Been feeling listless and haven’t yet read To Kill a Mockingbird? The consensus is the book could change your life, as it has the lives of many before you.
In his TED talk last year, ‘The beauty of data visualization’, McCandless spoke of his devotion to visual language: ‘It’s about finding patterns and connections that matter, then designing that information so it makes more sense or tells a story or allows us to only focus on the information that’s important.’
The ‘Books Everyone Should Read’ cloud is heavily text-based, however; would it be even possible to depict these findings graphically? It’s not as though the books have distinguishing, recognisable shapes the way, say, animals do.
Happened upon on Brain Pickings, this is a stunning example of Isotype: International System Of Typographic Picture Education. Developed between 1925 and 1934, Isotype charts conveyed educational or complex information in pictorial form. They were ‘an essential foundation for our modern visual language’, says Maria Popova, evidenced today ‘in everything from bathroom signage to computer interfaces to GOOD’s acclaimed Transparencies’.
Isotype was print-bound, as were, originally, tables, histograms, pie charts and bar graphs, though for many a year now we’ve worked with them on computers and the internet. They too can aid comprehension, yet are regularly limited by usage and design. Do they attract readers? Generally, no. Are they visually thrilling? Rarely. How often do they document every intimate relationship an individual has had over 23 years of their life?
There comes a time, in this data-swamped world, when the most cogent piece of text is a chart or a graph or something else that presents information in a graphical way. Because a picture paints a thousand words, but data visualisaton can paint at least 100000.
(Created by an intern in the data infrastructure engineering team, this image maps 10 million pairs of Facebook friendships.)
Data is meaningless without context: compared to what, over what time span, influenced how? 10 million Facebook friendships sounds inane until you see them as luminous strands connecting human beings across the globe.
Data visualisation should communicate information effectively. If its form can match its functionality, well, that’s often art. If the focus is solely on the contours and the colours, meaning can be lost or diluted. Fortunately, that wasn’t the case with the ‘History of Cubism and Abstract Art’.
(‘Here are some ideas on linking lines and causal arrows, a draft of some material from my Beautiful Evidence,’ writes Edward Tufte.)
There is much data out there; by and large, it’s not presented legibly – have you visited the ABS recently? Still, in their defence, they’re only collating the data; it’s our job to interpret it.
As with all writing, you try to lead your reader to a conclusion.
(Illustrates the combined 1125 years that 118 people who were later exonerated spent on death row in the US.)
Good data visualisation means your reader can grasp something quickly, that it can be further disseminated and understood. It is symbolic writing, in some ways, and the impact can strike and linger. Yet, it’s not only about aesthetics or an agenda. One of the most successful data visualisations is Google Maps, where streets are compiled into a giant readable, interactive database.
(The Gesellschafts- und Wirtschaftsmuseum in Wien, Vienna, where Isotype was invented.)
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