Through customized, conscientious editorial and design choices, data has the power to show and tell some amazing stories.
To quote Edward Tufte, the godfather of information design, “Graphical excellence consists of complex ideas communicated with clarity, precision, and efficiency… [It also] is that which gives to the viewer the greatest number of ideas in the shortest time with the least ink in the smallest space.”
I believe in Tufte’s approach. Because I honed a specialty in delicate data that directly impacts lives, I prefer “small data” that has been carefully analyzed, edited and presented in a way that educates and genuinely makes a difference. I appreciate the power of how data and other types of information can be integrated with visuals, careful word choice and thoughtful design to create powerful narratives that influence positive social change. The best information design doesn’t rely on technology, flashy imagery or clichéd templates, but rather, it allows beneficial information to soar.
My creative approach to infographics and data visualization has always been first and foremost about showing and telling a clear, focused and compelling story. That philosophy also applies to my current work within the broader realm of strategic creative communications.
When I first started designing data-driven content in the early 2000s, there were no common terms to describe what I did for a living. While working in the Graphics Department at the Associated Press in New York’s Rockefeller Center, I would always have to clarify that I “created the maps, charts and diagrams seen in news publications.” “News graphics” was the term many people understood. Others preferred to describe me as an “information designer.” It was only when I worked on the AP’s multiple-award winning Stress Index in 2009 that someone first called me “the data visualization expert.”
Despite all of these various labels floating around, the core of my work never changed. I was a cross-format journalist who specialized in fusing visuals, words and numbers into a cohesive story intended to resonate with audiences. My motivation was to educate and clearly answer the most intriguing and pressing questions related to the news and present the findings in a way that invited the audience to want to learn.
- How had the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq impacted communities?
- How much did racism play a role in the socioeconomic inequities following Hurricane Katrina?
- During the 2008 elections, how liberal and conservative were the voting records for members of Congress (including the presidential candidates)?
- How can I understand the complexity of the situation in Israel and the Palestinian Territories?
- How are all of the characters in the TV show “Lost” connected with each other?
Since I created this assortment of work, journalism and the communications industry at large have changed dramatically. Technology like Google Maps has diluted the need for customized cartography. Big Data has motivated computer scientists to translate giant databases into automated visual templates, removing the valuable steps of analyzing and editing out key findings. And the mainstream’s embrace of infographics to help promote products and services has developed a formulaic approach where visual iconography takes priority over creating infographics that effortlessly inform.
As a result of these changes, meaningful stories are lost. Too many infographics and data visualizations lack clear, valuable takeaways. Audiences are rarely drawn in by compelling answers to pertinent questions. And more often than not, they have to work much too hard to obtain basic understanding of what they are exploring.
Back in early 2011, before these shallow trends overwhelmed the industry, I had a memorable conversation with the executive editor of one of the world’s largest news organizations. In our engaging conversation about data’s rising popularity, he posed a pointed question to me — “Are you passionate about data?” I replied, “I’m passionate about storytelling, and data tells some amazing stories.”
I still feel this way.