IT’S BEEN SAID that we’re living in the golden age of data visualization. And why shouldn’t we be? Every move we make is potential fodder for a bar chart or line graph. Regardless of how you feel about our constant quantification, its been a boon for designers who have made some exceptional infographics—and some not so exceptional ones. But what distinguishes one piece of data viz from the next? Oftentimes, the creative process can give keen insight into why certain visualizations are so successful.
A new book from graphic guru and School of Visual Arts professor Steven Heller and designer Rick Landers looks at that the process of more than 200 designers, from first sketch to final product. The Infographic Designers Sketchbook is almost exactly what it sounds like. The 350-page tome is essentially a deep dive into the minds of data designers. Heller and Landers have chosen more than 50 designers and asked them to fork over their earliest sketches to give us insights into how they turn a complex set of data into coherent, visually stunning data visualizations. “You see a lot more unbridled, unfettered work when you’re looking at a sketchbook,” says Heller. “You might be looking at a lot of junk, but even that junk tells you something about the artist who is doing it.”
Heller says there are a few through-lines to all good infographics, the first being clarity. The purpose of a data visualization has always been to communicate complex information in a readily digestible way. “You can’t throw curves,” he says. “If you’re going to do something that is complex, like the breakdown of an atomic particle, for example, you have to make it clear.” Clarity is key even in seemingly simple infographics, like Caroline + Young’s Mem:o, an app that visualizes personal data for things like sleep and fitness. The data viz tool uses simple shapes to communicate the various sets of data. This is no coincidence says Heller, adding that our eyes tend to respond to simple geometric forms. “If you start using parallelograms or shapes like that, it may get a little difficult,” he says. “But circle squares and rectangles, those are all forms we adjust our eyes to very quickly.”
Infographics tend to serve a similar purpose as a photo and caption, albeit in a different form. It’s a way to digest information differently, to glean meaning from a visual source. A well-made infographic will keep your attention, but finding its meaning shouldn’t be like a puzzle (unless it is a puzzle). “A good infographic will allow you that time saving mechanism,” says Heller. “And then you determine whether you want any more information from the text.”
This can come in many forms. We often see infographics online or in print publications, but they can also be physical objects. Heller points to Nathalie Miebach’s The Ghostly Crew of the Andrea Gail, a sculpture that visualizes a musical score about a shipwreck. The object is dense and complex, and frankly it’s hard to parse how music notes actually translate into the multi-hued piece of artwork. Usually, this would would be a strike against it, but data visualization can also take the form of art. “Data visualizations are a functional thing but there are also those people who use data vis just as Sol LeWitt used geometry in his paintings,” says Heller.
It’s fascinating to go behind the scenes of a designer’s work process, in the way it’s fascinating to flip through another person’s journal or leaf through the papers on their desk. If nothing else, the book is a testament to the sketching process. It shows how designers, and even non-designers, can use a pen and paper to sort through some hairy, complex ideas.