The Art of Data Visualization: How to Tell Complex Stories Through Smart Design

The vol­ume of data in our age is so vast that whole new research fields have blos­somed to devel­op bet­ter and more effi­cient ways of pre­sent­ing and orga­niz­ing infor­ma­tion. One such field is data visu­al­iza­tion, which can be trans­lat­ed in plain Eng­lish as visu­al rep­re­sen­ta­tions of infor­ma­tion.

The PBS “Off Book” series turned its atten­tion to data visu­al­iza­tion in a short video fea­tur­ing Edward Tufte, a sta­tis­ti­cian and pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at Yale, along with three young design­ers on the fron­tiers of data visu­al­iza­tion. Titled “The Art of Data Visu­al­iza­tion,” the video does a good job of demon­strat­ing how good design—from sci­en­tif­ic visu­al­iza­tion to pop infographics—is more impor­tant than ever.

In much the same way that Mar­shall McLuhan spoke about prin­ci­ples of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, Tufte talks in the video about what makes for ele­gant and effec­tive design. One of his main points: Look after truth and good­ness, and beau­ty will look after her­self.

What does Tufte mean by this? That design is only as good as the infor­ma­tion at its core.


For those of us who aren’t design­ers, it’s refresh­ing to con­sid­er the ele­ments of good visu­al sto­ry-telling. And that’s what the best design is, accord­ing to the experts in this video. Every data set, or big bunch of infor­ma­tion, has its own core con­cept, just as every sto­ry has a main char­ac­ter. The designer’s job is to find the hero in the data and then tell the visu­al sto­ry.

So much of the infor­ma­tion we encounter every day is hard to con­cep­tu­al­ize. It’s so big and com­pli­cat­ed that a visu­al ren­der­ing rep­re­sents it the best. That’s because human brains are wired to take in a lot of infor­ma­tion at once. Good design­ers know that deci­sion-mak­ing isn’t lin­ear. It’s a super-fast process of rec­og­niz­ing pat­terns and mak­ing sense of them.


Infor­ma­tion may be more abun­dant but it isn’t new, and nei­ther is data visu­al­iza­tion. In the video, Tufte talks about stone maps carved by ear­ly humans and how those ancient graph­ics form the tem­plate for Google maps.

What comes across in PBS’s video is that data visu­al­iza­tion is an art, and the sim­pler the bet­ter. Tufte seems to argue that good data guides the design­er to do good work, which leads to the ques­tion: Is the medi­um no longer, as McLuhan famous­ly com­ment­ed, the mes­sage?

Relat­ed Con­tent:

In Under Three Min­utes, Hans Rosling Visu­al­izes the Incred­i­ble Progress of the “Devel­op­ing World”

An Ani­mat­ed Visu­al­iza­tion of Every Observed Mete­orite That Has Hit Earth Since 861 AD

Watch a Cool and Creepy Visu­al­iza­tion of U.S. Births & Deaths in Real-Time

Kate Rix writes about dig­i­tal media and edu­ca­tion. Vis­it her web­site. Fol­low her on Twit­ter @mskaterix

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