We are social creatures. I seem to have been having conversations around communication for a while. In particular, how great images communicate complex information successfully. In my exploration I found that it is now termed data visualisation or data viz.
I think the stream of thought might have started on a long-haul flight two years ago. (Not a conversation, I understand, however, I think it might have been the catalyst, the seed). I was surfing around the several bazillion hours worth of programs and movies available to me. One of them was on statistics. Now I don’t mind a good bit of nerdiness. It was Hans Rosling.
I was completely hooked too. He took data and did absolutely fabulous things with it. He took you to a place you didn’t expect the data to lead you. He played with my expectations and preconceptions and completely challenged them.
Later, a friend of mine was wrestling with how to convey statistics, and in particular big numbers, to her pre-tertiary students. Our conversation and subsequent email trail included Chris Jordan (visualising pollution in computer photographic art), David McCandless (the billion dollar-o-gram – 2009 [see image] and the updated interactive 2013 version) and of course, Hans Rosling.
I went off further exploring David McCandless as I was completely intrigued by his clean graphics and his twist on portraying data that tells a different story to that of the predominant media (including a very different look at the Afghanistan situation).
Then we were in a team meeting here at RDS Partners and we were talking about science communication, as we do and we got onto Melissa Marshall’s TEDTalk “Talk nerdy to me”. Her premise is that scientists do amazing work, but they need to communicate it clearly: avoid jargon, use visuals rather than words, keep it relevant but don’t dumb it down, be passionate.
So here I was back at data visualisation. I went on a data viz hunt. I found amazing examples from the past, oft-quoted I now realise, but new to me. Amongst them was John Snow’s cholera map with the Broad Street pump. Now I studied microbiology and knew the story, probably even had it come up as an exam question, but I don’t recall seeing that map. (Is that memory attenuation at work or the new paradigm of learning that we appear to be entering?)
Then, there’s Florence Nightingale (what a woman). I remember reading one of those early reader books when I was a young tacker about this famous woman. And she leapt even higher in my regard for her when I saw the intellectual rigour of her diagrams attributing causality to Crimean war mortality.
I came across a periodic table of data visualisation methods in my surfing that reminded me of the original chemical one. Isn’t that an amazing piece of visual science communication? I would suggest that you could put the silhouette of the periodic table up there with the most recognisable brands.
But the one that affected me the most is Minard’s 1867 infographic of Napoleon’s march to Moscow (and back). He plots the march there in brown, with the width of the line proportional to the troop numbers overlying a simplified map. Beneath this is the black line of the return march which further corresponds to dates and a graph of temperature. Just looking at the numbers and the temperatures made me think of the troops as people. What a piece of communication.
We here at RDS Partners get to write a lot. Often our final output is a report. There are times when we look at each other and go ‘that works so much better visually’ and we then work up a better way of communicating what we are trying to say. Sometimes it works, sometimes it needs a bit more work, but a lot of the time it adds significant value that couldn’t be done with just words. The power of infographics.
We truly live in a complex world. Sometimes it is useful to look at it a different way. All of the infographics I’ve mentioned have done that for me, they’ve given me a different perspective. To me, that is powerful communication.
What’s your favourite infographic?