Page last updated at 10:50 GMT, Friday, 27 November 2009

Information goes out to play

Graphic from book by David McCandless SOURCE: David McCandless

Serious information used to be relayed in words, graphs and charts - pictures were just pretty window dressing. That's all changing, says David McCandless.

E-mails. News. Facebook. Wikipedia. Do you ever feel there's just too much information? Do you struggle to keep up with important issues, subject and ideas? Are you drowning in data?

In this age of information overload, a new solution is emerging that could help us cope with the oceans of data surrounding and swamping us. It's called information visualisation.

The approach is simple: apply the rules of visual design to information - make information into images, rather than text.

So, instead of listing the mind-boggling billions spent by governments, show them graphically - like The Billion Dollar O Gram image at the top of the page.

The image arose out of a frustration with the reporting of billion dollar amounts in the media. They're reported as self-evident facts, when, in fact, they're mind-boggling and near incomprehensible without context.

Or, in another example, instead of explaining the connection between say, mercury and the influenza jab, depict it visually.

Mercury in swine flu jab
SOURCE: David McCandless

And instead of leaving your data just sitting in a spreadsheet, let it out to play - use it to structure a visual image.

Obvious but effective - telling geographical stories using maps

I've spent the last year exploring the potential of information visualisation for my website and a book. I've taken loads of information and made it into simple, colourful and, hopefully, beautiful "visualisations" - bubble charts, concept maps, blueprints and diagrams - all with the minimum of text.

I don't just mean data and statistics. I love doing this with all kinds of information - ideas, issues, stories - and for all subjects from pop to philosophy to politics.

Personally, I find visualisations great for helping me understand the world and for sifting the huge amounts of information that deluge me every day.

Instant overview - troops in Afghanistan

I love information. I want to stay current. I don't want to be under-informed. But I'm busy. Sometimes, I need an instant overview of a situation that I can grasp in a second.

But this is not a new subject. Information Design has been around since the 1970s. Pioneers like Yale University design guru Edward Tufte and design agency Pentagram have long known and used its power. But now with the rise of the internet, it's having something of a second birth.

Seeing patterns emerge

Today, there's huge amounts of data out there. Visualisation helps spot important patterns in this data that might otherwise be missed.

Already governments are seeing the potential. The American and Australian governments are fast democratising their data and releasing it for free to the public. As an added incentive, they're offering massive cash prizes for the best visualisations. The UK government plans to follow this example in December by opening up all its data for public perusal. They feel it could improve accountability and transparency.

Disease Case Fatality Rates

It may also just be enjoyable to see information, rather than read it. In an endless jungle of websites with text-based content, a beautiful image with a lot of space and colour can be like walking into a clearing. It's a relief.

So how is it done?

A wide variety of online tools are emerging which can help those without design experience to start playing with visualisation.

Wordle is a popular tool [See internet links, above-right, for this and other links]. It allows you to make 'word clouds' out of the most frequent words in a document.

Worlde cloud
SOURCE: David McCandless

ManyEyes, from IBM, is another great site which auto-generates bubble charts, semantic maps and other types visualisations out of spreadsheets and data that you upload.

Beyond the internet, artists and programmers are using information as an artistic material to create amazing pieces of art, films and even real life objects.

Leading the charge of this "information art" movement are people like Aaron Koblin who directed Radiohead's generative video House Of Cards, visualisation guru Ben Fry and Marius Watz who creates real life objects out of financial data.

Simultaneously, on an even more experimental level, companies are beginning to use information visualisations to overlay or "augment" reality. Data from the web can now be graphically superimposed over a view of a real life space via your phone's camera. When performed in real-time, this creates a mixed or augmented reality. Games companies are already using the technique to hide virtual worlds on top of reality. It's all getting a bit sci-fi,

I think all this is a sign of the times. In a subtle but steady way we're all becoming visualisers now. Daily exposure to the internet is creating an incredibly visually literate generation. We're looking at visual design and information visualisation every day. (Or, if you're like me, every minute of every day). So we're used to having, and we're demanding, information in colourful, designed, visual forms.

In comparison, reading text like this, in linear paragraphs and columns, can seem pretty dour. Like watching black and white TV.

There can be a directness and clarity to visual information that cuts through the noise, the smoke, and the walls of information around us. It can help us zoom in and see what really matters. Or what might be being hidden from us.

And that, I think, is beautiful.

Information is Beautiful will be published in the UK by Collins in February. It is published as The Visual Miscellaneum in the US by HarperCollins.

Below is a selection of your comments.

