I also loved the way he framed the steps you need to turn data into knowledge. Data is essentially formless, pinging around like atoms. Grouped data like spread sheets forms those atoms into molecules. Link those groups of data and you begin to construct something that can convey information like DNA. Bound that DNA in a frame of reference and you have something like a cell. Link those cells together and you can create something that begins to have a life of its own. Continue the linking process and you begin to have something that embodies knowledge and can pass it one, like a complex living organism. There’s a lot of paraphrasing going on here – so go to one of his talks if you’d like a clearer and more concise explanation.

My favourite of his metaphors for exploring the potential of data visualisation is the camera. It allows you to talk about wide shots, crash zooms, background, foreground, what’s in and out of frame or focus – it’s a really powerful way to think about constructing a visual, or any other kind of story.

Finding the right question

Finding the right question

But the thing that really resonated with me was his focus on message and content. Tools and techniques are secondary – it’s the quality/relevance/interest of the question you’re looking to answer that truly matters. This is instructive for any designer/writer/insert your job title here – essentially anyone who is concerned with telling stories.

I’d heartily recommend seeing him talk or flicking through Information is Beautiful and Knowledge is Beautiful.

A joint blog by Sam Griffiths and Clementine Brown

Credit: main image from http://www.informationisbeautiful.net/

Have a look at what David McCandless has done here

Clementine Brown

Product Designer

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