Functional Art: To be Beautiful is to be Understandable

“Visualization should be seen as a technology”.

Alberto Cairo, The Functional Art, p. 19

OK, I confess: The first time I read this section, part of me was thinking, “Isn’t this splitting hairs?” It sounds like “design” to me. I had to read it a few times to appreciate it and it made me think of a new-for-me classification of designer that John Maeda calls, “Computational Designer”.

Screenshot from his 2018 Design in Tech report

I believe visualization would be a necessary tool for a computational designer. In fact, Maeda says:

We’re in a golden age of data visualization and quant-qual science. The tools that are available today enable understanding — for those who want it.

John Maeda, Design in Tech, p. 30

“For those who want it”. It seems “those” means readers/viewers? If so, I disagree because tools don’t enable understanding. I seek to understand many things and there are tons of visualization out in the wild. Do I understand most? Not really.

Many are similar to the visualization from our last assignment. There is often too much presented all at once and in the case of “Running on (almost) empty”, I felt dizzy.

Perhaps that is the “classical designer” in me but the choices of color, sizes, typefaces, and more made the visualization feel like an impenetrable wall. Does it look cool? Sure, at first glance. However, before I could attempt to do a “question-based test” to understand it and attempt to redesign it (our assignment), I had to read it. I’m older. It proved immensely challenging and quite frustrating. If I didn’t have to analyze it, would I have read it? Probably not. Were certain graphic design “rules” ignored for the sake of looking cool? I don’t know. I’d love to hear how the design came about.

Bars to the Rescue

Bars and charts may not be sexy off-the-bat, but they do serve their purpose and can be cool in a bold and straightforward way or that classy, soft-spoken but profound kind-of-way. For example, this visualization from The Pew Research Center about the number of women in the 116th Congress is beautiful and informative.

http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/12/18/record-number-women-in-congress/

This visualization is effective. The contrast is good. The colors don’t impede the readability. Type choice and sizes are also good. Is this beautiful? Yes. Is that personal preference? Perhaps. But as Professor Cairo states in The Truthful Art, “[W]hat matters isn’t if the objects of our creation are beautiful or not per se, but if they are experienced as beautiful by as many people as possible” (Chapter 2, p. 55). For me, I suppose beauty is about pleasure, a sort of emotional and mental calm or excitement.

Ultimately, it comes down to this simple fact: I can read the visualization. I can understand it. The more time I spend with it, the more interesting it becomes. What I love most is that it shows change. I knew we had more women elected in 2018 but this truly moved me. The designer — not the tools — help me understand there has been a tremendous positive change in my lifetime. Is it an award-winning, over-the moon visualization? Nope. It is memorable? Absolutely, and it gives me hope.

The Truthful Art: An Introduction to Infographics and Data Visualization

For the Spring 2019 semester, I’m taking an Introduction to Infographics and Data Visualization course with Professor Alberto Cairo. Requirements for the course include readings from his books, The Truthful Art and The Functional Art. I’ll be writing about what I read and documenting my journey as beginner in visualization.

Based on just the introduction, The Truthful Art is a Bible for learning.

These first few chapters made me think much about my life, why I’m back in school, where we are as a society, how we communicate and relate to each other, my responsibilities as a designer, and more. I hope to write more about these later. What I can say is this: This book is a call to action. For you. For me. For Us.

Five Qualities that Make a Great Data Visualization

  • Truthful
  • Functional
  • Beautiful
  • Insightful
  • Enlightening

I appreciated how Professor Cairo walks you through each of these five factors with examples. (I learn so much better when there are examples to help illustrate what is presented with words.) I won’t repeat his explanations because I think getting your own copy is a great investment. But I will share with you two visualizations I think encapsulate much of what I read and learned in chapters 1 and 2.

The Washington Post: Two Visualizations About the U.S. – Mexico Border

Helping people tell bullshit from facts should certainly be a duty for all journalists and information designers.

Alberto Cairo, Introduction, “The Truthful Art”, p. 17.

First, I want to establish that I believe The Washington Post to be a credible source of information; that the people who work there and deliver this information strive to be truthful (without deception) and present it in a way that is functional (easy to interpret).

Below are two graphics I’ve stumbled upon from The Washington Post that reveal interesting information about our shared border with Mexico. I think both would help anyone be informed citizens as the Shutdown continues and the lives of so many people are impacted by The Border Wall debate.

The first visualization is a static visualization of a map that shows the type of fence that exists — pedestrian or vehicle — and the number of apprehensions made for the fiscal year 2017. This is part of a story that gives a history of border arrests from 1970 to 2018.

Screenshot from The Washington Post, “The history of U.S.
border apprehensions

I think what I find most appealing about this visualization is that it is clear. It is quick to understand. The use of a “heat map” type of presentation (encoding?) is both intriguing and helpful. I can see that border apprehensions occur heavily in Southern California, Texas (along the Rio Grande), Arizona and a small portion of New Mexico.

The use of color and typography also makes it easy on the eyes. It is functional because it provides information that is clear, plain, and without “bells and whistles”. Every choice is deliberate. In other words, it is beautiful. The only question I have is whether this visualization has enough contrast for those with visual impairments.

Combined with the visualization below, you get better insight. The heat map tells us where border arrests are more common and this visualization presents the numbers as well as the history. In addition, you are provided additional information as to why there are more families attempting to cross the border.

Screenshot from The Washington Post, “The history of U.S.
border apprehensions

Our President told us that there is “a growing humanitarian and security crisis” along our Southern border, yet by looking at the numbers, and from reading the story, there doesn’t seem to be a “crisis”. In fact, it seems that the conditions created by recent changes in immigration policy and directives have caused the so-called crisis rather than mitigating them.

The second visualization is interactive and feels like a Sunday magazine long-form essay. This is a visualization meant to be experienced slowly perhaps with a good cup of coffee. It doesn’t fit the definition of a “news application” in that there aren’t cool sliders or ways input your own data, it gives you a lot of context through text and photography as you literally journey along the border.

Screenshot from The Washington Post, “Borderline

I learned a great deal about the geography of our border with Mexico, about the people who call it home, how adding more “walls” could impact natural wildlife areas and national parks, some fascinating history about the land before borders and much, much more.

Professor Cairo writes about how important it is to choose topics that are enlightening; meaning, first, choose topics that matter. Visualizations are a way to give insight and could have high impact. Choose topics that can help reveal the day-to-day experiences of people. I agree. While visualizations about pop stars, personality traits and movie characters are fun, I’ve always been a person who wants to do good. This was the reason why I went back to school the first time. Since my mid-twenties, I have felt compelled to do good work and to do work that has impact; that is meaningful. I feel as designers, it is our responsibility to contribute to solving the wicked problems in our communities.

Questions are Key

The Truthful Art is entertaining and fascinating, written with keen insight about people, information, and society. What I love most is that this book doesn’t provide clear cut answers. It forces you to ask questions and acknowledge the complexity of humanity as well as the pitfalls of being human. It encourages you to step back, investigate, explore and in essence be an informed and responsible citizen.

I am reminded time again to ask questions. Recently, I read an article about critiques. Critiques that encourage dialog by asking questions are better learning experiences compared to ones where people simply state their opinions (I like, I think, etc.).

I don’t have a fully-fleshed out thought about questions and their importance, but I do know questions sometimes create ambiguity and that can sometimes be anxiety-inducing. Questions are also great for getting to know people and increasing your knowledge. I also think it is a great way to check your self, your intentions, and reflect on your experiences.