Stop the Data Visualization Abuse

In which camp do you belong? You probably read that as 73 percent of people believe the graph. But the slices aren’t labeled so it could mean that 37 percent believe. The slices also don’t match the indicated ratio. Lastly the numbers add up to 110 and not 100.
This is an example of what’s become all too common nowadays: authoritative-looking images that purport to display complex data in an elegant, approachable manner. There’s no doubt that the visualization of data is a powerful tool. Go anywhere from GOOD magazine to The New York Times to countless blogs and you’ll find data visualization. The advertising world loves to share these infographics on Twitter and Facebook. It’s just that as they’re currently done, many data visualizations are little more than prettied-up charts and, worse, present a distorted picture of what’s really going on.
My experience with information design predates my life as a graphic designer. I originally studied and worked in cartography, map design. Edward Tufte’s seminal books were among the first to influence my design thinking. It is through this lens that I cast a critical eye on contemporary information design and data visualization.
Earlier this year, Paula Scher critiqued the infographic as faux info. “They are designed to appear scientific and very believable. They are immediate, even urgent, and you have the sense that you are about to learn something.” At its best, information design transforms data > information > knowledge > understanding > wisdom. At its worst, it deceives intentionally. The majority of the time you only gain a cursory look at a specific subject.
The widespread availability of data has certainly contributed to the huge influx of information graphics. Datasets that were only accessible for those with specialized software are now available with an internet connection and a web browser. You can roam the streets in a foreign country via StreetView. I can pinpoint the exact location of the bus I’m waiting for. People are used to easy access to data.
You can easily harness personal data as well. Your spending trends can be automatically tracked with Mint. Your iTunes library can be visualized as a solar system. You can even use your mobile device to monitor your sleep patterns. Nicholas Felton has taken it to the extreme and has his own personal annual report.
The democracy of data and information has many benefits. One of the pitfalls is that people take the easy way out. Those in charge of making information graphics or data visualization often are not used to working hard for data. You can explore for hours and not necessarily get any meaningful information. Scientists, on the other hand, are used to working for data and devote many hours to a specialized field. Designers and programmers have to produce within set timeframes and budgets and cover breadth.
I’ve often felt that designers are an inquisitive lot, so I’m surprised that many of the contemporary examples of information design don’t go the extra step and ask WHY. So if X is the result, why is it that way? Getting to the why brings you up to the level of understanding. Here’s an example.
This information graphic, “A State of Drunkenness,” looks at states with the most/least instances of drunk/drugged driving. The graphic contains illustrations of the driver’s licenses of the five worst states, then a map showing the national distribution. Then nothing. It just ends.
There’s no explanation of why the levels in these states are so high. Looking at the map, I wonder if some combination of extreme winters, low population density, low/no public transportation exacerbates the situation. The cartographer in me wants to zoom in and compare those numbers in low/high density counties. Are there more DUIs in the summer or winter? This graphic is presented as final when it really is just the first step to discovering something interesting. A cartographer would have asked questions, explored different datasets and asked some more.
All of the steps up to this point have been focused on the past. Wisdom builds on all the previous levels and looks to the future. Designers need to go the extra step, even beyond the “why,” and ask “for what purpose am I building this?”
The famous Minard map, lauded by Edward Tufte as the best statistical graphic ever made, isn’t about river crossings, the bitter winter cold or Napoleon. He notes that it’s about the “quiet, anonymous misery of tens of thousands of French soldiers. This was meant as an anti-war poster.” I’ve admired this graphic for a long time, and now I have a newfound appreciation for it.
More and more we’re seeing information design as a component in bringing about personal, national and global transformation. But there are too many bad data visualizations out there. Just because someone knows their way around Adobe Illustrator doesn’t mean he can present data in a meaningful, accessible way. Whether you are a viewer or an author of information design, hold these authoritative-looking graphics to a higher standard. Practice your inner cartographer and ask “why” and “for what purpose?”
Bryan Mamaril is an interactive designer with Hornall Anderson, a Seattle-based design firm that’s part of Omnicom Group.