Caroline Beavon (UK) is a visual journalist and graphic designer. In Februari she will run a training on Infographic Storytelling in Utrecht. Caroline: “We have different motives for showing the audience the data in the first place”.
Graphic Hunters: What is the power of a good visualization? In what way can a visualization help to understand or to communicate information?
Caroline Beavon: The power of a good visualisation is to ‘translate’ the information into a visual format that the audience can understand. There is no fixed way to do this as it depends entirely on the information being communicated, and the intended audience. The power lies in understanding these 2 elements and bridging the gap between them.
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?
I think many of these discussions in the visualisation field come about because it differs from case to case. If you are a journalist using an interactive tool to help someone understand climate change, you want the audience to be engaged for a longer period of time that, for example, someone trying to show their companies latest sales figures during a quick meeting.
Not only do we have different audiences, we also have different motives for showing them the data in the first place and varying levels of complexity within that information.
An exploratory visualisation (whether static or interactive) can be useful if the user really needs to get to grips with a more complex concept – that storytelling process reveals the information to them in stages without overwhelming them. That same process may not be needed during a sales presentation, when all the audience really wants is a single figure, or an idea of what is happening (i.e. are we selling more or less than last year).
What is the first most important question one should ask before starting visualising the data?
The first question I get people to consider is “what am I doing?”. In the same way you wouldn’t write a press release or organise a meeting without a clear purpose, you shouldn’t create a visualisation or infographic without knowing WHY. There are some sub-questions to this, such as “who is your audience?” “what is my message?” but “hat am I doing?” is a really good starting point.
I find it really useful to write down my answers to this question – and keep those to hand throughout the process. This helps me stay on track.
What tools are important to learn when you want to work with visualisations?
I encourage people to spend a considerable amount of time analysing and sorting their data BEFORE moving onto tools – so I’d say the brain is the most important tool. I insist on using post-it notes and big sheets of paper to get the information into shape before we start designing.
Once you do move onto the building stage, again it’s important to think carefully about what you’re trying to achieve. A tool like Tableau Public can be great for creating visualisations, and adding interactivity. Many infographics designers will use Illustrator (which has a quite a steep learning curve) but I’d advise using these for more complex infographics and reports (or bringing in someone than can). However, web based tools like Piktochart are great for creating quick charts and graphics for reports, slides and social media. I also recommend RAW for more complex visualisations, although there are some limitations with formatting the final output.
What is the role of design in a visualisation?
Design is about making something that works – from choosing the order of the information to the icons and typefaces you eventually use in the final graphic.
It’s worth remembering that the overall purpose of an infographic / visualisation is to communicate – this is what the user is expecting – so each design decision you make is crucial. We’re using colour, layout, hierarchy and other design decisions to communicate – so we need to use these tools carefully.
What’s the biggest mistake often made in visualisations?
The biggest mistake people make is losing sight of their purpose – the answers to the “what am I doing? “ question. They may forget about the message they are trying to get across, and end up producing something that is either lacking in information or overloads the audience. It’s also easy to design something for yourself, forgetting that in the instance your audience may have a very different understanding or need.
It can also be really easy to get caught up in the options the tools give you (like 3D, gradient colours, animation) when they may actually confuse the message.
Who needs data visualization most and doesn’t know it?
People who work with statistics/data every day (such as analysts or scientists) are often the most in need of visualisation help. I’m not suggesting that every chart created needs to be designed in Illustrator – as long as the chart / visualisation gets the message across to the intended audience, then it works.
However some don’t due to:
– attitude (the idea that good design is simply decoration or ‘dumbing down’)
– skills (they haven’t been trained on tools that can can help)
– tools – (the standard tools they use may not offer many design options)
These are all challenges to face, and there are times when it’s simply a case of encouraging them to think differently about the tools they currently use, instead of teaching them new ones.
What lessons do you want the participants to take home for the training?
The process of assessing and sorting the data is so important. Not only do you end up with the bare bones of your infographic, you also really question every single piece of data used.
Attendees are often skeptical during this part of the session – they may think writing all those post-it notes (the process I use) is a waste of time, but by the end they really understand the value and many say they’re going to use the process to help them write reports/press releases etc. in the future.