Monday, 4 April 2011

Visualising stuff

I've always prided myself on my ability to visualise things. Whether it's a proposition, a project vision or some data. I'm not exactly a natural and I have to work hard at it. I've studied the art, and I've tried to develop my understanding of what does and doesn't work. And I've got to a place where I feel comfortable with my ability to get it right, but I'm always trying to improve.
I've loved the fact that others seem to be picking up on this art-form in ever increasing numbers. A picture really can speak a thousand words. However, I've now got to admit I come across more pointless info-graphics and visualisation that simply doesn't work than I come across best practice examples.
I have some feelings and views on why this is happening:

  1. Not everyone can do this well, but a lot of people can use software that creates nice visual outputs - so they just give it a go.
  2. People don't get the fact that it is a skill and you really need to understand visualisation techniques to get it right - so they just give it a go.
  3. It's got to work for the audience its intended for. Therefore to get it right you've got to understand your audience. People don't always invest the time to achieve this - but they just give it a go.
  4. Only a few people really ever understand the breadth of a subject (sometimes no one). People aren't often honest with themselves - so they just give it a go.
  5. It's not always the answer and it isn't always needed or helpful. It is, however, a fashionable thing to do - so they just give it a go.

There are probably more reasons why this is happening. I hope people ultimately don't think the benefits of visualisation are in any way reduced by the sometimes awful examples they come across. When it's done well it really can enlighten people and keep a vision in the front of everyone’s mind.


  1. There is also another issue here in that if people don't "give it a go", then this is going to make it harder for them to learn about what works and what doesn't.

    Ultimately what works is going to depend on your audience, the data your seeking to represent, and the message your seeking to get across, (although this should always be determined by the data, so as to be a true representation of the data) so getting this right is always going to be a bit of a juggling act, plus of course different people are always going to have different opinions on what works and what doesn't.

    That's not of course to excuse bad data representation, which does happen more than it should, its simply to suggest we should more tolerant and aware of the data representations we see, especially when we come across them on the t'interweb - they may not have been originally intended for the audience that now reads them, they may have been written by people not as experienced as you. Above all I don't think anyone should let anything they see discourage them from trying.

  2. Agreed. The main point I'm making is that people need to look into how to do this properly (study it a bit) and seek feedback before blasting it at their audience / all over the t'interweb. "Give it a go" with a little bit of thought.