Data can be boring, but it can also be a beautiful thing. Simon Todd examines how the godfather of data visualisation, David McCandless, transforms everyday bland data into a “picture sandwich”.
Prologue: [read by slimy 50s NYC private eye]
Reading newspapers and magazines was making me ill: number after number in obscene font-size, paraded in front of me as everyday fact; percentages of web-users whose whereabouts will be instantaneously available to rogue government organisations within the next ten minutes; death statistics that apparently quadruple “every breath I take” [Sting & Puff Daddy never mentioned that, did they!]... Yeah, the myriad data was dragging me down.
But I was prescribed a course of infographics; I felt better by the second dose. I gotta a major hunch you will too.
[Back to your normal voice now, please]
Take colour, shape and pattern –the exquisite language of the eye – and mix it with that of the mind – words, numbers and concepts – and you start speaking two languages simultaneously, each helping the other. “And that’s the whole thing, it’s two languages both working at the same time.”
So says current godfather of data visualisation, David McCandless. His Information is Beautiful website and coffee table publication might have been gawped at for a while now, but only recently has droll Dave taken time to explain the drive behind his stunning visualisations.
His recent Ted presentation is a beginner’s guide to his motivation. He abhors “absolute figures” while he brings data together into a rounder picture – China, for example, has the most soldiers [absolute!], but compared to total population, she’s got the 124th biggest army. Eat that in a picture sandwich! In another example, simple inverted triangles show all one needs to know about the unique carbon-neutrality of Eyjafjallajokull, in the 2010 European airtraffic debacle.
Sure, he has his dissenters, who argue that his clumping together of stats in pretty patterns only serves to suit McCandless’ leftie agenda; but I think we readers are now excellent at spotting political bias and the eye-candy one-upmanship McCandless provides is surely only a double bird to the bland churning out of information by aforementioned grumps.
McCandless finishes by triumphantly declaring that design is about “providing elegant solutions” to information problems. Something I think he does with great aplomb.