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.

13 comments:

  1. Good write up. For the second time in a week I've been impressed how people who made something sub-par have been willing to take the criticism, try and learn why it caused such ire and did it. That's all critique is meant to achieve... to impart some knowledge transfer so that those who want to make maps, graphs or whatever can do a good job and do their work justice. Maybe the tide is changing? I sense that more people seem open to critique than even a couple of years ago. I hope so because whether the style is snarky or not the intent is to inform and educate. My students always benefited from firm but honest and fair assessment. We're all students and continually learning something that someone else is better at than us. As for my first map at University... I got A+ and was told Is set a tough standard to maintain ;-)

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  2. I am very wary of snark because it can make the target of the criticism become defensive, and for good reason. Snark doesn't build anything, it just destroys. It kills conversations before they even start. I agree with David Denby when he says that “Snark is not original. It is essentially parasitic and lazy.”

    http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/jacketcopy/2009/01/why-are-we-so-s.html

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    1. I couldn't agree more regarding snark. Thanks so much for your post!

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  3. Props to Cohn for seeing past the snark and making such a huge improvement to his graphics.

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  4. Keeping a balance is key. In a world where everyone is able to publish anything there's a need for others to respond as they see fit. On one hand it's up to the responders to try not to over-step the line and as Denby suggests...wit, sarcasm and satire are no bad thing in trying to be truthful. They can so easily be perceived as snark though and the written word is often taken that way. It's also convenient for those that feel their work is being unfairly treated to argue the commentator is just being snarky for the sake of it - it can deflect from the substance of the comments (on both sides). There's also a real need for people to toughen up too. I open my work up to critique so if I'm prepared to dish it out I also have to be prepared to take it. Online conversations tend to occur in sound-bites though, which does open them to misinterpretation. Take this conversation...do I infer you're accusing me of being parasitic and lazy? I hope not but it could read that way...and if you were, then how do I respond? Do I take insult and become defensive as I try and explain my approach...or should I reflect a little and perhaps consider that you have a point? Like I said, balance is key...and for me...understanding that the curse of my British sense of humour is not always warmly received. That said, we all learn and adapt and better understanding how your writings are perceived is a good thing.

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  5. Notice that I was talking exclusively about beginners or people who will never be full time designers (or cartographers, statisticians, etc.) Neither you nor I are beginners.

    What worries me isn't harsh commentary or even snark per se, but the fact that comments that aren't constructive may lead some newbies and amateurs to refrain from even trying. Your article is constructive, as it explains how to improve the original map. Our reaction on Twitter wasn't, though. Was that due to the constraints of the tool itself (140 characters...)? Perhaps. But perhaps that's just a poor excuse for not behaving in a more civil manner.

    In any case, I agree with the substance of your comment.

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    1. Twitter has to be the epitome of un-social media...it's all too easy to post a knee-jerk reaction that's invariably poorly framed. That's partly the fault of the medium but also us, I agree. 140 characters is certainly constraining but it is what it is. I find Twitter invaluable as a tool of engagement but someone once asked me what the disbenefits are. Misconstrued comments;, out-of-context misinterpretations; poorly phrased thoughts (140 chars); terrible at translating wit or sarcasm; and that no-one knows if you're being serious, joking, or whether you were blind drunk and incapable of sensible, coherent thinking in either what you want to say or how you say it. For all its limitations and how we use it, I still find Twitter a compelling source of thinking, sharing, ideas and conversations. After 13,000+ tweets I've probably had 4 or 5 unsavory run-ins with people...and try and learn from each one. They're usually based on a misunderstanding! Blimey...13,000 tweets...that's about 200,000 words. If I was as prolific at writing all those years ago when I completed my PhD I might have got it done quicker. Maybe that's the point...putting together a PhD requires one to put, say, 80,000 words together in some sensible order. It requires thought and care. If we treated tweets with the sort of care one approaches more sensible and serious writing then maybe more people would benefit more of the time.

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  6. You've brought up a good point about the delicate balance between collegial constructive criticism and perceived hostility coupled with cultural and societal differences between people and their concomitant ability to learn and grow from that feedback.

    It's a given that cartographers shouldn't discourage honest attempts at map making. However, when an inappropriate, misleading, or unethical map makes it into mainstream media, it is imperative that we speak out to correct it, ameliorate the damage, and so on.

    Playground-style mocking never improved anyone's maps. I tend to take two tactics when doling out criticism: (1) contact the originator privately with ideas for improvement and/or (2) critique the map anonymously on my blog such that the original map and mapmaker aren't referenced except in the abstract.

    We must also look inward: if people are failing to make adequate map products then we haven't provided enough or the right kind of materials to educate newcomers.

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  7. There's nothing like a thread about how we communicate in virtual space to kick things off. It's no surprise that a few have isolated my throwaway line about getting an A+ at University and decided that it reflects a serious lack of humility on my part. It was a harmless comment in response to Alberto's point about our early work lacking in quality. I agree...most of mine was pretty awful too...just not that first one which I find quite amusing and which is why I shared it! It was designed to be light-hearted and that's why the wink was added. I also failed introductory economics and geology at University and also maths at school...just so you know.

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  8. As someone who has snarked about the less fortunate examples on web cartography on Twitter, let me offer an important distinction.

    Students and other newcomers should absolutely be encouraged to iterate on their work and learn best practices the way most of us did--trial and lots and lots of error.

    My problem with the map above is not that it was made, but that it was published by a 'name' outlet such as The New Republic. Presumably they have multiple checks to ensure that prose riddled with basic grammatical errors gets corrected and doesn't get published as-is. Yet graphics that have basic flaws of visual grammar are seemingly given no particularly rigorous review before the publish button is pressed.


    We justly celebrate the work of the NY Times digital department whose quality is the equal of the writing. I don't think it's unfair to remind national caliber publishing platforms that basic rules of visual grammar do in fact exist, and for good reason.


    Brian Timoney


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  9. Oh dear...I checked. I only got an A for my first map. Lesson in fact-checking prior to telling the story me thinks but the work is here if you want to go take a look: http://cartonerd.blogspot.com/2014/08/just-a.html

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  11. That map deserves an A+++. Did Maiden play that year?

    Thanks everyone for contributing to the discussion.

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