My mom would be shocked that I could find anything useful with a Beatle’s song, but here I am using one of their lyrics to title a blog post in grad school. (It’s Strawberry Fields Forever FYI).
Of course that particular line can have a much deeper/profound/insightful meaning than what I’m ultimately using it for currently, but it does help to convey the main point gathered from the documentary Journalism in the Age of Data: visually taking in the world is important. It is how we make sense of what goes on around us. Half of our brain is hardwired for vision. Data visualization, specifically, takes advantage of this fact that we’re programmed to understand the world around us in terms of what we see.
Information and data are now available to anyone and everyone via the web. The internet has made democratizing information possible. But with this free and ubiquitous data comes the challenge of visually representing it and displaying it effectively so that it actually has context, makes sense, and ultimately tells a story. A pile of statistics mean nothing if you can’t get the audience curious about a topic or able to understand the meaning through arresting visuals. People can get easily frustrated if they have to extract meaning themselves, so data visualization designers have to figure out ways to communicate data in a way that’s easily understood. Not only do they have to make it look good, but they have to make it comprehensible. There are a ton of infographics out there probably beautiful enough to hang in the MoMA, but a lot of them are surprisingly incomprehensible, ultimately rendering them pretty useless (unless their original intent really was to be hung in the MoMA, which is highly unlikely).
Yeah, this is visually AWESOME…but is it easy to understand?
So is data visualization a trend? It’s kind of like this cult that has steadily been making its way from the underground to mainstream society the past few years and now it’s everywhere. I think this “trendiness” is sometimes what leads to the beautiful design of infographics, but complete nonsense of the actual story or data that it is trying to represent. As this trend continues to take hold however, I think designers, statisticians, and other professionals have begun to figure out how to marry sense with design, so that we’re now getting these really amazing data visualizations that tell us a story and convey meaning in a way that’s actually comprehensible without a step-by-step tutorial on how to read and understand the infographic.