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BBC television seems to have embraced informing people of the power (and dangers) of infographics. Several months before Hans Rosling's television documentary "The Joy of Stats", they even took up data visualization and infographics as a subject of intense debate. More specifically, on a episode of News Night, Information is Beautiful author David McCandless dueled with "Anti Design" initiator Neville Brody, a "legendary designer who is the original art director of The Face".

Interestingly, the actual discussion topic quickly focused on the potential misuse of beauty in data visualization, which ultimately might make them "too mesmerizing, too beguiling, too pretty" (I confess, I had to look the 2nd verb up). Without much consideration, the moderator put up several infographics of one of the two guests and invited the other one to vent some critiques. What started off with a friendly "Congratulations David! I would like that on my wall!" quickly shifted into an intellectual argument that nailed the work as the epitome of what should not come out after "25 years of Thatcher locking up culture". While no-one took the trouble of asking what actually should come out instead, the moderator was quick to remark: "Are you more coffee table graphics?"

So, in short, if you want to see the utter surprise when a talented and acclaimed information designer is so openly criticized on national television, then watch the movie below.

What should David McCandless have answered instead?

Here is David's own take, as he recently mentioned in an interesting interview at Visualising Data: "I forgot how TV journalism reduces debate down to two opposing polarities: for and against. Which I think for a topic like information design is a lame approach. How can you be against information design? It's just a technique! So I was caught on the hop a bit and felt quite bemused by what was going on. I thought we might have a debate about its potential and its limitations. But no.".



I really just stumbled across this article, but was surprised and engaged by the topic. I don't have a background in stats, design or data visualization so perhaps I'm naive. But I also have no particular axe to grind.

But I am a consumer of media and information. I quite often have to synthesize large quantities of data very quickly. As such, I find well-designed visualizations to be extremely useful, both as an intro to a topic and a support to explaining rich or dense text.

I can't see that too much beauty in a visualization would be distracting. Quite the opposite. I would think that a well-designed visualization would engage the viewer and encourage further consideration of the meaning of the underlying data.

I do think that a discussion of how visualizations can be misleading, rather than distracting, would have been a weightier topic for the Newsnight discussion.

Fri 07 Jan 2011 at 1:58 AM

The problem with data visualization is that most people don't want to spend the time needed to consume it. Too many people just want "the point". Data visualization is about relationships and context. You still have to think through and explore visualizations to understand what's really going on.

Personally I struggle with just sending out work. My preference is to always present and talk through visualizations with the audience.

This really shouldn't be a surprise in the world of data journalism. People only want to read the headlines.

Fri 07 Jan 2011 at 4:09 AM

This debate reminds me of Neil Postman's argument that we've lost something on our way from a pre 20th Century "literate" society - i.e. one where most communication is in the form of the written word - to a more visual society where our culture is mediated through imagery.

I think that it's OK that that is happening, as long as we have the skills to decode where we're being entertained, where we're being given something beautiful and where we're being mislead.

Sat 08 Jan 2011 at 8:25 AM

I like David McCandless's "what the hell?" smile when he realizes where this is going.

Sun 09 Jan 2011 at 2:48 AM

When McCandless says 'Information is Beautiful', I do not believe he is purely or even primarily speaking about sensory beauty. I suspect he is using 'beauty' in the manner of Aquinas - something is beautiful when it brings wholeness, balance, and clarity. Brody appears to be speaking from the Victorian era mindset that beauty is ornament and obfuscation. Finding the most apt medium, metaphor, and form is certainly not trivial; however, we are certainly not justified in creating visualizations that are unapproachable to everyone but the initiated.

Tue 11 Jan 2011 at 4:35 AM

Wow, do you think she went in a little biased?

Sheesh, that was an ambush. What a crappy thing to do on TV to a guy who enjoys making pretty graphs. "I've got an idea, how about we call up a design 'legend' to talk about self-important, navel-gazing philosophic design drivel without actually saying anything truly important!"

I'm sorry that David got beguiled into being on this crappy television program.

Tue 11 Jan 2011 at 6:33 AM

Very interesting video. There seem to be numerous misconceptions about the terms "information" and "information visualization" with regard to what is possible. I have created a blog entry and linked back to this one:

Mon 17 Jan 2011 at 6:29 AM

The interview was an ambush, but some of what McCandless is doing is dangerous. Some of his graphs, the drug use graph, is based on inconsistent data. Secondly data visualizations are very dangerous because they beg the user to reach a conclusion, while raw data does not.
The argument against data visualization movement is that their purpose should go beyond prettiness and be useful. But the first requirement for being useful is being correct. Many modern visualizations are put together by non-scientists who have no obligation to make their visualizations correct because they will never have to use them to make accurate decisions or analyses. They simply use the visualizations to trick/sway people.

Fri 28 Jan 2011 at 12:31 PM

Like Jeremy, I stumbled on this article. I'm bothered by the distortions and obfuscations that are gaining frequency in modern data visualizations and infographics. So much so, that I wrote about it a few weeks ago.

Forgive me for posting a link to my own article, but I think it's quite relevant to this discussion.

I think McCandless was indeed in a bit of a "gotcha" situation. They could have showed his brilliant time series visualization of Facebook breakups (which scores rather low on beauty, but off the charts on clarity and insights) but they did not. It's too bad because I think it's some of his best work.

Mon 31 Jan 2011 at 1:20 PM
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