A good visualisation should tell a story without becoming one itself.
So what happens when you find a graphic so weird and so wonderful that it can only be described as a work of art?
The trend for strange-looking graphics is becoming increasingly popular. Take a look at a few here and here. Another site worth a visit is blprnt.blg, the work of Jer Thorp, ‘data artist in residence at the New York Times.’
Following a Society for News Design (SND) article by John Grimwade, graphics director at Condé Nast Traveller, the comments I read partly celebrated the artistry behind the works.
Michael Agar suggests ‘most examples…will line the walls of the Pompidou in 50 years’ time’ and it turns out some were on display at the V&A Museum in London in an exhibition called, ‘Decode: Digital Design Sensations’.
But can a graphic exhibited as art also inform like a great data visualisation should?
Or is the viewer too distracted by the beauty of the graphic to focus his or her attention on the graphic’s practical purpose – that of simplifying an issue, event or data by creating a visualisation of it?
As John Grimwade admits in his SND article, ‘I love [the graphics], but to be honest, I often have no idea what’s going on.’
The winner of the Best of Show award at the 2009 Malofiej International Infographics Awards was a New York Times graphic called, ‘The Ebb and Flow of Movies: Box Office Receipts 1986-2008’.
In a beautiful interactive chart, it shows different films’ successes and failures at the box office.
For me, its main problem is highlighted in the title: it flows. This means it is almost impossible to read precisely how much, say, ‘Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix’ raked in, or how long ‘Batman Returns’ peeked for.
Alberto Cairo, editor of brazilian daily O Globo summed up my frustration with the NYT visualisation in this video of the 2010 Malofiej Awards: ‘it’s graphically gorgeous. But…it was really difficult to extract deep meaning from the graphic.’
This poses a real problem for data journalism.
If a complex graphic leaves its viewer feeling more confused than enlightened, more frustrated than empowered to draw his or her own conclusions from the graphic, it is not fulfilling its role. It is leaving the viewer behind.
Graphics professionals should maintain the focus on their readers or viewers.
As John Grimwade points out in his SND article, ‘unless we’re creating pieces for a gallery, everything in a graphic should work to help people make sense of complex information. Especially now, when we’re being bombarded with info from all sides…let’s…not add to the chaos.’
Claire Gilmore (@ClaireEGilmore)