FEATURE2 March 2010

The visual art of data

Features

David McCandless is the man behind informationisbeautiful.net. His eye-catching infographics have been used by the Guardian, the BBC and numerous other outlets. We spoke to him about why he believes that presenting data visually is the way forward, and why he hates pie charts.

Research: Do you see yourself first and foremost as a journalist or a designer?

David McCandless: I’m definitely a journalist. I started off 22 years ago writing for consumer magazines mainly around the subject of videogames, and then as interest in technology and internet grew, that led to me writing for Wired and the Guardian and various newspapers. About four or five years ago I was beginning to get a little frustrated with linear journalism – written, story-based journalism. I worked a lot online, and I worked as a copywriter as well, and I began to think that perhaps there was a way of exploring information that wasn’t so linear, and combined the conceptual discipline of advertising, the tightness of copywriting, the storytelling of journalism and the visuals of the web and information design to expand ideas or explore new ways of explaining information.

Your book seems like an idea whose time has come. You say in the introduction, “We’re all visual now.” Why do you think that is?

I think it’s the internet. Every day pretty much everyone is in some way looking at a visual design medium. The internet is words and imagery and design all combined, and the weight or authority of that information is linked, often, to how well it’s designed – how good it looks. I think the general exposure to that on a daily basis is increasing visual literacy and is getting us used to relating to a visual language.

“Figures like 40 billion or 60 billion are just reported in headlines and in news stories as if they mean something. They literally are meaningless. Forty billion dollars? I don’t know what that is”

How would you rate the mainstream media’s presentation of statistical data?

I am largely frustrated with that, I would have to say. There’s a lot of line charts and pie charts and just overload, ugly colours, a mathematical, scientific approach that really deadens the response of casual bystanders, I would say. But I think there’s a deeper malaise which is that there seems to be a belief that a statistic or a fact can stand alone and that’s enough. I did the ‘Billion-Dollar-O-Gram’ because I was so frustrated with how figures like 40 billion or 60 billion are just reported in headlines and in news stories as if they mean something. They literally are meaningless. Forty billion dollars? I don’t know what that is. There often isn’t an attempt to put a number in context. A lot of statistical reporting just quotes the statistic as if it’s meaningful – and it’s probably written by a journalist for whom it is meaningful – but you have to link those facts to other facts and make those links relate to everyday perception so that we can understand. A lot of the amounts that are reported are very abstract or just lack context. That’s very frustrating because I want to understand what’s going on, I want to know. And I think if they altered the presentation slightly or just used a few tricks to make it easier to relate to, I would understand more and I’d be able to be less stupefied by what was going on.

Is it that the language that we’ve got to express numbers is just a bit inadequate? Is it a shortcoming of written language that we just have to live with?

It might be. I don’t know that there’s a solution for text-based presentation of statistics, other than putting a line into your writing of “Forty billion, the same as x number of hospitals”, or whatever context you want to put in. Visual presentation seems to be the solution. But it’s difficult to work that into traditional media at the moment.

Do people look down a bit on using pictures or graphs to represent data?

Yeah, I think so. I think graphics are often relegated as a side bar or a side issue – I’m thinking of newspapers here – often pulled out to illustrate a point or illuminate a statistic. I don’t think anyone’s really flipped it and made the graphic the central object and then relegated the text to a side object, and I think that’s an interesting way of doing it. I don’t know why that is, I think perhaps there’s just a lot of tradition in media and newspapers especially, and there’s a lot of newsprint to fill. And designing information is actually quite difficult.

“Data and information can be overwhelming and grinding and tight and grid-like and inhuman in some senses, so I think it’s nice to be able to warm it up a little bit”

Do you think that people who are good with numbers tend not to be very good at engaging an audience or communicating in a fun way?

I don’t think I can make that kind of generalisation, but I would definitely say that fun is an essential part of the process. I’ve been attacked a little bit for putting humour in diagrams but I think it’s essential sometimes – as long as it’s appropriate given the subject matter. To just have a little wink or a human touch. Data and information can be overwhelming and grinding and tight and grid-like and inhuman in some senses, so I think it’s nice to be able to warm it up a little bit, bringing in humorous comparisons or little touches here and there. I think a spirit of creative play is a great way of relating to data or beginning to deal with data. What can we find in this, let’s have some fun, let’s see what ideas come out of it, rather than this intense, laser-like scientific probing approach, which is useful, but sometimes it’s more fun to just play around with it and see what happens.

Why do you hate pie charts?

Cos they’re rubbish! Unless the data is very dramatic, I don’t think they’re actually that useful. And also I think they’re over-used, so I think there’s a subtle audience reaction you get when you start displaying pie charts, the same as when you start displaying very detailed line or bar charts, there’s that ‘I’m back at school or I’m in a PowerPoint presentation, somebody’s trying to tell me something.’ I wonder if those forms aren’t worn out a little bit. That’s my response when I see a pie chart, anyway. I just go ‘Pfff.’

Maybe it’s the reflexive use of pie charts that’s the enemy and not the pie chart itself. They need to be selectively utilised. If the data’s really dramatic then a pie chart says it all, but all data and all results aren’t inherently interesting. In any data set there’s only going to be certain aspects worth focusing on or revealing.

Visual presentation of data can often be used to pursue an agenda or make a political point. Do you see it that way?

You can definitely lie with statistics and you can lie supremely with charts. So there’s a degree of responsibility that comes with them, and you can definitely cut the data [to your advantage], and present the image to support your agenda. That’s something I have to guard against a lot, and that, in a way, is the really interesting thing for me, because often I’ll go in to do an image and I will have an agenda, I’ll have an expectation or an idea of what I want to portray, or I’ll think the world is a certain way, and sometimes I’m really confounded. I’ll progress through an idea and the data will be the opposite and I’ll have to change my mind midstream.

I did an image about the political spectrum, trying to illustrate the various concepts held by the left and right, and being a kind of Guardian-reading, left-leaning liberal type, I desperately wanted to prioritise and amplify the left side of that image, but I couldn’t because I would have created a lopsided diagram. So I was forced to honour both perspectives, which was frustrating for me because I had to confront my own ideas about what the right represented and my own prejudice. But it was a great learning experience for me, because I can see through doing that diagram where the people who held those views are coming from, and I find that really exciting.

The other thing is, I put the images online, and there are some amazing minds out there and they don’t let me get away with anything. So I am attacked, I have comments and emails all the time from people correcting me, adjusting my views, arguing with me, and I modify the diagrams as often as I can to reflect that process, and that’s an amazing experience – to allow other people to help you refine it and get closer to the truth.

McCandless’ book is published by Collins in the UK as Information is Beautiful and by HarperCollins in the US as The Visual Miscellaneum.

1 Comment

11 years ago

I like your point that you can lie with statistics but even more with charts. Most people simply see charts as a nice way to pretty up a page but they don't go the next step to see that pictures are a thousand words, and often a thousand wrong words. You've made my day. :)

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