Monday, March 21, 2011

GMN conference

This afternoon, I had the pleasure of presenting at the annual Grants Managers Network Conference that is underway in Seattle. The topic: data visualization (the 90-minute session was an abbreviated version of the course I teach internally at Google, plus a section with makeovers of visuals submitted by participants that show the main learnings in practice). The audience: 100+ grants managers from philanthropic organizations across the country, an engaged bunch full of questions and evident interest in learning more about storytelling with data.

I get energized when I speak on this topic. A quick related anecdote: last week, I was attending an internal manager training on inspiring one's team. As part of one exercise, I had to compose 'my sentence' - a sentence that motivates and inspires me. The sentence I wrote down was as follows: To help rid Google and the world of ineffective graphs, one exploding, 3D pie chart at a time. The session today was a step along this path.

So often, the visual communication of information is an afterthought - the work and energy goes into jumping over hurdles just to get to the data and make sense of it - too little time is devoted to the visual part that other people see. If attendees take one thing from today's session, I hope it is to spend time on this piece. Use affordances (pre-attentive attributes, like color and size) to help the audience understand where to devote their attention; strip out the clutter that doesn't need to be there.

One of the reasons I enjoy data visualization is because it sits at the intersection of art and science. As a designer of infographics (which, if you ever find yourself making a graph, you are), you just want to make sure you use your artistic licence to make information easier for your audience to get at, not more difficult. On the science side, there are a few never-to-be-broken rules I covered today that I'll recap here:
  • Color should always be an explicit choice (don't let Excel make this important decision for you!)
  • Never use 3D (unless you are actually depicting something that is 3-dimensional!)
  • Every graph needs a title; every axis needs a label (no exceptions!)

A quick note to anyone who attended the session this afternoon: Thanks for stopping by! Please leave me a comment if there's anything in particular you found useful, or if you have any feedback that I should take into account for future sessions. The books and tools I referred to in the session can be found by following the 'recommended reading' and 'additional resources' links on the left, respectively (in particular, I'd recommend Stephen Few's book, Show Me the Numbers; tool-wise, Tableau was the one we spent a little time talking about). If you're interested in contacting me to talk more, follow the 'email me' link at the top left of this page. Thank you for a great session, and I appreciate your help in reducing ineffective visual displays of information - I hope you find yourself putting what we discussed today into practice!

Sunday, March 6, 2011

think brilliant infographic

Infographics are increasingly prevalent in the media and elsewhere. At a high level, the goal of the information-graphic is to show information across various dimensions of a single topic or related topics in a way that is easier to digest than words alone would be.

The combination of art and data often yields an attention-grabbing visual. While almost always visually appealing, one point of struggle is that they are not always as easy to read as one might hope. Sexiness in many cases is valued over clarity of information.

A recent post on thinkbrilliant.com uses the infographic itself to highlight some of these issues:

View original image.

The descriptions get increasingly amusing as you move down the page. My favorite snippet is the text that accompanies the pie chart: this is the same graph only in pie shape form. this was done to overemphasize a very simple point but now you think it's really important.

When it comes to the visualizations shown on this satire - two words of advice: avoid them!