Monday, April 8, 2013

A bubble chart or a hairball would be better

Nathan Yau echoes an amazing interview with New York Times' Amanda Cox at Harvard Business Review. I tweeted about it the other day. It's a joy to read. What worries me a bit is the quote that Nathan highlights with big type and uses as a headline. Among the many interesting things Amanda points out, Nathan picks this one:
"There's a strand of the data viz world that argues that everything could be a bar chart. That's possibly true but also possibly a world without joy"
I guess that she was thinking about folks like Kaiser Fung. I understand that this was said during an informal conversation; that comment would be more nuanced if made in a different context. Just to give you an idea of how unfair it sounds, read the following made-up sentences, which are inspired by the work of some designers Nathan showcases in FlowingData:
"There's a strand of the data viz world that argues that everything could be novel, unusual, and fun. That's possibly true but also possibly a world without insight."
Isn't that absurd? Of course it is. It's a gross misrepresentation of what those designers believe, a wicked simplification. Fortunately, Nathan also brings up this other quote:
"If you make a fantastically interesting chart and some poor design decisions, the data will still come through. If you make a bad chart with a beautiful design, what have you done, really?"
It's true that there should be a beauty component in any visualization, and that trying new stuff every now and then (yes, even radar graphs) should be mandatory, as doing so may help expand our vocabulary. But it is also true that —if you want to call yourself a visual journalist or an information designer, at least— most of the time you may need to stay in the safe zone and stick to bulletproof shapes. You know: Bar graphs, dot plots (which are a good alternative to bar graphs,) line graphs, scatter plots, etc. If you shape your data in an innovative way just because it looks cool, or because it expresses the complexity of your inner world, you may be in the wrong business.

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