Sunday, March 6, 2016

Pretty Is As Pretty Does

I am often told that my work is pretty. I always find this to be a strange comment. I have to admit I've felt a little insulted by it at times. My goal is to communicate clearly using data...not make a pretty picture. No one talks about a sentence being pretty just because there's a capital at the beginning and a punctuation mark at the end. Why should it be any different for a visual that follows some basic rules of the road?

I've been thinking about this push and pull between what the story is in our data and how the story is presented because I will be heading out to the Tapestry Conference this week. The purpose of the conference is to "advance interactive online data storytelling [by bringing] different viewpoints together with the goal of generating a rich conversation about data storytelling."

What is the role of pretty data in such a conversation?

Is it an unnecessary add-on? Could we communicate with data just as effectively without paying attention to the finer points of layout, colour, and line? After all, the data visualization is not the end goal---it's what we do with what we see in it. Meanwhile, it is possible to have aesthetic and no meaning at all. Chad Hagen illustrates this with his nonsensical infographics.

We could also point to examples that look great, have real data that tell a story, but still don't mean anything. For example, Tyler Vigen's Spurious Correlations.

At the other end of the spectrum are arguments that the art of data must be present in order to create meaning. Both Giorgia Lupi in Beautiful Reasons and Moritz Stefaner in Little Boxes make the case that form and function, as well as art and design, are integral to deep understanding of our data.

I am learning to smile and say "thank you" when people tell me the data I show them are pretty. I am learning that the meaning behind the comment is one that can refer to clarity or deep understanding. I am hoping that the audience makes enough sense of things to see that pretty is as pretty does.

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