Sunday, June 16, 2013

When animation lessens clarity

Half a year ago, I wrote a brief post titled 'There's beauty in print graphics'. Today I felt compelled to add that, in many cases, it's not just beauty, but also clarity, insight, and efficiency. The map on the left was published today by The New York Times. I was so allured by it that I went online to compare it with its interactive version. What I found instead was this animation.

I don't know if you'll share my opinion, but I believe that the static graphic is more effective. Human short term memory is weak. When I watched the video, I lost track after the third or fourth city. As wonderfully produced the animation is, it doesn't convey the same sense of crazy immensity. We don't grasp its scale even if figures are displayed on the upper left corner. The print map is dryly straightforward: That's what 250 million people living in large cities look like. Period. No bells and whistles.

This may be a good class example to explain that there are certain stories that are better told in linear fashion (because each step in the process of understanding builds on the previous one), but that many graphics benefit from simple juxtaposition.

UPDATE June 18: A while ago, I had a short exchange with NASA's Rob Simmon about the value of animation. He wrote a post about it. Please read it.