“Visual metaphors are a powerful aid to human thinking.”
That is the very first sentence of the foreword to a gorgeous new book on information visualization Data Flow: Visualising Information in Graphic Design. In just nine words it captures both the boundless possibilities in making data comprehensible to humans as well as the inability of info-designers to dictate the outcome, as the meaning is always in the eye of the beholder. Info-designer’s principal job is to contextualize data by creating metaphors and hope to ignite thinking. Info-vis is thus condemned to forever straddle the divide between inspiration and instruction.
The book which publisher Gestalten kindly sent us for review is anchored by (IDEO partner) Ferdi van Heerden’s foreword followed by designer interviews, short editorials and contextualizations adjacent to the best collection of contemporary info-vis samples currently available in a book format.
Data Flow surveys a huge swath of the landscape of data metaphor and identifies six gateways which organize the book’s chapters:
- Datasphere – circle as the perfect but elusive shape
- Datanets – networks of cause, context and relationships
- Datascape – spatial flow, context and order of data
- Datalogy – physical expression of the metaphor for our senses
- Datanoid – reflections of ourselves for emotional relevance
- Datablocks – data structured and simplified for comparability
Searching for a “data language” is a common thread throughout the book:
If we can show data as blocks, spheres, rivers, nets, or landscapes, we open up a new and rich visual language through which the external world is brought into our internal world of understanding. In other words, we communicate.
DataFlow also underlines the tension between using accessible info-design vocabulary and complexity:
Design is not just about making things simple. In fact, there is a complementary relationship between simplicity and complexity that influences design choices to produce surprising and informative data diagrams. By shaping their view on data, designers can choose to introduce a level of complexity that allows just the right amount of contrast to drive profile, focus and definition. The choices determining this delicate balance — called simplexity — are highly dependent on the context and audience for the resulting data presentation.
The ever-present danger of that tension is the overtaking of comprehension by composition:
A professional, visually literate audience will relish a higher sophistication and subtlety that can be delivered with sublime elegance. However, access to ever larger databases can seduce the designer into placing complexity, and the challenge of bridging the gap between information and its expression, at the very forefront. Software tools such as Processing [website] have made it possible to give shape and meaning to massive amounts of information, yet in many cases the tool becomes the message.
Among the 250 pages of meticulously reproduced samples, it’s also easy to see that sometimes the scales tilt away from comprehension/instruction towards composition/inspiration, and even towards decoration.
Occasionally, it’s hard to gauge the full-impact of large pieces, both in size and detail, because they are scaled down by the constraints of a printed book page — one longs for a zoom-in button. An interactive format would have obviously allowed a more layered engagement, tying selected samples back to such info-design sources as Tubular Graphics (Tokyo) and Stamen Design (San Francisco). And yet there’s something immensely satisfying about having a single, portable source that captures what’s current and curious about data representation in one place.
DataFlow is that rare collection that elevates the discussion on info-design from wow! to introspection.
Read our interview with Gestalten Publisher and Editor in Chief Robert Klanten on the current state of info-design and the genesis of Data Flow.