Thursday, June 14, 2012

Embellishments (sometimes) have a place in information graphics and visualization

Maybe because of the title of my book and some posts and articles, like the previous one, some people assume that embellishments should be systematically rejected in information graphics. They think —I know it because I've been told so more than once— that being and advocate for graphics that inform and respect the reader's intelligence and what we know about visual perception makes you a promoter of ugliness, dryness, and boredom.

This is far from truth. I do love beautiful infographics and I have the feeling that a small part of what is usually considered chartjunk (a term coined by Edward Tufte) is not really junk. Smart pictograms, unobtrusive icons, elegant and subtle visual effects (see below), etc., may sometimes have their place in charts, maps, and diagrams, depending on the publication and its audience (let's bring up Otto Neurath and Gerd Arntz).

The reason a few ornaments can be appropriate is that, when correctly used, they may enhance memorability: They might help you remember the graphic and its content in the future. Besides, as Donald A. Norman said in one of his books, a small amount of useless beauty can even make an object more usable. (I want to be extremely careful with my wording here: I am not making the case for things like this or this.) Here's the catch: decoration, if added at all, must not detract from the information, must not hurt readability, must not become the center of attention, and must not take away space that should be used to better explain your story. You should not give up depth because of aesthetics. Ornaments should be like headlines in news stories: they grab your attention and predispose you to explore relevant information. They put you in a good mood.

The three paragraphs above are just an excuse to link to a visualization that has caught my eye this week, the latest wonder by The New York Times graphics desk: "Where the Heat and the Thunder Hit Their Shots". Are the animated transitions between tiled photographs and heat maps useful at all? Maybe not —they don't add anything that a small mug shot on the corner of each map would not achieve,— but they certainly make the graphic memorable.


  1. It's not just about being memorable. There are two things of immediate, tangible effect for which you can use embellishments:

    Novelty effect - the human attention is drawn to things that are new, and
    interactivity - when an action creates a consistent response the action becomes more engaging. Both working in unison in interactive infographics make them more effective, as long as you know how to manage user attention and help them focus back on the information, rather than the embellishment.

    So: 20 second animation to celebrate a mouseover - bad!
    0.5 second motion that by virtue of its direction guides the attention back to the information, while giving feedback that the action of the user registered with the UI: good!

  2. I couldn't agree more - skillful implementation of aesthetics can help people (1) pay more attention to it, (2) learn more from it, and (3) remember more about it. But tasteless efforts can ruin the whole thing.

    The knife can cut the meal or the hand depending on how it is used. The answer isn't to ban all uses of knives.