Saturday, August 16, 2014

Some words about constructive criticism

Forgive me in advance if this post sounds like a bland platitude, but if there's something I've learned the hard way in ten years teaching information graphics is that (1) we should always candidly criticize what we think is wrong if —and only if— (2) we can clearly explain why it's wrong, and (3) if we are willing to do it in a considerate manner. I write this knowing that my own gut reactions tend to match the current style of much Internet commentary, which is snarky and dismissive. That's why I try to exert as much control as possible over them. Sometimes, I fail.

Last time was ten days ago. The New Republic's senior editor Jonathan Cohn published a story that included the following map:

There's no doubt that this is a really bad map. It provoked a lot of laughs on Twitter, and a thorough critique by Kenneth Field. It was even called “the worst map of the year.” But what I discovered during the conversation on Twitter is that it's also the very first map Cohn has made. They didn't have anyone to produce this kind of work in the newsroom at that moment, so Cohn got his data and visualized them with Datawrapper. There's merit in that.

Honestly, people, do you remember your first infographics or data visualizations? I do. They were horrible. I'll repeat that: Horrible. And they didn't get slightly better probably until three or four years after my career began. Fortunately, the World Wide Web wasn't as popular in 1997 as it is today, and social media wasn't even a topic in Science Fiction novels. Otherwise, my first efforts would probably had met the same responses Cohn received.

Knowing myself a bit (or so I hope,) I guess that my reaction to criticism would be similar to Cohn's: Acknowledging the problem, and trying to fix it. In fact, Cohn redesigned his map, and added another with normalized data. See both maps below (or in the story): Not bad, right? They are a zillion times better than the second graphic I produced as an intern in the late 1990s, that's for damn sure.

Where am I trying to go with this? Look, most of my students at the University of Miami aren't going to be professional designers after they graduate. That isn't the assumption my courses are based on. My classes are intended to help students understand that anyone —writers, scientists, lawyers, you name it— is capable of communicating effectively by means of charts, maps, diagrams, and explanation illustrations, after learning some principles and software tricks.

Scornful commentary of work done by beginners or non-designers is contrary to this goal of popularizing information graphics among the general public. Based on my experience, I can assure you that it discourages many newcomers. It makes them feel hopeless. It instills in them the sense that high-quality graphics should be the realm of a caste of information designers, computer scientists, cartographers, statisticians, etc. I loathe that notion because I loathe territoriality. I want this stuff to become mainstream. I wish to see amateurs taking risks, playing with software tools, failing, and learning from their mistakes, like Cohn did. Let's help them by never remaining silent when we see dubious graphics, but also by trying to be constructive.