I started work on my final project for Professor Cairo’s Intro to Visualization course. My topic: HIV. This was based on a story I read in The New York Times about how HIV has become most prevalent in the South, in rural areas, and among gay, male, people of color. I wanted to explore how HIV has shifted over the years.
Above are my most recent drafts and I think I finally have a direction I feel confident about. It’s quite astonishing the number of details and polish required before a visualization feels complete especially in print.
What I’m working on to refine:
Color choices. I think one of the greatest challenges is creating a color palette that is attractive and is colorblind safe. This is harder than it may seem.
Copy. Writing never comes easy to me, so this is going to take more time than anything else.
Typography. This is a particular favorite of mine. I love type and tweaking its use… well, I might need to cut myself off. I use Suitcase to manage my type library so I’ve created a folder just for typefaces that work well for data visualizations.
Professor Cairo mentioned how 80 percent of visualization is understanding the data. This project is proof that statement is true.
The Excel workbook above is just one of many I created and combed through to understand what the numbers show. In my case, I needed to visualize it because with a table this large it is difficult to see or compare much of anything.
My initial plan was to show the shift of HIV in the U.S. over 20 years. But after downloading 20 years of PDFs and using Tabula to extract the data, I discovered that in 2007, a change in how the data was reported presented me with anomalies and a decision; actually a question. What do I do? In sketching the numbers with Flourish, there was clearly a dip that without a note people could interpret incorrectly. In fact, I wasn’t sure what to make of it.
There were two options, according to Professor Cairo:
Annotate 2007 with a note about the change in reported data
Visualize only last decade.
I chose the latter because after reading through the technical notes, 2008 was when all states had enough data and it could be standardized. What is shocking to me is that data about HIV wasn’t standardized until 2008!
Above is a sketch of visualizing HIV diagnosis in nearly every state. Its more than our project brief required because there isn’t room for a grid of mini line charts but once I started to see how each state compared to each other and the national rate between 2008 and 2017, I couldn’t stop. The group of this mini line charts is visually interesting. I plan to organize each one regionally and in the future, I want to explore further iterations.
Of all the interviews in The Functional Art, the interview with Stefanie Posavec is my favorite.
Alberto Cairo: How did you do the graphics? Did you do use any scripts to count the words, organize them, sort them according to themes, etc.?
Stefanie Posavec: Believe it or not, I didn’t. I did it all by hand.
The Functional Art, p. 343
I am aware that I need to automate, but sometimes I feel that it’s important to spend that kind of time gathering your information by hand. It feels a little more natural. Also, it creates bonds with what you are working on: I had to read On the Road over and over again, so the outcome was as much a representation of the text as it is a representation of the novel in my head, of my experience of exploring it.
Stefanie Posavec, The Functional Art, p. 343
Stefanie’s reply resonates with me so much yet, I have to give this more thought as I’m sleep deprived and my head is a bit scrambled from switching mind gears for each project, but here’s the immediate thought: As a graduate student in an interactive media program, naturally, there is great focus on code and digital. While people, through emphasis on user experience and user research, are at the center of what students create, I’ve often wondered if students, my classmates, feel a connection to the experiences they are creating.
Does that sound weird? I can hear the other side of myself asking, “Why do we need to connect with what we are creating?”
Seriously though, do screens and the code that have been designed to help us making things more efficiently, disconnect us from the experience, the tactile and physical nature of human movement, of making? By removing the slowness of making by hand and touching materials disconnect us as makers, as designers?
When is the last time you really looked at a book and didn’t take it for granted?
I’ve designed photo books where I’ve worked with photographers editing with printed thumbnails and taking those sequences to InDesign and printing tons of dummies, mockups to get a feel for the experience. Then if I could be so lucky, see the book printed.
But I gotta say, nothing compares to literally making a book. I personally am not very good at it as I’m a beginner but when you make a book by hand, you start to truly understand and appreciate every page, measurement, type placement, paper (oh the paper!), fold, stitch and more. It feels more personal.
What is our relationship with books? What is your relationship with books? What is a book?
It’s clear I love paper books. I suppose it isn’t “right” to love paper books in this age of climate change, waste, trash and environmental impact but I can’t help it. It’s an emotional relationship. I love the simplicity of interactions: using your hands and a pen to highlight words, jot down notes in the margins, fold the corners to book mark a page … The fact that you can bring it anywhere (well, depending on size and weight), you don’t need electricity though you may need a light when it is dark.
Above all, I understand more when I read from printed words. I’m not sure what it is but if I read, highlight, and write in a book, I retain the information more. It just isn’t the same with the Kindle, PDFs, or web-based books. If paper books ever disappear, I’m going to be in trouble.
Stefanie’s visualization, Writing Without Words: Sentence Drawings of every sentence from On the Road is the transformation of the experience of the book. It is beautiful, poetic, musical. It looks like an expression of our natural world. Looking at it, I’m reminded of mold, of crystallization, of the beauty of science and biology.
