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FEATURE28 September 2011

David McCandless on MR and information design


The data visualisation expert behind Information is Beautiful has been hired by Kantar to help advise and train on the presentation of data. We spoke to him about what he hopes to teach researchers, and what he’s learning from them.

Research: You recently began working as a consultant with Kantar. What are your impressions of the market research industry?
It’s an industry that I’ve not really had much contact with – even though I worked in advertising I never really saw that side of the business. Then [Kantar’s creative director] Aziz Cami approached me. He was curious about doing a visualisation awards scheme and I’d been wanting to do that for ages but hadn’t really had the time or the backing. I’ve also been doing workshops, training and consultation.

The community’s so amazing – there’s so much activity in this field, so many people creating this stuff. I wanted to harness that creativity and reward it. I didn’t really think about market research [before], but I realised it’s about telling stories and visualising data and revealing patterns, and there’s a really big synchronicity between what we do.

What have you been trying to teach and what have you learned?
What I hear a lot – not just in market research but in a lot of industries – is, ‘I’m not a designer, I’m not a visual thinker, I’m not a storyteller.’ These are the sorts of stories people tell themselves about their visual capabilities. My belief, having been self-taught, is that you can do all these things – you just need the right in or the right training or the right mind shift. A lot of the workshops I do, about half the people who come are already on the graphical side and half are on the research side. For the graphical people it’s about unlocking their storytelling ability and for the research people it’s about unlocking their visual ability, their ability to actually believe that they can do this kind of thing.

So you believe a lot of people are better at information design than they think they are?
I think it’s more natural than people think it is. When I didn’t design, I thought design was some mystical ability that I didn’t have and other people had. I’ve realised it’s a set of visual skills. It’s not just design, of course, it’s taste that you develop over time, but the basic thinking and the practice are very straightforward.

Why do people get it so wrong?
Maybe it’s a sort of institutional habit. There often perhaps isn’t the culture within a company or even space within a time schedule to allow for playing, which I always feel is important. The way I see it, everything you create now design-wise is competing with everything else that everyone ever looks at. So market research stuff is looking worse and worse as time goes by, because the web and good design are becoming more and more of a daily experience for people. So they need to get on it.

You work a lot with data but you’re not a trained researcher or statistician. Are you trying to develop those skills?
I’m actually working with a statistics tutor, from my own desire to get tighter on that aspect. I’ve also been collaborating with statisticians. It’s such an amazing science, statistics, I’m really just beginning to understand the beauty of it. I want to be able to understand it more deeply.

What else are you working on?
I’m launching a commercial studio to do more of the kind of work I’m doing with Kantar, consulting and working with clients. And I’m starting a new book next month. The last book I wrote, I retreated to my cave for a year and slaved over it in a very old-fashioned authorial way. This will be more of the same, but a different process – I’m going to be more open and crowdsourcy.

Entries are open now for the annual Information is Beautiful awards, and for the first of a series of monthly challenges, carrying a top prize of $2,000