About ten years or so I got interested in how we (normal humans) understand data. More to the point, how we can take large amounts of data and represent it in a graphic that can allow us to extrapolate important pieces quickly and without having to comb through pages and pages of text.
I think I got interested in this because I was doing a lot of PowerPoint presentations and was dying a thousand deaths by bullets, or rather bullet points, that were turning into sentences. Moreover, it goes without saying that all the speakers I was helping thought the audience was blind or incapable of reading the presentation so inevitably it became a mind-numbing experience of listening to them read word for word. Well, as I tend to be a person who looks for solutions, I came across this booklet.
Naturally this essay spoke to my sense of humor, so I quickly began researching who Edward Tufte was. I wasn’t surprised to learn he is a statistics, computer science, and political science professor at Yale. It made sense to me that he would have a very analytical mind. What did surprise me was his passion for art, specifically sculpture.
He is also a pioneer in data visualization, referred to by the New York Times as the da Vinci of data.
A few years ago I was able to attend one of his speaking engagements in Dallas. I walked away from that one-day seminar transformed.
I understood that when illustrating, every data point has a value, every line has a purpose, where you place the information is just as important as the information.
Data Knows No Language Barrier
One example I continuously reference is one that Tufte showed at the seminar. He describes this as “probably the best statistical graphic ever drawn, this map by Charles Joseph Minard portrays the losses suffered by Napoleon’s army in the Russian campaign of 1812”.
If you look at the map, the left begins at the Polish-Russian border, with the thick peach band illustrating the size of the army at each position. The path of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow in the bitterly cold winter is depicted by the dark lower band, which is tied to temperature and time scales. Without understanding French, I can still look at the map and see as time progressed, the temperature dipped colder and colder, and the size of the army got smaller and smaller.
Big Data – Big Audience
To illustrate the importance of how designers must think with purpose, I’m going to bring up the of the 2009 economic stimulus package Congress passed. In this example, there was ultimately over $800 billion spent on hundreds of projects throughout the country. How can you make an easily readable Web site, while tracking hundreds of projects around the country? That’s where Tufte comes in. He was ultimately appointed by President Obama to design the Web interface for Recovery.gov. (BTW, the project ended September 30, 2015, so only the front page is still accessible.)
According to Tufte, “The test of a good display is not whether it’s accessible in a single glance, but whether the viewer learns something. Another way to describe it is an intense clarity of information: Intense but accessible. Being clear and straightforward is very different from being simple-minded”. One thing that catches my eye immediately is the viewer learns something. I have to continuously keep in mind that there are different viewers on any piece I produce. Whether it is content for a Web site, a newsletter article, PowerPoint presentation, or map, the viewers are different and their needs are different.
If you are interested in learning more check out this video about The Art of Data Visualization from PBS Digital Studios.