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This post was written by Mimi Rojanasakul. She is an artist and designer based in New York, currently pursuing her MFA in Communications Design at Pratt Institute. Say hello or follow her @mimiosity.

Last but not least, here's a round-up of talks that were focused on data visualization at Strata. Most of the presentations covered the standard do's and don'ts, parading humorously incomprehensible examples around of those who would forget to label their axis, or use a pie chart to show change over time.

Naomi Robbins, the consummate modernist, spends her presentation extolling clarity, objectivity, and a form follows function philosophy that comes with a number of simple guidelines to follow. DO: make the data stand out, eliminate unnecessary dimensions, or try a dot plot instead of a bar graph sometime. DON'T: use novel shapes that are difficult to compare in size, have too many zeros, or add ornament just to be attractive. Through a crystal goblet of statistical graphics, we should see nothing but the facts.

Robbins makes a point of distinguishing more technical graphics from art. While data art may not really inform, the examples still evoke ooh's and ahh's from a knowledgeable, statistically literate crowd. There is beauty in truth, and a few of the later speakers explain how it's a truth that can be bent, or at least used expressively.

Noah Iliinsky, of Complex Diagrams and Designing Data Visualizations, takes our focus from the clear and factual to good storytelling. While data has its properties that need to be honored, he places equal emphasis on knowing your audience and being able to state exactly what it is you want to convey. In terms of design advice, Iliinsky is slightly less explicit about established rules. He borrows a quote from Moritz Stefaner, that "position is everything, color is difficult." No one wants to see arbitrarily chosen, confusing color schemes, but it's no reason to shy away from it completely.

strataLineChart.jpg [ A set of donut graphs meant to convey change over time, and an amended line-graph version by Iliinsky ]

Irene Ros, of Bocoup and Many Eyes, gives a more in-depth explanation of how powerful color can be at guiding human perception. She shows two infographics from the New York Times and CNN on casualties of the Iraq War, and how the simple light or dark background changes the effect they have:


Arguing from the opposite side of the spectrum was Alex Lundry, whose work makes him familiar with politics of visual communications and quite at home in a little controversy. He shows examples of tricks in data selection, measurement, and design that make for persuasive (some may say manipulative) information graphics. John Boehner's convoluted diagram of the Obama Health plan is a notably atrocious example, and actually very successful towards Republican goals of representing the plan as expensive and impossibly bureaucratic. One of the visual responses it provoked takes the exact same information, lays it out in clean typography and pleasing colors, and was released with a cheeky note titled "Do not fuck with graphic designers."


While Lundry argues that skewed, unattractive graphics may be more memorable and effective, a distinction should be made between accidental ugliness and standing out intentionally. Everything communicates, and to master that art is something very different from amateurish mistakes. Based on some of these lively exchanges, he wants to give everyone free reign to use all the devices of information visualization (even the ornamental, tacky, and moderately misleading) to reinforce a message and sway people's opinions. But does it even need saying? Karl Rove is an Edward Tufte fan. Edward Tufte was hired by the Obama White House. Stephen Colbert shows how pervasive it has become, and pokes a little fun by adding charts to famous speeches. The fact is that it already goes on, and will continue to so long as the scientific, statistical aesthetic holds any persuasive weight.

Even Lundry admits that there are certain boundaries that shouldn't be crossed. Nearly all of the speakers included a word of caution along the lines of, "with great power comes great responsibility." Data visualization evokes trust, and while consumers learn to become better critics, the creators should learn to become more responsible communicators.

Over the course of the conference, a recurring theme echoed by participants from various backgrounds was this wasn't really about data (or how "big" it is), but meaningful stories we can tell by giving it form, since it's when these narratives are communicated to others that they come to life. It may not come easily, but the clear and responsible expression of this information seems to need the collaborative models already adopted by a few of the Strata presenters. Just as the development of data science will surely affect all other fields, hopefully we can all look forward to a growing role of information visualizers, designers, and artists in shaping and articulating these exciting new frontiers.


Many thanks to Andrew for the opportunity to attend and write about the conference! Ever since I knew there was a world outside clumsy excel charts, I've been a follower of infosthetics.com, and it's been a pleasure to contribute even a small part to it.

Videos and slideshows from StrataNY 2011
Look out for next year's conferences

previous blog posts:
Strata NY 2011 [Day 1]: The Human Scale of Big Data
Strata NY 2011 [Day 2]: Data for Social Change
Strata NY 2011 [day 2]: Man and Machine


Editor's note:
Many thanks for guest blogging the Strata event, Mimi! It was a joy to read, so many interesting details, in such a compelling style.