It’s always about awe and wonder for me. That’s why I have decided to call myself a data illustrator, rather than a data visualizer. The reason is that I really like the idea of using data to communicate more subjective concepts about the topics I cover. Everything is accurate in my graphics, but they are not necessarily designed just for efficiency, they are not always what you would call information design.
Stefanie Posavec, The Functional Art, p. 348
Sometime I think in the age of digital we have forgotten about awe and wonder; to look at the world as new beings, like children.
Yet, the side of me that loves technology has experienced awe and wonder in multi-layered experiences, especially in virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) … Magic Leap being one of my favorites along with Tilt Brush on the Oculus.
Perhaps it isn’t a choice…it isn’t binary but a place where I want to sit; where I want to practice. Hmm…
Stefanie’s interview reminds me that I don’t ever want to be removed from what I create or heaven forbid, dispassionate. Emotions are healthy as much as they can be annoying. They are as beautiful as they are difficult to experience through others and within ourselves.
Well, here it is. My first data visualization for Professor Cairo’s Intro to Data Visualization course.
The project brief: Create a visualization of financial hardship in Florida based on The A.L.I.C.E. Report provided by United Way. Requirements included:
Tell a compelling focus or narrative
Deliver a tabloid sized visualization
Deliver a mobile version
Apply all we have read and learned so far from lectures and our readings
Above are just a sample of my notes and outlining in an attempt to get a clearer picture of what story I wanted to tell. There’s a lot of repetition and it is reflective of feeling paralyzed as I was drowning in ideas and data. Apparently, this feeling is normal. This intel reinforces the fact that calling the experts is a must-do.
I learned a lot from this project and these are the top three:
Sketch early and often. Use the same data and try different visualizations. This is key for me. The benefit of experience is that I know my self and I need to see to understand and learn. Tools like Flourish make sketching much easier and faster.
Keep organized. I have to come up with a folder structure toute suite and at the moment, I decided to add the source to the beginning of the folder and files of the data I download. I was swimming in Excel files. Nothing is worse than spending the time hunting among hundreds of files for the source of the data.
Stop digging and start making. This is related to my first lesson on sketching early and often. Seriously, I could have gone on for weeks plunging deeper and deeper on the interconnectedness of our policies and the effect on our communities. It is easy to get sidetracked and lose focus. Still, what you find sometimes can be gems for other visualizations!
”I do not suck at math. I do not suck at math. I do not suck at math …” “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can …”
The enormous hurdle in my mind that I’ve been working through as I learn about visualization is the math required to properly, truthfully visualize a story. This is not easy as I have believed over the past 30 plus years that I. Suck. At. Math. I’ve shared this fear of math before and I have been training my self to be more positive. I bought some books and at every opportunity I try to practice.
Still, the negative experiences I buried for decades feel like they just happened yesterday and this chapter in The Truthful Art about confidence intervals immediately made my want to close the book. Dramatic perhaps but as a kid who was scolded so many times for not understanding (translation: stupid), the first opportunity to avoid those experiences were a blessing. So for years I managed to avoid situations where I would never have to deal with math.
Yet here I am and planning to keep going. There are pattens in life worth breaking or resolving and I’m determined to re-craft my narrative. So, I have to read this chapter again and again and I think it is going to take more than books to help me feel confident in my abilities. It might be time for a tutor or a summer class.
Papers that don’t report significance, effect sizes, and power together deserve extra skepticism, as a general rule.
The Truthful Art, p. 324
Keep Asking Questions
I’ve learned over the years not to be duped by fancy names or titles and somewhere during my career, I figured out that surrounding myself with people who knew more than I or complemented my skills were key to doing great work… as a team.
Off the top of my head, here are just a few people who have helped shape me as a designer in no particular order:
Of course there are many others—colleagues (designers, reporters, editors, photographers) and people I’ve never met whose work I’ve admired or whose books and articles have inspired me and challenged how I think.
I started my design career in newspapers interning at The Seattle Times, then went on to The Globe and Mail, Copley Sun Publications, The Chicago Tribune and off to National Geographic Traveler magazine. My focus at that time was on photography. I worked with picture editors and photographers in packaging and presenting stories where the photographs were the lead visuals.
So, as the completion of the semester, this class, and my first year approaches, I find myself reflecting on what has transpired in the past 7-8 months. A lot has happened and one thing I didn’t anticipate was the desire to return to the “newsroom”. I never thought I would want to pursue data visualization, especially because it doesn’t come naturally to me.
The secret behind any successful data project is asking people who know a lot about the data at hand and its shortcomings, about how it was gathered, processed, and tested.
The Truthful Art, p. 316
Asking questions is paramount to collaboration, understanding people, and being a responsible designer. I’m used to working with others, experts, so honestly, my first visualization for this class made me nervous. I was uncomfortable and uncertain about the data because of my inexperience. I did my best and the project comes with a giant asterisk (* school project!) but I suppose I had to start somewhere.
At least I know for certain that I need to learn more about understanding data and ramp up my math skills. I also have to remind myself that I just started in January. So patience, where are you?
