Andy Kirk is a freelance data visualisation specialist and responsible for the award winning website Visualising data. For his new book Andy has interviewed various professionals from data visualisation and related fields. He asked them six questions. Graphic Hunters sticks to five! Andy Kirk: “Curiosity is what drives people to make visualisations”.
Graphic Hunters: Why are visualisations so popular at the moment?
Andy Kirk: I think two words explain this: maturity and curiosity. I say ‘maturity’ because the availability of data has become so ubiquitous within organisations and also across society. We have the foundation of this amazing raw material yet, until maybe the last 3-5 years, not quite the widespread capability to do enough with it. This is the ‘push’ side of the equation. On the ‘pull’ side is ‘curiosity’, you can have all the data in the world but the key inherent quality is an appetite to want to explore it, learn from it, share it with others. Curiosity is what drives people to make visualisations, it is also what drives people to want others to make visualisations.
What is the first most important question one should ask before starting visualising the data?
Why? Why are we doing this? What has triggered the need for us to work towards creating a visualisation? It could be a general curiosity, as we’ve just discussed. It could be a very specific question that needs answering or even just a recognized opportunity to work with a potentially-rich dataset that should offer quality insights. Whatever the context, before you embark one step further, you need to articulate in your own mind what purpose the project that follows is serving.
How important is the role of design in visualizing data?
Fundamental. Clearly it is not the only critical ingredient – the data and the analysis, the technology skills to construct the solution, to name a few – but design thinking is what leads to the final presentation of the work. Design is what we see. When it is done well it removes obstructions to understanding, bringing insights to the surface and making interfaces seamlessly intuitive. It influences our attraction to the look and feel of a project, it gives us pleasure and makes us want to engage even if we don’t have to. When design is less effectively executed it creates obstacles to understanding, it confuses people, and simply undermines any positive emotion we wish to create for the user.
What is the biggest mistake often made in vizualisations?
There are so many! I’ll offer 3. The first is designers failing to care enough or think enough about their intended audience’s needs, designing for themselves and not others. The second mistake is in thinking creating ‘cool’ is in anyway the objective of visualisation. Cool is a bonus byproduct of good visualisation design thinking, not the core aim in and of itself. The final explicit mistake I find people make, is poor colour choices – arguably the most visible of all the design choices – creating ugly combinations, masses of unnecessarily prominent regions of colour, not letting data breath. These are all issues that can easily be addressed though, that’s the good news!
What is the most frequently asked question in your training sessions and what is your answer to this?
“What is the best solution for my current workplace problem!?” and my answer is always a terribly unsatisfactory “It depends”. That is an unfortunate answer but ultimately the only answer because there are so many different variables that alter the thinking for any given problem. In the absence of a single perfect solution one has to work towards an optimized solution – effective results achieved by efficient decisions – taking in to account timescales, the shape/size of data, the insights it might possess, the setting of the audience, the output format needs, the domain knowledge of the audience etc.