• Nigel Holmes on Using Humor to Illustrate Data That Tells a Story

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    For Centennial Voices , part of AIGA's Centennial celebration of the past, present and future of design, we've invited industry leaders to write short essays that spark conversations within the design community and beyond by reflecting on design history, sharing personal experiences in the industry, examining the design practice today or imagining the role of design tomorrow.

    35 years ago, when I was at Time magazine, I had a wonderful and championing mentor, Walter Bernard, who urged me to push the boundaries of the information graphics that had previously appeared in the magazine. Time is a general interest newsweekly, and we thought we could advance the understanding of some of the drier stories—business ones, for instance—by using illustrations along with the numbers.

    I joined Walter’s art department at Time in the summer of 1977. I had shown him some stuff I’d done in England, for the BBC. It seemed like a good fit for Time. Walter cleared the way, with the more entrenched editors, for me to do almost anything I wanted. Looking back, I overdid the visual metaphors a bit, but many readers wrote in to say they liked the work. A few did say that if I wanted to be a cartoonist, I should go away and do that, and leave the numbers alone. Academics hated what I did. (And they still point to it as an example of how not to do charts.)

    My feeling then, and now, is that humor is a good way to get people’s attention. Get a reader to smile, or recognize a visual reference and they’ll surely read on. Of course, if I didn’t immediately deliver the data after that initial attraction, then the graphic failed: in that case the illustration was a distraction. Of course, there are many subjects for which humor is inappropriate. And I have never advocated that every graphic should be illustrated (actually far from it: if you look at Time’s graphic archives, many of my contributions in the 70s and 80s were downright sedate). Rather, the choice of data displayed—with or without illustration—should tell a clear story. The graphic should make the data understandable, and give it meaning.

    Fast forward 30 years or so. In the relatively small world of information design, “data visualization” is the buzzword. (“Unedited visual data dumping” might sometimes, perhaps, be a more accurate description.) Recently, data visualizers are advocating for something that’s new to them: storytelling.

    Storytelling is new to DVers because they generally have a science or datamining or academic background, and not a journalism background that information graphics people generally do. DVers are beginning to realize that their raw numbers are just that—numbers. However hard they try to make those numbers look nice (and they certainly can “look nice”—even art gallery-worthy) as data visualizations they often don’t convey the meaning of the data. As many have said, information is only useful if it informs.

    So instead of asking “what’s the data?” Dvers are trying to humanize their work by asking “what’s the story?” More often than not, that means editing the data.

    But who cares if we call it data visualization or information graphics? We should just tell readers, viewers, users or visitors a story. That way, they’ll be better able to understand the data, not just look at it. And if they smile, so much the better—they might even remember it.

    See more of Nigel Holmes’ work.

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