What Makes a Good Visualization?

Information is Beautiful is a blog project by David McCandless, UK-based data journalist and information designer.  His blog investigates weird and wacky ideas, opinions, trends, phenomena — visualized.

As someone new to the dataviz party, I’ve often contemplated what makes a good visualization. How do data visualizations “work” — or not work? What’s the secret sauce here, anyway?

Thankfully, David gives us his “What Makes a Good Visualization” model, a delicate and careful marriage of the implicit and explicit, and the tension between the two. See below:

What Makes A Good Visualization, David McCandless 2015.

Successful visualization, then, lends itself into the artful synthesis of information (data), story (concept), goal (function), and visual form (metaphor). What’s especially cool, is how new and exciting these fields are within the realm of data visualization / information design.

Visual form (metaphor), as it is currently known in information design, is a relatively new practice, compared to, say, information design in film or animation. Methods, avenues, and templates for visual form are only now being developed and refined. Think, then, what can be accomplished in this field if we orient our focus from 2D to 3D information design! The opportunities for design in a statistical and analytic context are abound.

As are good, smart visualization on McCandless’ blog. Peeps a few of my favorites (reproduced below for your scrolling pleasure):

Common MythConceptions: World's Most Contagious Falsehoods. David McCandless.

Common MythConceptions: World’s Most Contagious Falsehoods. David McCandless. 2015.

Inter Mental: Towards a Classification of Tech & Internet-Induced Mental Disorders. David McCandless 2015.

Inter Mental: Towards a Classification of Tech & Internet-Induced Mental Disorders. David McCandless. 2015.

Out Of Your Hands

Out of Your Hands. David McCandless. 2015.


Cocktails: 77 Drinks Every Bar Person & Party Monster Should Know. David McCandless. 2015.



Making Data into Art: Video by David McCandless

Yesterday, I happened across a video by data journalist extraordinaire David McCandless. Within it he discusses his dataviz process and the way he leverages statistical models and large amounts of information into meaningful, artful visualizations.

The video, of course, also stands as a corporate plug for the new Microsoft Office 365 suite (which, from a UX standpoint, I remain conflicted. More on this later). Corporate plugs aside, the short is a cool introduction into information design. O, the art you can make with data! Pretty cool, you guys.

Dear Data: A love Story

If you’ve watched Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha (2012) on Netflix, you may recall the film as a thoughtful, visually-delicious étude of modern love in the form of friendship.

Sometimes, the internet, like Netflix, is a wonderful thing.

Detailing another love story, equal parts charming and beautiful, is Dear Data: a year-long, analog data drawing project by Giorgia Lupi and Stefani Posavec.

In Dear Data, Giorgia and Stefani collect data on day-to-day living. Weekly, they record their data as they experience it, parameterized by a typical component or theme of human experience. These themes range from the amusing and commonplace — “A Week of Swearing” — to the not-so-easily quantifiable — “A Week of Negative Thoughts.” At week’s end, the women translate their data into analog drawings on postcard-sized pieces of paper. They slot these postcards into the mail and send oversees until they arrive “at the other person’s address with all the scuff marks of its journey over the ocean: a type of “slow data” transmission.”

On their website, Giorgia and Stefanie describe the method behind Dear Data:

By creating and sending the data visualizations using analogue instead of digital means, we are really just doing what artists have done for ages, which is sketch and try to capture the essence of the life happening around them. However, as we are sketching life in the modern digital age, life also includes everything that is counted, computed, and measured.

We are trying to capture the life unfolding around us, but instead we are capturing this life through sketching the hidden patterns found within our data.

So far we’re having a lot of fun while we learn about our own and each other’s lives – and we’re also trying to get better at drawing in the process

We’ve also noticed that the data collection and visualization process has become a sort of performance and ritual in our lives, affecting our days and weeks, and inherently changing our behaviour.

But really, we also started this project to show how “data” is not scary, is not necessarily “big”, and that you need to know almost nothing about data to start collecting and representing it (just a pencil, a notebook and a postcard!)

The schematic link between Dear Data and Frances Ha? Besides standing on their own as spectacular projects, the two share narrative similarities. This is exciting within the realm of trans-media storytelling because the two projects treat time in a similar way.

In Frances Ha, scenes are vignettes for Baumbach’s protagonist; chapters can be seen as keyholes into character, revealing aspects of Frances Ha’s emotional architecture.

In Dear Data, one week’s data project is eclipsed by next week’s data project. There are no new developments to old data, except for a more accurate “sum-total” understanding of the artist — the woman — behind the data.

In each story, we gain insight and understanding though accumulation, rather than through continuation.

And what does this mean in trans-media storytelling? Well, for one, a more varied and colorful rhetoric — even if portrayed in black and white.


Still, Frances Ha (2012)



Blog Feels. Frances Ha, 2012

Charting Culture: Animating Information Flow

What does it mean to visualize culture? If information flows through people, how is this animated across time and space? To what extent does information flow enhance or diminish the “identifiable” cultural matrix?

“Charting Culture” is a video based on a paper by Maximilian Schich, an art historian at the University of Texas at Dallas. Essentially, the visualization charts migratory patterns of historically-prominent individuals, data of which was gathered from Freebase, a Google-owned information repository of people, places and things. By plotting the birth and death locations of 120,000 individuals important enough to have their births and deaths recorded, “Charting Culture” illustrates the ebb and flow of culture as embodied in the data patterns of a few significant humans from 600 BCE to 2012 CE.

The accessibility of this visualization is what, in my opinion, makes this video so enjoyable. And yet as I watched “Charting Culture” I couldn’t help but feel Walter Benjamin rolling over in his grave, an index finger in air, chiming in with the all-too-familiar, something-is-not-right axiom about historiography:

“There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. And just as such a document is not free of barbarism, barbarism taints also the manner in which it was transmitted from one owner to another.” (Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History, 256)

The problem with this video is that it fails to be open about the parameters of its data. Claiming to represent “humanity’s cultural history” is a textbook Eurocentric claim, ignoring other fundamental data, such as, for example, inner migratory patterns of cultural figures not recorded by European courts. And this is, of course, only one such example. The data, albeit pretty, is a redemptive story.

The visualization, however, is a damn cool melange of art and statistics. It stands as a fine example of what one can do with a question, a penchant for data mapping, and the desire to illustrate by example.