Since when does data by definition have to be dry and boring, especially when you are trying to display your findings? Arguing for the power of visual design, Martin Krzywinski believes we can learn some lessons from scientists and how they behave when communicating their data. Krzywinski is a scientist specializing in bioinformatics (organizing large sets of biological data graphically for optimum communication to peers and researchers). He makes a confession about his livelihood (“Am I Being Fooled into Thinking I Know Something?” Bloomberg Businessweek 1/28/13–2/3/13, p. 60):
“Scientists are very poor at communicating visually, but they’re also very poor at knowing this.”
Well, that certainly is a blind spot! In an effort to help scientists understand their blind spot, Krzywinski cites a study in which:
“doctors were asked to look at four kinds of visuals, and they were asked to rate the visuals for two things: Were they correct—were they accurate in interpreting the information—and did they have a good time? Because you should always be asking that second question.”
Interestingly, the doctors tended to rate the more mundane data displays as better (more accurate) than the more graphical data displays, even though they enjoyed (had a good time) looking at the latter more than the former. As Krzywinski wryly states:
“They were right, but they didn’t have a good time being right.”
Now I’m all for correct, accurate handling of data. But I’m all for having a good time too. Krzywinski presents a good case. I think we can empower ourselves to be more aggressive in presenting our data in ways the audience will enjoy. It doesn’t always have to be one or the other—it can be both and.
In our increasingly data-driven world, these design considerations will only become more important. Communication demands it and our audiences deserve it. Krzywinski leaves us with some stirring challenges:
“So what do we need to do? I think we have to encourage and reward effective visual communication. . . . We also need to show how design can help embrace complexity. Complex things are hard to understand. We have to make that complexity accessible. . . . Computers can help us process the data; design can help us express it.”
As we have all heard—you can be brilliant, but if you cannot communicate your work effectively, then it benefits no one.
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