Thursday, July 11, 2013

In visualization, focus on what matters

Hot Dog Eating Contest, visualized, by Lee Feinberg
I've just finished writing the third long article for my publisher, Peachpit (read the other ones here and here.) It'll be online in the next month or so. It discusses the role that independent visualization designers and small firms and teams could have in the current media landscape, in which large watchdog/news organizations are in deep trouble.

The paragraphs below, which are approximately 10% of the article, summarize one of the suggestions that I offer. I was reminded of it these days while going through several links that I had saved to show in class —one of them is on the left; for the record, I think that it's a lof of fun. This copy has not been edited yet, so forgive me for any mistakes or typos:

How many visualizations of flight paths, languages on Twitter, Facebook friend networks, and votes in the Eurovision song contest does the world need? I'd argue that not that many as we see nowadays. On the other hand, how many graphics about inequality, poverty, education, violence, war, political corruption, science, the economy, the environment, etc., are worth publishing? I'll leave the answer to you, but you can guess what mine is.

I know of no research to back me up on this, but my guess is that visualization designers are, on average, nerdier and more technophilic than your average Jane and Joe. When we have the freedom to choose what topics to cover, we tend to lean toward issues most people don't care much about, but that we consider fun and cool. Besides, we tend to focus in areas in which data are easily available, and arranged in a neat way —Internet and social media usage are the obvious examples, but there are many others.

I'm not sinless, by the way. Between January and May 2013, I oversaw a visualization project by a Spanish student, Esteve Boix, which I've described in detail in my website. Its topic was Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, Joss Whedon's geeky TV show. A portion of my soul —the one that remains stuck in a Dungeons&Dragons and comic book-filled adolescence— was enthralled. The other side —the adult, emotionally hardened one— wondered if the energy spent in timing the appearances of characters in the show and other trivial minutiae could not have been better spent in more worthwhile endeavors.

We, designers, artists, visual communicators in general, have an objective moral obligation to improve our communities, to inform citizens and increase their understanding of relevant matters. I use the words 'objective' and 'moral' with full knowledge of their slippery meanings*. I have nothing against graphics that display, say, the geographic spread of grocery store and supermarket brands; in fact, I may enjoy your visualization very much. But days on this planet of ours are 24-hour long, life expectancy at birth in the U.S. is currently 79, and the existence of an afterlife is highly dubious, to say the least. It's advisable to spend oneself's time wisely. Therefore, when weighing what project to undertake next, think twice.

*Allow me to recommend The Moral Landscape, a book by Sam Harris, to understand where I'm coming from.