[O]ur main goal should be to tell a story clearly by achieving order and having some sort of narrative through each graphic. Any project should start by analyzing what your story is about and then finding the best way to tell it by splitting it up into easily digestible chunks, without losing depth.
John Grimwade, Interview in The Functional Art, p. 213
At the recommendation of Professor Cairo, I subscribed to the print version of The New York Times and last week, the first edition arrived at my doorstep. (I can’t remember the last time this happened – remember the newspaper delivery boys?) Immediately, I started to dive into the sections with my coffee and stumbled upon this story and visualization:
It immediately grabbed my attention because I’ve been a bit obsessed with climate change as of late. Perhaps it is living in Miami where the weather is such a contrast to Upstate New York and I cannot help feel those contrasts when I’m here and my husband is in the bitter cold. We talk often about which condition is better — more months of extreme heat or extreme cold?
But getting back to the story and visualization, it makes me want to understand what other countries are doing and why it is so hard for the U.S. to adopt these policies? What are the pros and cons? What are the hurdles? In fact, could The New York Times please follow up? This was a great teaser, I want more.
So, I went online to see if the interactive version revealed anything different.
No luck but I enjoyed the difference in experience.
My preference? The print version. Why? I could get a better sense of the story as a whole. The contrast between our possible trajectory based on current policy, how it relates to the Paris Treaty and how, if we implemented some of the same policies adopted by other countries would change earlier stated trend.
(Side note: This makes me wonder if anyone has done a study on the differences of how people perceive the same visualizations differently on screen or in print; like what information is process and what isn’t? And, would that depend on say, education level?)
“We are the Interface”
John Grimwade, graphics editor at Condé Nast Traveler magazine shares how working with reporters and editors taught him to “strive for clarity because we are the interface between a chaotic world of information and the user who wants to understand something. If we can’t bring users clarity, I think we have kind of failed, actually.” (The Functional Art, p. 216)
I haven’t thought about my experiences working at newspapers and magazines for a long time. I miss it in many ways and for many reasons but those days seem long gone since newspapers and magazine have changed dramatically. Still, there are some exciting things happening as companies reimagine what the future of publishing looks like. The New York Times, Vice President of Engineering, Brian Hamman, was a featured speaker at the 2019 Computation and Journalism Symposium last month and it was an exciting look at how they seem to be evaluating and re-evaluating the lifecycle of stories, the products they create and how these stories and products live in the system of the publishing cycle. It’s a fascinating undertaking.
It is fascinating to think of how a visualization or story lives within the world and the relationships it could have with future stories or past stories. This makes me think about how clarity and context are even more vital as content gets repackaged, repurposed, re-tweeted, re-, re-, re …
I haven’t done a deep dive into how much content is shared without its context but I’m sure it is scary. So, this makes me wonder. If “good design is not about mastering technology, but about facilitating clear communication and the understanding of relevant issues”, (p.213, Alberto Cairo about John Grimwade’s style and approach) then clarity and context becomes even more important today. Designers may not need to master technology but it behooves designers to understand how technology can determine how what is created lives within the world now and in the future. The annotation layer or even the metadata, it seems, becomes even more critical. I haven’t thought this through entirely and not sure I can alone but what happens when visualizations lose their context?
Content is King
Raise your hand if you have started to design straight on the computer.
I’ve heard and read this axiom many times. Whether it is King or Queen, all I know is that you can’t design without understanding the content. Without understanding the content, you can’t possibly provide clarity or context. So, in that sense, frankly, your design is destined to fail.
When I was teaching, many non-design students would get excited about an idea and start working on the computer even though I emphasized the importance of sketching. Perhaps it is the (understandable) fear of “not being able to draw” yet what they failed to comprehend is that it isn’t an efficient way to design especially when one is learning how to use the software as well.
Here’s what John Grimwade had to say about working straight on the computer:
[It’s] a very bad way to start. You make a lot of art decisions and then trap yourself into them. I constantly see graphics that have been done like that. A big image or illustration was put in the middle first then the designer tried to make all the other elements in the composition work around it, instead of coming up with a solid structure that would hep tell the story you need to tell.
Jim Grimwade, p. 218, The Functional Art
Chances are you’ve created buckets and then forcing your content into those buckets rather than structuring information and creating shapes based on the content and the priority of content. This is when I’ve seen my students commit “design crimes” of all kinds: Changing the vertical scale of type to make it fit, tracking out type to fit, distorting an image by one percent, and more …
Sketching is a great way to be non-committal. It is a way to think through work; similar to writing draft after draft of an essay. Ideally, each version sheds some light and builds to the final. What I love about sketching and mapping out relationships even with words is that it helps me identify questions and holes. What am I missing? What doesn’t makes sense? Those questions are just as important as what is present and how it looks.
Before you think about style, you must think about structure.
Alberto Cairo, p. 154, The Functional Art.
What I love about design is that it is a process, a way of thinking about the whole and the parts. I’m thrilled I didn’t give it up.