Sunday, December 8, 2013

My bias against creativity in infographics and visualization

Slate has published a short essay about the bias against creativity, written by Jessica Olien, an illustrator based in Brooklyn. This weekend I'm grading my students' latest projects, so this grabbed my attention:
Unfortunately, the place where our first creative ideas go to die is the place that should be most open to them—school. Studies show that teachers overwhelmingly discriminate against creative students, favoring their satisfier classmates who more readily follow directions and do what they’re told.
That paragraph rang a bell because I feel that some of my students —particularly those in the infographics and visualization classes— think that I curb their creativity by dismissing their attempts to use funky graphic forms, display headlines, and colorful ornaments, and by constantly recommending them to reduce clutter and consider classic ("boring") shapes, like bar charts, dot plots, scatter graphs, thematic maps, etc.

It's true: I do discourage unconstrained creativity when you are a beginner. Why? Because I'm convinced that if you want to bend or break the rules —and there are some rules in information design, and they are not the product of white old men's aesthetic choices, but of how the visual brain works— first of all you need to know them well: Study them, understand them, and apply them until they become second nature. You cannot think "out of the box" if you don't know what the box looks like, to begin with. Call me a traditionalist, if you wish.

I usually refer to Picasso to make my case. Before moving to abstraction and Cubism, he stuck to pure academic realism. Compare the two paintings below. I believe that the second one wouldn't have been possible without the first one:


  1. I completely agree with your standpoint here. I mostly work with groups who are generally not interested in such things as communication design (finance & legal types primarily), and they're encouraged to be creative in their reporting and communications by management. What you tend to see as a result of this is that the information itself gets manipulated. Graph scales are mucked around with to be made to look more exciting. Misleading adjectives/adverbs are added to text in order to exaggerate the subject at hand. And "the data" generally disappears under layers of decoration. This is where most people automatically go when told to be more creative. From my experience, people who are primarily creativity-oriented tend to do the same sorts of things.

    The understanding that needs to be achieved, for the data-oriented and the creative alike, is that the point of data visualisation is to make information more accessible and, ideally, more attention-grabbing through good visual design. By encouraging the audience to look at the data presented and by making it as accessible as possible, you're achieving the prime objective: communicating information.

    The Picasso example is terrific, by the way.

  2. Fantastic example - Picasso is my favorite reference for this argument as everyone can understand it.