For starters, we were almost twice oversubscribed for the talk and only just managed to squeeze everyone into the room (thanks to BBH London for hosting us).
Manuel provided a fascinating ‘deep dive into data visualization’ covering its academic beginnings, his experiences curating VisualComplexity.com and what he believes is needed for this discipline to blossom in the future.
However it was the Q&A and subsequent blog posts that showed how this topic can arouse quite passionate responses.
For anyone who missed out, here’s a 34 minute video of the talk (well, mainly a video of the screen with Manuel’s voiceover!).
At the heart of his talk, and what prompted most discussion, was Manuel’s call for change;At the heart of his talk, and what prompted most discussion, was Manuel’s call for change;
We need to make a transition from tools of curiosity to tools of functionality.
Although the crowd were clearly impressed by the visual richness of Manuel’s examples, it was this last point of ‘function’ that most questions focused on. Replying to one query about the relationship between form and function, Manuel paraphrased Dutch designer Wim Crouwel by saying:
I am a functionalist troubled by aesthetics.
Barely appeased, some further questions (or indeed doubts) emerged from the crowd about the “value” of data visualization. Manuel took the questions in excellent spirit and provided thoughtful responses about the delicate balance, and of course, his own desire of a move towards greater functionality.
Here we’ll throw to the Telegraph’s Ian Douglas who was not entirely impressed with the tone of the questions (full post);
There was much nodding and mmmm-ing when the negative points were made, and Lima found himself agreeing with some of the naysaying. I was amazed. Here is a new way of representing amounts of data that would be utterly incomprehensible as bare numbers or spreadsheets and a room full of developers and web designers were saying that it’s all very well making fancy graphics but that won’t put potatoes on the table, will it.
As you can see, it was certainly heating up!
Unsurprisingly, the topic continued to generate some fascinating reflections for days after. In one of the better posts, Jim Carroll, chairman of BBH London, eloquently framed the friction;
To some extent however this elegance, which makes data visualisation so immediately compelling, also represents a challenge. It’s possible that the translation of data, networks and relationships into visual beauty becomes an end in itself and the field becomes a category of fine art. No harm in that perhaps. But as a strategist one wants not just to see data, but to hear its story. And it can seem that for some visualisations the aesthetic overpowers the story.
Jim goes onto mention the various projects that Manuel had covered which indeed did reveal ‘insightful truths’ (the whole BBH Labs post is worth a read).
As if all that wasn’t enough, the talk, debate and subsequent discussions provoked Manuel himself to write a fascinating and provocative blog post setting out an “information visualization manifesto“. As he writes;
I don’t tend to be harshly censorial of many of the projects that over-glorify aesthetics over functionality, because I believe they’re part of our continuous growth and maturity as a discipline. They also represent important steps in this long progression for discovery, where we are still trying to understand how we can find new things with the rising amounts of data at our disposal. However, I do feel it’s important to reemphasize the goals of Information Visualization, and at this stage make a clear departure from other parallel, yet distinct practices.
Manuel proposes that there a number of principles of information visualization per se, and for those projects that don’t fit (even loosely) within these areas, they should more appropriately be termed information art. Some of the principles Manuel puts forward include;
- form follows function
- start with a question
- interactivity is key
- cite your source
- the power of narrative
If you’re interested in this field, do yourself a favour and head over to read Manuel’s entire post (the passionate debate in the comments is, again unsurprisingly, very interesting). There’s also a great BBH Labs post titled ‘Do not glorify aesthetics’ discussing this manifesto.
OK, by now you might have spent half a day reading/watching/thinking/commenting about data visualization, so we best leave it there.
In short, thanks to Manuel whose research and thinking, not to mention eagerness to promote industry debate, is doing so much for the field of data visualization. And thanks too for everyone who came along to help make the event such a success.
Stay tuned for future talks.