Gay rights by type

Beauty and brains

By Jessica Nicholls 28 February 2014

The total accumulation of data over the past two years dwarfs the prior record of human civilisation. It’s equivalent to a zettabyte (you pass through kilo-meta-giga-tera-peta to get there), which even to untrained ears clearly signals we’re positively swimming in data. But as Professor Gary King explains, it is not the quantity of data that is revolutionary, it’s the fact we can now do something with it.

Open datasets—and new ways of linking them—have played a huge role in generating fresh insights. And one of the most powerful tools for enabling understanding of massive amounts of information is visualisation.

Data visualisation and infographics take their place alongside tweeting and twerking (and other pop words of our time). But the basic drive to communicate information clearly and effectively through graphical means has always been integral to the process of shaping knowledge, as a new exhibition at the British Library shows—from John Snow’s plotting of the London cholera outbreak to Martin Krzywinski’s Circles of Life which show the genetic similarities between humans and other animals.

As designer David McCandless describes in a TED talk: ‘By visualizing information, we turn it into a landscape that you can explore with your eyes, a sort of information map…when you’re lost in information, an information map is kind of useful.’

Beauty lies in that perfect blend of functionality and aesthetics—where artists and scientists forget their age-old debate and unite over a well-plotted line. Data visualisation may not be new, but it’s taking on more complex forms than ever before across all disciplines and sectors.

At NPC, we recently heard from True Design about their work for HelpAge’s Global AgeWatch Index 2013. It was fascinating to see the iterative process at work—how designers carry an idea from pen board scribble to sophisticated icon through aggregation, filtering and clustering and by patiently refining what it says.

Two things in particular came across. 1) The information you present has to be readily understandable, which means prioritising your messages (you cannot show it all). 2) Data visualisation combines what computers are good at—storing and displaying information—with what humans do best—asking the right questions and interpreting the results. Computers allow us to play with the data, but we still rely on good, old-fashioned graphic design to organise it.

We’ll be explaining some of the key principles behind data visualisation and showing some good and bad examples in a series of upcoming blogs, so look out for those.

In the meantime, I’ve canvassed the NPC office and gathered some of our favourite examples of data visualisation throughout the ages: