On August 9th, the BBC’s Newnight programme aired a short piece entitled, The art of making information beautiful. You can see a short clip on the BBC website or on YouTube.
The programme had a short introduction to some very interesting visualizations and great examples of designing with data. Then David McCandless, author of Information is Beautiful and Neville Brody discuss.
While I personally find myself agreeing with Neville Brody, I also find myself defending David McCandless. Neville’s flippant comment about “It is very pretty, I would like that on my wall”, goes to the heart of the problem with visualizations and infographics, they are decoration more than they are tools to convey data.
If we look back at history, Florence Nightingale, who died 100 years ago this week, is hailed as an data information pioneer. In my book (see page 191) I go to show that her coxbomb chart wasn’t actually that great. But that’s OK, she was trying something new, testing the limits, sometimes it works sometimes it doesn’t. So even though much of David McCandless’ work might be dismissed by Neville Brody, you have to applaud David for trying. Had Florence Nightingale not created the polar area charts, it might have been many more years before they were refined. Sure, maybe some of David’s stuff is more artsy than useful, but how do we know unless we get out there and try? There will be plenty of failures before any break throughs!
My book, Designing with Data, doesn’t focus on visualizations, it is more about conveying the right story. As Neville Brody says, “Information is political”. There is a story in every piece of data and we want to tell that story rather than make it into a piece of art. We first need to understand the basic tools of how to tell stories with data, then we can go on and work like David McCandless and try to push the limits.
It is an interesting discussion, which I don’t foresee going away any time soon.