Juan Velasco (USA) is the co-founder of 5W Infographics. He was the Art Director of National Geographic Magazine and Graphics Art Director of the New York Times. In June he will deliver a two day training in Amsterdam on Information Graphics For Print And Online. Juan Velasco: ‘’It’s important to remember that the role of a good visualization is not to simplify. It’s to clarify’’.

Graphic Hunters: What is the power of a good visualization? In what way can a visualization help to understand or to communicate information?

Juan Velasco: We are in the age of big data. Everything is being measured and quantified and more unfiltered information is available to more people. But the important messages are often confusing or hidden in the midst of so much information. A good visualization makes sense of complex information by organizing it, editing it and presenting it visually for quicker understanding of the ideas and trends hidden behind the data, or behind large amounts of text.

I have read that someone has to understand a visualization within seconds, others say visualizations should leave something to explore. What is your opinion on this?

Both are very valid points. A good visualization succeeds when it delivers a clearly understandable message, and the speed of understanding is very important. If the message is obscured by too much complexity or simply bad design, in most cases readers will turn away, and rightly so. But it’s important to remember that the role of a good visualization is not to simplify. It’s to clarify. And clarifying information sometimes involves embracing a bit of complexity. There are stories that may take longer to understand, and if we just “dumb down” and oversimplify the visualization we may be losing critical details or nuance, or we may just be unable to tell the story.

But the harder a reader needs to work to understand the visualization, the higher the return he should get for his/her efforts in trying to understand it. A visualization that requires some time to understand is only justified if it brings exceptional insight.

And, obviously, some visualizations are exploratory, meaning they let the reader explore even if it takes time. That’s is always good as it’s a voluntary act from an engaged reader, but each of the steps in that exploration should be well explained and easy to understand.

What is the first most important question one should ask before starting visualising the data?

Do I have enough data/research to understand the relevance of the information, and to present it in a way that is complete, accurate and unbiased? And also: What is the main goal and the message that needs to be communicated? Will visualizing it bring more clarity and insight that we’ll have by telling the story in a different way? What relevant comparisons will put the information in context for the readers?

What tools are important to learn when you want to work with visualizations?  

Nowadays, new software is coming up all the time to produce data. But those are only tools. The most important step happens in your head when you conceptualize and brainstorm a visualization, when you make choices. The most important tool is a simple pencil that can translate that idea into the real word with initial sketches. I encourage everyone to do a lot of hand sketching, no matter how rough they are.

As for software tools, a large percentage of graphics and data visualizations can be created with Adobe Illustrator alone. But when we have complex datasets, being able to manipulate and organize data in Excel is extremely useful.

Those three tools are important to learn. And others are good to learn:
• The ability to code (HTML, CSS, javascript) is always a huge advantage to create sophisticated interactives with tools like D3.js, but there is also a lot that can be done without any programming with great tools like Tableau.
• For illustrated infographics or motion graphics, Adobe After Effects or any good 3D software package greatly expand our possibilities to create amazing content.
• And I would encourage learning GIS for sophisticated mapping with large amounts of data, or at least tools like Mapbox to plot your data on online maps.

What is the role of design in a visualization?

The message is the key and the design and aesthetics are just a tool to aid in making it clear and engaging. But if these don’t work well, the failure will be complete. Design tools such as color, typography, hierarchy and reading order or flow, help us produce clean and easy to understand data visualization. Good design takes into account how readers perceive, process and understand visual messages. It’s always best to stick to common sense principles of visual presentation.

What is the secret on how to balance design, data and the story?

Integrity, clarity and accuracy are the most important goals. We need to start with solid research and good data sets from reliable sources. You have to have an editor’s mind to find the relevant message in the middle of the noise and keeping a strong focus on it, knowing how it supports and enhances the story, or how it tells a relevant story if the data visualization is a standalone piece. And you have to be a designer to find a clean, clear and beautiful way to present it. Once you start thinking about the visuals, the way to balance both areas is to keep having the benefit of the reader in mind and to remind yourself constantly that any visual/aesthetic decision is only a mean towards the goal of telling a story efficiently. Sometimes the best design is the most invisible where the data comes forward without visual distraction and without making us think of how it was produced.

What’s the biggest mistake often made in visualizations?

Lack of clarity, which is everywhere. So many visualizations are simply not clear enough, regardless of how simple or complex the subject matter is. This lack of clarity can originate at different stages of the process:
• By not having a clear focus in the research and concept phase, and trying to explain too much
• By adding unnecessary or confusing elements in the design phase. Bad color, bad labeling, unclear hierarchy or a confusing structure can all ruin any data visualization.
• By not aiding the reader with a clear, well-thought narrative and providing context and comparisons.

Who needs data visualization most and doesn’t know it?

I often think the way most companies communicate internally, an often externally, needs a lot of help from data visualization and infographics. There are thousands of PowerPoint presentations created every day that are too long and tedious; text and bullet point endless presentations that don’t make a clear point. There are many opportunities there to create revealing data visualizations that make the main messages clear and memorable. But I also see a lot of the opposite, too many charts! If they are not clearly focused it can be overwhelming and even confuse things more. And, often they are poorly made if not flatly incorrect.

Governments and public institutions could also benefit a lot from delivering concise and clear explanatory data visualization and infographics in their public outreach messages.

You have made quite some award winning infographics. What is the secret of making a good visualization?

Graphics explain and turn on the light for readers to understand information better. Be clean and clear, accurate and accountable; Starting from that solid ground there is huge room for creativity, innovation and beauty, so feel free to experiment but don’t be confused by the trends and the noise. Show your work to multiple people before publishing it and listen carefully to their critiques. Find your own language and enjoy trying to master your craft.

What is the most frequently asked question in your training sessions and what is your answer to this?

Most people are interested in seeing and understanding the step-by-step process of creating an infographic: the early brainstorming, finding and selecting data, and going through the different stages: the process of making some visual choices to encode the information and discarding others, sketching, and how to use the different tools to refine the presentation. Basically people want to see the “making of” or behind-the-scenes from idea to publication.

What lessons do you want the participants to take home for the training?

Infographics and data visualization are a unique language that help us illuminate and explain difficult or large amounts of information. They are fascinating because you need to strive for engaging and beautiful design and illustration within the constrains of absolute efficiency in delivering a message with clarity. Data visualization is not decoration but an informational tool. If you are mostly fascinated by the design of data visualization but not interested in journalism, data, research and storytelling you will not enjoy it as much.

It’s important to know the rules: what works and what doesn’t, what types of charts and maps may be inadequate or simply wrong. How readers interact with a printed or online page, and what are the best practices. How to make visual choices. And it’s also important to be inspired by great work, and to be aware of the many resources available to improve and inspire your work. I hope we’ll cover all those points in the training!

De training Information Graphics For Print And Online staat gepland op 15 en 16 juni 2016 in Amsterdam. Enthousiast geworden over deze training? Kijk voor meer informatie op de website en schrijf je in.