Moritz Stefaner. Photo by Decoded 2010 conference
You define yourself as a “truth and beauty operator.” What does that mean?
In the past, I used to tell clients and family I worked as a “freelance information visualizer.” That has way too many syllables. Also, I was always forced to explain what I actually did, as people don’t really have much of a grasp on what it means. After I explained that I turn data into images and try to help people make sense of large data sets, I was often asked if I tended to prioritze truth or beauty, form or function: Do these compete in my projects? Do I have to trade off one against the other? For me, truth and beauty have always been two sides of the same coin. What I want to highlight in my title is that I don’t want to trade truth for beauty or beauty for truth: I work with both. These are the two things that I will evaluate design solutions against: Are we helping to find out the truth? Are we doing it in an elegant way?
So you cannot have truth without beauty, and vice versa.
I put truth and beauty at the same level. If you have only one without the other in a visualization project, you are not done yet.
Buckminster Fuller, the famous designer and systems theorist, said once that he didn’t think about beauty when he started a design, engineering, or architectural project. He was just concerned with its functions; he wanted to find the right way to devise the product. But then, in the end, if the solution he came up with was not beautiful, he knew something was wrong. For Buckminster Fuller, in some sense, beauty was an indicator of functionality and of truth.
For me, design is much more than mere decoration. Scientists and engineering focused people, the kind of professionals I usually work with, think of design as decorating a pre-existing structure. That is the wrong approach. Good design is tightly intertwined with the content it presents. It consists of thinking about what to show, what to leave out, what to highlight, how to structure information, what rhythm, visual flow, pace, you want your story to have, etc. That’s design. I would say that structure dictates pretty much what comes out visually.
There are designers, particularly traditional infographics artists, who contend that most data visualizations don’t really tell a story. They argue that contemporary visualizers basically throw readers into an ocean of data and they let them on their own to navigate without any guidance. Do you think this is true?
I think it’s true, and I think it’s positive and fantastic. The most fascinating thing about the rise of data visualization is exactly that anyone can explore all those large data sets without anyone telling us what the key insight is. We can look up our own hometown on a census map and look exactly what the data points are and not just the averages in the county or the state. In my work, I do not try to tell a story. I try to tell thousands of them. Obviously, you cannot present them all simultaneously or with the same priority, but still, they can all be there, hidden in the raw data, waiting to be discovered through the interface of your presentation. I think this is the key difference of the genre of data visualization compared to, let’s say, more traditional information graphics