Data Visualization Bimbos

Do you know that, according to Amazon, Tufte’s Envisioning Information is a best seller book in Design and Decorative Arts?

This man fights all his life against decoration and one of his best books ends up on the Decorative Arts category? Life (or Amazon) does have a twisted sense of humor.

Unless… Unless Amazon is plotting against data visualization. Many well-known data visualization books are cataloged under Graphic Design. That’s not ignorance, that’s conspiracy!

I’m not amused.

If you believe that data visualization is a branch of graphic design you are wrong. You can make prettier charts, but you are no better than those corporate users drooling over some canned 3D pie charts.

Data visualization is about data management, statistics and perception. Design is a nice, but optional, addition. It adds consistency, an emotional touch and grabs users attention but if it substantially improves insights that’s because something is wrong with the other components.

Graphic designers could be great data visualization experts (some are), but above all they love beauty, not data. Under graphic design, data visualization will become a useless bimbo.

Dear Amazon, please add a new Information Visualization category under Professional & Technical > Professional Science > Mathematics (or Professional Science > Data Science) . Do it now. Some books should be kept in the Decorative Arts. I’ll give you a list, free of charge.

OK, that was today’s pet peeve.

PS: I’ve never bought a data visualization book in a bookshop. Do you? Where do you find them? Graphic design, business or statistics (or decorative arts)?

[Update: This was supposed to be small rant, but it is attracting some harsh comments. Some are deserved (sloppy language) but others are clearly jumping to conclusions that are not in the post. I welcome your comments but please read my comments too. Here are a few points that I’d like to make clearer:

  • You cannot approach data visualization from a single perspective. If you are making a chart you are more than a graphic designer, you are more than a statistician.
  • Graphic design is not about decoration or prettification. But if you forget the data or make a data-inspired infographic that’s what you get.
  • “Design is a nice, but optional, addition.” OK, let me rewrite this: graphic design is always there, even if you use the chart defaults in Excel 2003. If you know something about perception probably you don’t need strong graphic design skills, specially if you work in corporate environment. They help, they and can improve your charts, but are not essential. If you want to make infographics, that’s a different story.
  • The primary parent category for “Information Visualization” should be “Data Science” not “Graphic Design”. If the books are under “Graphic Design” they should also be under “Perception”, “Statistics” etc.]

24 thoughts on “Data Visualization Bimbos

  1. Well, this might be, because Tufte’s books are, after all, design books. They are not mathematics books, nor data science books. Tufte speaks – at length – about the design of visualizations. I am just speculating here, but maybe your notion of design is in fact limited to decoration?

  2. Moritz, bad design if often limited to decoration, and we see a lot of that these days. If we encorage people to see data visualisation as a branch of graphic design the truth / beauty balance will be lost. That’s what I call the bimboization of data visualization.

    I belive that design in data visualization is above all functional (how to improve perception), not about aesthetics. Yes, you can add beauty, but that’s optional.

  3. Design, at its core, had always been about form and function in equal parts. If you reduce it to “adding beauty”, you are missing what designers actually do in their work. 

    To quote Wikipedia, (mostly for laziness reasons to hunt down the authoritative source) (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Design)

    [Design is] a specification of an object, manifested by an agent, intended to accomplish goals, in a particular environment, using a set of primitive components, satisfying a set of requirements, subject to constraints;[…]Designing often necessitates considering the aesthetic, functional, economic and sociopolitical dimensions of both the design object and design process. It may involve considerable research,thought, modeling, interactive adjustment, and re-design.

  4. Moritz, if you reread my comment you’ll see that I don’t reduce design to “adding beauty”. I do believe that the role of a graphic designer in data visualization is above all functional: how to translate the data into a visual display in a way that improves perception of the object.

    This do not exclude form. If the designer has to choose between two perceptually equivalent options, he/she should choose the more aesthetically pleasing one. If they are not equivalent the designer has to choose between a better perceptual experience vs. better aesthetical/emotional experience, and often he/she chooses the later (“it’s in my nature” says the scorpion).

    At its core, data visualization is the visual translation of an underlying table to improve cognition. You can emphasize design (Tufte) perception (Ware), statistics (Cleveland) of a little bit of everything (Few) but you can’t categorize it under any of these fields.

    If a graphic designer approaches data visualization from a pure graphic design perspective data will suffer (it usually does, as you can see all over the web). The same is true with statistics or perception. What I love about data visualization is that crossroad that forces us to understand those multiples perspectives.

    Form follows function, but often in graphic design applied to data visualization it’s the other way around.

  5. ” I do believe that the role of a graphic designer in data visualization is above all functional: how to translate the data into a visual display in a way that improves perception of the object.”

    I used to believe the same but I think it’s limiting to think the goal is to improve the “perception of the object”. It’s much more complex than that, especially in two cases: (1) story telling and (2) interactive exploration. Having the perception right is one component, not the whole story IMO.