As someone who was diagnosed at age 7 as being dyslexic, I was fortunate to have tutors who were able to teach me coping skills so I could excel at school. One of those coping skills was to use coloured paper and coloured pens in order to help me process information. Even through my doctorate work and beyond, I always had my box of a dozen different coloured pens, and this continues to be the primary way my brain organises and recalls information.
Andrea, Oxford

As a geomatics student (someone who makes maps), we learn how to make a map show certain aspects of data that we'd like to convey. At the same time, we learn how this data can be made to exaggerate or understate the message that is trying to be shown to the audience. Of course, this is like any source of information, where it can influence a generally accepting audience. However, I find that people are especially accepting of maps because they assume that maps and the data they show are like road maps and are concretely based on physical objects on the ground that cannot be manipulated. Considering even physical objects can be manipulated on a map, I believe that everyone should take all information they receive with a grain of salt.
Kevin F, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

The biggest problem with preparing information for visual representation is that those creating the maps or charts or whatever KNOW what they are trying to communicate. They forget that the viewer will not have their level of knowledge and assumption and simply may fail to "get the point". My tip would be always to ask a non-involved person to review your idea at all stages. I liked the mercury visual; it was clear and easily understandable in an instant. Even the Richard Littlejohn conveyed its message immediately. But the Billion-Dollar O-Gram still has me going "Huh?". It may LOOK amazing; it may make sense to you with your applied knowledge, but is is actually conveying what you NEED it to say to your target audience? Is information art or can art be informative?
Jaye, Rutland, England

On the o-gram, a quick guess is that the embedded squares are for illustration. The Iraq war for instance, v African debt in the same scale, and how just a portion of the Iraq expenses could basically turn African nations debt-free.

I understand now it is possible to distort the truth as easily with data visuals as it is with words.
Stephen Hagan, Paducah, KY US

Yes, it's pretty. Yes, it's easy to understand. But it is terribly reductionist - and it's just another formulaic way of making our brains more simple, less sophisticated, less detail-oriented, less demanding. In each of those diagrams, the way the information is portrayed it looks like there is nothing more to say. That's the whole shebang. What's there to question?
For instance, in the first diagram, the boxes are totally arbitrary. Comparing all of Africa's debt to the cost of the Iraq War? What are you implying? I think I know... but others may see something different. And what about the war in Afghanistan? Why choose to compare the cost of the Iraq War to some things, and not others? And how is it that - wow! - all of those boxes just happen to make a neat box when they all meet up?
It's not that simple, dear. Let's not forget that.
Shona, Paris, France

Just to play Devil's advocate: if visualization is so great, couldn't you have conveyed all the ideas in this article using just visualizations? Why did you use words? Specifically data visualization is good for very large quantities of data that cannot be easily interpreted or even presented in a short word format.
Mat Krepicz, Toronto, Canada

This is the ultimate form of NewSpeak. Pictures without words. Totally and wonderfully regressive! Double plus good!

I work in a government department on Whitehall. Here, we do things in an old fashioned way and I find people don't naturally take to new ways of delivering business. For me visual representation is a must but it is hard to find like-minded people. People just don't get the mathematics.
Simon Denis, London

The adage "a picture is worth a thousand (or ten thousand) words" has been around for quite a while. Are we this late in realizing it?
Rumin8r, Vancouver, Canada

Perhaps visualisation is better for some, but I hope governments and news agencies will not forget blind people. As websites become more visual, they become less and less accessible to some of the population. It is probably best to remember that people have different ways of understanding knowledge (and some may have limitations which prevent certain ways of understanding), so information aimed at the public should not be presented in any one way.
Ann, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

I think the best possible example of the graphic presentation of data is Charles Joseph Minard's depiction of Napoleon's March to Moscow. It's from 1869, pre-dating and beating all other examples here.
Keith Brooks, Shatesbury

I work in local government and struggle time and again to get performance information put into perspective. More often than not the wording is clear to those who know what is being asked for in an indicator, but for those who glance it is not. I am always repeating myself on indicators that appear bad, but with relative data presented at the same time shows good performance. These graphs look great and will be using them in the future.
Calum Clements, Bedford

I have never been very good at data charts etc, indeed I am not too good at the moving image, preferring a book or the radio to TV or film, so maybe it's me... but I find these charts and pictograms very hard to understand. They also seem to make it much easier to manipulate the underlying data. If an issue is important then shouldn't people make the effort to read and understand the actual facts and figures. Life is not simple, it never has been and frankly it never will be.
Jules, Brighton

I love this trend because it's also very good at putting things into context, something words sometimes struggle to do. I disagree slightly about the comment on people being more word based and the internet making them more visual. TV made us visual, the internet pulled us back into words and this kind of visualisation will marry the two.
Cameron, London

Towards the end of this article I got bored and skipped the last four paragraphs. Then realised it was because there were no more pictures to expand. I agree, pictures, graphs and charts present information in a more efficient way in this short attention spanned world.
Ashley Heel, Gravesend

Excellent and meaningful way of presenting the information. However, in the billion-dollar-o-gram it is misleading when some areas are embedded within other areas - does the larger area represented include the space of the smaller area (in which case this should be made clear), or does it surround the smaller area which is misleading as it makes the larger area look bigger than it really is? E.g: example the Iraq War and African debt areas.

It's good to do, but it doesn't stop misleading information: On the mercury chart, the bioavailablity of the mercury is crucial. When you ask people to learn from pictures instead of focussing on the reality they summarise, the obligation to interpret fairly is that much stronger.
Tom, Headcorn, Kent

Some estimates suggest as many as 20% of all the population is affected by dyslexia, myself included, and colour blindness affects a similar proportion of men. Visualisation based on maps and shapes, reducing the dependency on words and colours seems to address these largely ignored conditions. I for one find these far simpler. Words in some form will be essential for annotation.
D Holme, London

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