Monday, June 10, 2019

Thoughts and readings about visualization critique

Jon Schwabish has a good post about data visualization critique. This is a relevant paragraph:
It might help to think about these kinds of critiques as public conversations. These conversations can benefit the visualization creator by providing them with feedback and alternative ideas, and they can also help people who are viewing these visualizations. In any conversation, tone and form matter—how you say something can be as important as what you say. We should think of critique not as a simple take-down of someone’s work but instead as a way to build up someone’s work and an ongoing evolution of the field.
(Full disclosure: at the bottom of his article, Jon thanks me and my student Alyssa Fowers for providing some feedback; I suggested the lines above.)

Jon links to Fernanda ViĆ©gas's and Martin Wattenberg's already classic article, and to a more recent one —a writeup of a talk— by Elijah Meeks. I also recommend Alli Torban's post from a month ago.

My view: critique is vital. Once you make a visualization public, you become part of a conversation that also involves reactions to your work. You can't expect anyone to ask for your permission —as some designers have proposed in social media,— before making comments about your graphics. These comments are also part of that conversation.

At the same time, critique ought to be constructive, prudent, respectful of the philosophical principle of charity, —and itself open to critique. No opinion, no matter how well argued, is ever the last word on any matter, but part of an ongoing and endless dialogue intended to benefit everyone who designs or simply enjoys graphics.

Critics and designers —roles we all assume in different circumstances— need to accept that knowledge doesn't reside in individual brains, but is distributed, and that we human beings aren't very good at reasoning on our own. Recommended readings about this: The Knowledge Illusion, The Enigma of Reason, and One Nation, Two Realities, which is the most important book I've read so far this year.

We've all seen destructive and nasty critiques in the past. I know firsthand that snark can be very satisfying for the critic —there are people who seem to just want to collect scalps— but it's useless to everyone else. Our first impulse toward what we don't like is to be dismissive. Curb it.