Historically, the term information graphics has conjured up thoughts of numbers, science, complexity and seriousness—as it still should in many cases. But like most things in today’s world, the delivery has changed. Data has had a makeover. Pie charts have gone the way of the answering machine, replaced by creative, interactive visualizations that are taking the design field by storm.
It shouldn’t surprise us. After all, we are bombarded hourly, even by the minute, with immeasurable amounts of information. A May 5, 2009 fastcompany.com article by Michael Cannell succinctly captures the fervor in its title: “Is Information Visualization the Next Frontier for Design?” Cannell cites last year’s political season and its coverage in newspapers and television as boosting information graphics into the mainstream. Remember the infinite number of possible electoral map outcomes?
We’ve hit warp speed in terms of data, and designers find themselves playing the role of interpreter, distilling all of it into something we're looking for.
If there’s an old guard of information graphics, it’s newspapers. They have been simplifying the complex and reporting to the public since their inception. And though the future of newspapers, as we know them, seems to be a relative unknown, the industry has not been immune to the info-graphics renaissance.
Steve Duenes, graphics director at the New York Times, says they approach each project and its figures as journalists. “We spend a lot of time pursuing data and trying to understand it before we ever make a pencil sketch,” Duenes explains. Organization and analyzation are crucial, whether the graphic will be static or dynamic. “I’m not saying anything new, but if the information isn’t interesting, the graphic won’t be interesting. If we spend time trying to come up with a series of design flourishes to enhance a thin set of data, we’re sunk. Obviously, design plays a role. It’s possible to take an intriguing set of data and design it poorly, but design isn’t where things start.”
When it’s time to design, Duenes and his team keep a few key principles in mind: establish a hierarchy; isolate what’s important (“What do people need to know?”); and try to simplify.
“Design is editing. Design is what we do to shape the data. As we shape it,” he explains, “we delete, emphasize, de-emphasize and stylize. We don’t ignore composition or aesthetics, but our goal is to communicate, which means that a simple table of numbers can be beautiful—if it tells you something new.”
A common thread throughout information graphics, whether for media outlets or corporations, is the amount of research involved. Vancouver, Canada-based designer Felix Heinen says that while the time needed for an information graphics project far exceeds that of other design work, interpreting data in an artistic, interesting way, and keeping the essential information, is what appeals to him. When Heinen began work on the annual report for Immofinanz AG, a German investment firm, he admits the subject was a new one for him, which meant it required time to learn about the company and its entire business. “Otherwise I would not have been able to extract the right information from the available data,” Heinen says.
Of course, the “right” information for a corporation and a nonprofit group varies from the more “neutral” reporting of journalism. New York designer John Emerson, author of a booklet titled Visualizing Information for Advocacy, admits, “When designing for advocacy work, one can sometimes take occasional liberties with tone, as well. Newspapers must often opt for an ‘objective’ look and feel. The style of ‘truthiness’ is fairly well established. Advocacy work may choose this approach or something more emotional, sensational or whimsical, depending on the issue, audience or context of the campaign. Humor is a great way to connect with an audience.” And connecting is paramount for advocacy groups that routinely publicize problems and push for solutions. At every step along the way, Emerson points out, “Information design can help with finding trends and patterns in data, making a situation understandable, and visualizing a better world.” In essence, it becomes a powerful and valuable tool.
Data comes alive, in a variety of forms and functions. Designers are embracing the current glut of information as their opportunity to shine. Their skills place them in an enviable position, poised to create clear, essential communication—whoever the intended audience may be. ca