The battle of substance and style
Designers and journalists are coming up with some striking ways to tell stories and convey data visually. But a new book suggests there is something missing from the field that research professionals could provide.
Everybody wants to have a go at data visualisation these days. Including market researchers.
But the ability of research people to present data visually is questionable. A showcase at last year’s Research conference included some great pieces of information design and some much less impressive ones.
Researchers seeking inspiration for how to present findings will find plenty in Visual Storytelling, a new book from art and design publisher Gestalten, which gathers some stunning visualisations and other examples of stories told visually – including maps, sculpture, photography, diagrams and posters.
The examples fall at various points on a scale from data-heavy to purely decorative: in some cases the visuals convey concrete information, at others they just bring emotional context to some kind of narrative. There are also interviews with some of the people behind them, discussing the ideas and processes that go into their work, including Peter Grundy, whose infographics have appeared in The Guardian and The Telegraph, and Steve Duenes of The New York Times.
Sarah Illenberger’s illustrations of survey results (about politics, sexual health and life satisfaction) for German magazine Neon are particularly striking, and should be studied by any researcher looking for fresh ways to present quantitative data.
Other highlights include the work of Carl Kleiner, whose photos for an Ikea cookbook depict the full ingredients of each recipe, laid out in geometric patterns (pictured above is what goes into Swedish ginger biscuits). Some of the work is essentially glorified pie and bar charts – like Peter Ørntoft’s visualisations of Danish social statistics (below) and German media agency KircherBurkhardt’s charts presenting economic data using the colours of the country’s flag.
In the book’s introduction journalist Andrew Losowsky criticises a recent glut of “relatively meaningless” visualisations, saying that the best examples are “inspiring, fascinating, visually interesting and easy to read, while conveying complex levels of information in an impactful way”.
But getting the right balance between style and substance is easier said than done. Losowsky’s assertion that “the visuals have to serve the data as well as the audience” is followed by plenty of examples of the visuals failing to serve the data. This is not always the fault of the people who produced the visualisations – it’s more the way they have been presented in the book. Some are printed purely for illustrative purposes, too small to do them justice, inadequately labelled or in foreign languages without translation.
Visual Storytelling is a beautiful and fascinating book but, given its title, it shows a surprising unwillingness to let the visuals tell the story. It ends up reinforcing the view that the main purpose of infographics is to look nice and impress people.
Perhaps that’s not surprising in a publication aimed at a design audience. And it’s worth noting that there are no contributions here from research agencies, even though much of the data that goes into infographics is from surveys.
If Visual Storytelling has something to teach research professionals it’s that there’s a huge opportunity to bring some rigour to a field where substance is often eclipsed by style. Part of the appeal of infographics from a designer’s point of view is the feeling of working on something weighty, important and based in fact. It’s up to people with a good understanding of data, how to process it and how to present it, to make sure that this is more than just a feeling.
Visual Storytelling: Inspiring a New Visual Language is published by Gestalten at $65