  6. Jorge, as I
    designer with years of experience in product design, graphic
    design, interaction design, user experience design, and yes, information
    visualization, I find your post not just acidic, but bluntly bigoted. You
    express an uninformed view about what design stands for, and an old-fashioned
    attitude that I thought was long gone. The notion of design being primarily
    about decoration or making things prettier is as absurd as saying statistics is
    just about number crunching. Both are misguided and prejudiced statements that
    fail to depict the true value of the discipline.

    Most principles
    that Tufte advocates in his books are at its core graphic design principles, so
    it makes perfect sense to me that his books would go under such category at
    Amazon. “Design & Decorative Arts” – the parent category of “Graphic Design”
    – is simply a larger container that includes other sub-categories like “Furniture
    Design” and “Textile & Costume”. Furthermore, Amazon doesn’t provide users with
    a single taxonomic path. “Envisioning Information” is also under “Professional
    Science > Mathematics” and “Skills > Communication”.

    I had a great
    design teacher in college who used to say that part of the role of being a designer
    is informing people about design. In light of this, here is my recommendation:

    Don’t simply
    concentrate on badly executed projects and then generalize by taking the part
    for the whole. And please don’t use the words “decoration” or “aesthetics” alternatingly
    with “design”. They are not the same.

  7. I have the impression this discussion is based on different interpretations of the term “design”, in combination with the desire to point to “graphic design” as being the primary source of the very worst dataviz examples. However, I can provide plenty of examples originating from “non-graphic-designers” (let’s call them that way for the sake of the argument) that make equally bad or even worse “data visualizations” (Googling “Excel chart” or “Powerpoint chart” should do the trick here). 

    These non-graphically designed graphs are just not that prevalent in popular (online and print) culture, but actually tend to pop up where ‘serious’ decision making occurs. It’s your choice to consider whether this phenomenon actually forms a more dramatic problem or not.

    In short: there is plenty bad practice at both sides of the (imaginary) fence. Focusing on just one side makes little sense.

    On the other discussion topic: data visualization is not a branch of graphic design per sé, but it is a “branch” of design for sure (equally as it is of computer science, for instance). 

  8. Manuel: welcome to my humble blog. I’m sorry to see that you couldn’t find the time to read the post. Could you please point to where I say that design is about decoration? I’m reading the post again and I can’t find it.

    Now please read this very carefully: graphic design is nothing more than decoration and prettifying charts if the designer believes that data visualization is a branch of graphic design.

    And no, it’s not a matter of badly executed projects. Search for “cool infographics” and you’ll find plenty of “bar charts with a twist”. How many times “the twist” improves the chart? almost never. Do you mean that all these “cool infographics” are badly executed projects?

  9. I don’t understand what you guys are arguing about… But I do think there are ‘infographic bimbos’ where they claim to be visualizing data when in reality its just adding some flourishes an decorations that distract more than communicate. True data visualization really is routed in user-experience design, it doesn’t require graphic design but rather information design/architecture.

  10. Enrico, I usually emphasize perception, perhaps more than I should, but I also say in the following paragraphs, that you can’t approach data visualization from a single perspective.

  11. If what you’re saying is that data visualisation is there for the understanding and analysis of data as opposed to the presentation of it to third parties, then I couldn’t agree more.  As a tech/artist cross-over I’m very interested data visualisation as a tool for understanding what goes on.

    ..but please – my work is no useless bimbo. What I do, which is art and design inspired by data and mathematics is obviously completely useless as a diagnostic tool, however the aethetics and meaning of my work have artistic purpose… and if I make it as a table, you can use it to put a cup of coffee on.

    Good looking? Yes. Useless? No, just a different use, but agreed that Amazon needs to get itself a proper librarian!!!

    kind regards,

    Terence

  12. Andrew: I don’t think that graphic designers are the source of all dataviz Evil. On the contrary, they are in an unique position to understand and create great data visualization examples. Many are becoming aware of what they can do and can’t do with the data. A data-aware graphic designer was a strange and rare creature just a few years ago.

    That said, search for something like “how to make cool infographics” and you’ll find plenty of misleading advice. The result is always bimbo dataviz.

    If by “non-graphic-designers” you basically mean corporate Excel users you are right. They should be able to create and automate effective charts and they can’t. They can’t because they don’t know how, are stuck with Excel chart defaults and their managers don’t seem to care. This is not bimbo dataviz, it’s just ineffective crap.

  13. While I wholehearted disagree with many of your points, I will do you the favor of pointing out your conflicting use of the terms “design” and “graphic design” — which seems to be confusing both yourself and your readers. You seem to be attempting to make a highly semantic argument, but are unfortunately quote sloppy with your language. 
    Where do you say design is about decoration? Well, you seem to make the distinction between design and graphic design, defining the latter as a decorative art:

    “Graphic designers could be great data visualization experts (some are), but above all they love beauty, not data.”

    “graphic design is nothing more than decoration and prettifying charts if the designer believes that data visualization is a branch of graphic design.”

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but you basically just said that graphic design is decoration if the designer is a graphic designer, ergo graphic design is decoration …. no?

    You also imply that design is also decorative:

    “Design is a nice, but optional, addition.”

    “bad design if often limited to decoration”

    You are correct in saying data visualization certainly lays at the intersection of quite a few fields. Even in the most hardcore of dataviz areas are interdisciplinary and/or multidisciplinary. Medical geography and epidemiology came together to create epidemiological cartography, for instance. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t great books that are clearly more on the medical geography side, and other on the epidemiological side.

    The interdisciplinary/multidisciplinary nature of data visualization is also at the heart of design AND graphic design, where designers are never informed solely by their own field, whether whats being designed is dataviz or an iPad app or an advertisement for potato chips. 

  14. Terence: art inspired by data is one thing, and I like it. An infographic inspired by data is something else.

  15. emtarte, as I said above, if you are aware of what you can and can’t do with data, you can create beautiful infographics that respect the data. If you aren’t, you’ll make pretty data-inspired images. That’s OK, but don’t call it data visualization.

  16. Seems like my comments didn’t post. Sorry if this is a duplicate…

    While I wholehearted disagree with many of your points, I will do you the favor of pointing out your conflicting use of the terms “design” and “graphic design” — which seems to be confusing both yourself and your readers. You seem to be attempting to make a highly semantic argument, but are unfortunately quote sloppy with your language. 
    Where do you say design is about decoration? Well, you seem to make the distinction between design and graphic design, defining the latter as a decorative art:

    “Graphic designers could be great data visualization experts (some are), but above all they love beauty, not data.”

    “graphic design is nothing more than decoration and prettifying charts if the designer believes that data visualization is a branch of graphic design.”

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but you basically just said that graphic design is decoration if the designer is a graphic designer, ergo graphic design is decoration …. no?

    You also imply that design is also decorative:

    “Design is a nice, but optional, addition.”

    “bad design if often limited to decoration”

    You are correct in saying data visualization certainly lays at the intersection of quite a few fields. Even in the most hardcore of dataviz areas are interdisciplinary and/or multidisciplinary. Medical geography and epidemiology came together to create epidemiological cartography, for instance. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t great books that are clearly more on the medical geography side, and other on the epidemiological side.

    The interdisciplinary/multidisciplinary nature of data visualization is also at the heart of design AND graphic design, where designers are never informed solely by their own field, whether whats being designed is dataviz or an iPad app or an advertisement for potato chips.

  17. emtarte: it is under Manuel Lima’s comment. My comment is also there. This Disqus commenting system is making me nervous… do you mind if I delete this one? I’ll do it later, if that’s OK with you.

  18. I found this note in an infographic: “All percentages were rounded to the nearest multiple of ten, except for percentages below 10, which were rounded to create one postcard.”. So, 14% and 1% are exactly the same. Is this acceptable? I don’t think so. And I don’t think this is just another “badly executed project”. Corporate users with Excel 2003 and low literacy rate show more respect to the data.

  19. I am so glad you wrote this. Last year, I visited a congress dedicated to ‘data visualisation’ and noticed the visitors were all graphic designers who wouldn’t be able to distinguish a median from a mean if their life depended on it. Good data visualisation is clutterless. It’s not about ‘pretty pictures’ that ‘tell a story’ to ‘wow the reader’ – it’s about clearly, concisely showing insight. 

    We share a pet peeve then!

  20. in my humble opinion, data visualization is where math meets design, and you need to understand both well to get it right

  21. You are right. I don’t see much difference between them. In some sense I see them both as compression algorithms that will help you make sense of your data. When there is little variation, probably an average is all you need and you don’t have to spend your time making a chart. If you have a complex pattern you need a chart. Your job is to choose the right algorithm for the task at hand.

  22. All your posts are thin when it comes to illustrating your points. You seem to lack substantive evidence of your views and it seems like you’re just touting Tufte, carte blanche. Your posts have links but they seem to be like circular references in a spreadsheet. For once, why don’t you actually display pictorially what you so ardently attempt to say? 

  23. If you take a closer look you’ll see that I accept Tufte’s influence, but there is no carte blanche. But you are right: I should publish more charts.

  24. An interesting post and even more interesting comments. In reading them, the thread quickly emerges “What is design ?” Which prompts me to think of the famous quote from Steve Jobs;

    ““In most people’s vocabularies, design means veneer. It’s interior decorating. It’s the fabric of the curtains of the sofa. But to me, nothing could be further from the meaning of design. Design is the fundamental soul of a human-made creation that ends up expressing itself in successive outer layers of the product or service.”

    I’ve always summarised that as ‘Design is an inside-out process’

    What ends up on the ‘outside’ visible/touchable/perceivable is the designers expression of what the thing is at it’s core, it’s essence. Sometimes successful. Sometimes not. That is the risk of art. That’s ‘art’ as defined by Seth Godin.

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