Engaging Aesthetics for Data Narratives
Can the aesthetic elements of a data-visualization be considered as important as the data itself in getting readers interested about a topic, leading them to shape an understanding of it and triggering their curiosity to explore more?
Can we start considering and conceiving pure aesthetic features not only as ornamental attributes within a data-driven visual story?
Can we accept and legitimize that, in some cases, a beautiful and functional data-visualization may not necessary take its shape only from the data, but that aesthetic choices play a comparable role in its success?
And ultimately, why should a reader not be able to find a data-visualization both intellectually compelling and emotionally rich?
At Accurat we’ve been working regularly in the culture and entertainment industry over the last few years, creating static and interactive data driven visual narratives.
When designing, especially for this specific audience, we believe that one of the key features of our design process should always be a constant visual research to achieve pleasant and compelling aesthetics through which representing our data analyses.
We like to think at our data visualization projects as engaging visual ways to convey the richness of the stories we experience in our everyday lives, rather than simplifications of the world.
A pure and beautiful visual can become an extremely powerful trigger to get people curious and wanting to explore its contents, and this is why we like the idea of making people think “Oh, that is beautiful. And strange” in the first place, and then “I want to know what this is about!”
Research has demonstrated that aesthetics plays a key role in shaping people responses to any kind of products, and people also draw on aesthetic elements to form their opinion on functionality and credibility. Moreover, aesthetics is deeply associated with emotions and feelings and has a deep influence on how users and readers perceive information:
Beauty cannot replace functionality, but beauty and functionality together achieve incredibly greater results.
But how can we do that?
We are confronted everyday with many and different visual languages, which interpenetrate, cross over and interfere one with another and can be easily combined and adopted to represent information through in a visual way.
A crucial question is how to shape unexpected, but at the same time evocative visuals on data-driven projects?
How to use conventional materials in entirely unconventional ways in order to create a new experiences and mode of engagements?
In my last Medium post I dissected our process for building dense and rich narratives, working with layers and hierarchies of information;
in this article I focus on the very aesthetic aspects of data visualizations and on the idea of going beyond conventions, presenting some works of the studio within this angle.
It is laid-out as a personal perspective on the topic, including specific relevant comments and observations we collected during past years from readers, and it mainly draws from the article I published on the Malofiej21 book and from my talk at the Visualized Conference 2014.
“STEALING” FROM ARTISTS
In this series of visualizations, we played around the idea of literally stealing from abstract painters’ styles, elements, and colors, and building a visual anthology of our favorite 10 abstract painters’ lives.
On the visual side, we thus decided to take a direct inspiration from each painter’s style: isolating pictorial elements, picking colors and shapes each one of them uses, to assemble their unique timelines of life events and artworks.
We designed a timeline for each painter, illustrating their artistic production, their most famous artistic periods, awards, trainings, connections and influences. In addition, we included extra information about their lives such as love affairs, travels, health related issues, particular habits, and important life events to provide readers with multiple ways of interpreting each painter’s career.
We composed unique symbols derived from the style of Matisse, Picasso, Kandinsky, Mirò, Boccioni, Klimt, Dalì, Mondrian, Pollock and Klee that are used over the visualizations to display these information in an original but recognizable way.
We built a format, so that each of the visualizations is easily comparable to the others: the artistic production of the painter is always depicted below the timeline, and the personal life events fill the upper part.
For this visualization we paired up with our friend and talented illustrator Michela Buttignol, she helped us cleverly distill the symbolic elements of each painters’ style and illustrating their pictograms.
This project has been an aesthetic exercise where we played freely with formats, visual codes, and repetitions. We visualized illustrated clues reminding to the painters’ styles to trigger readers minds through visual clues they are already familiar with, thus inviting them — hopefully — to explore and dig into the pieces.
TRANSLATING VISUAL INSPIRATIONS
We published “The Accelerating Pace of Science” on Popular Science, in May 2014. As a visual reference, we relied here on the musical notations’ panorama, even if this time the topic of our analysis was unrelated to the visual inspiration: the data visualization represents scientific papers and their peaks of citations over years, arranged to compose a landscape of “musical trees”.
Using the Web of Science database, we considered the 20 largest science fields — those with the most articles each year, and within those fields, we calculated how long it took to the 50 most-referenced papers published each year to reach peak citations, we also picked the top 20 papers in each field based on their cumulative number of citations, and represented them through time as well.
Circular timelines host our musical notes: the top 20 papers per discipline.
Each note is positioned in the circle according to the year of publication of the paper, and the length of the note corresponds to the number of years it took that paper to reach the maximum number of citations.
In addition, for each paper we calculated the cumulative number of citations it received since it was published and represented this as well as a small bar springing out from the base of the note towards the center of the circumference. The number of authors for each paper and recurrent authors are visualized as well (these are the small dots and arches connecting them).
We precisely referred to the musical notation panorama, but we also combined this main design inspiration with other “visual worlds” to compose these articulated “musical trees” of scientific disciplines, respecting the rich data analysis we performed while building familiar visual panoramas to readers eyes.
PLAYING AIMLESS, WITH AN AIM
This visualization seeks for correlations amongst budget, sale price & box office gross of independent American movies. It has been published as a spread on issue #1 of Bright Ideas Magazine, which was officially launched at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, and it represents the movies that were sold at the Festival between 2011 and 2013.
The main point of this visualization is to compare movies according to their budgets, sale prices and box office gross. Thus we decided to compose a solid for each movie which is obtained by the unique combination amongst these three different values, in order to show that precise relationship through their sizes, proportions and heights; the differences among which should be clear at a glance through their shape.
The resulting forms speak for themselves. For example: the taller is the cone, the more successful was the movie at the box office.
The 3-dimensional aesthetic came as a random and unplanned visual exploration in our early drafts: we morphed one circle into the other to understand the relationships between these 3 values; but we immediately realized that this weird 3d panorama of elements was visually perfect to enhance comparisons among the three parameters, and we decided to keep it for the final visual.
As always, after the main story has been told, we also decided to enrich the it by adding qualitative information about each movie such as the movie length, its genre, and the awards it received: to fill the story and the visual. (This let us understand for example that the number of awards a film wins has little correlation to box office performance. Even an Academy Award nomination doesn’t guarantee a profit!)
Finally, a flat and bi-dimensional background landscape hosts our 3D elements, mixing different styles and techniques and hopefully generating a playful and unexpected piece.
SIMPLE DOESN’T MEAN SIMPLE
Is it possible to deliver a rich and engaging experience even when the data at hand are not so rich?
“Famous writers’ sleep habits and literary productivity” explores the relationship between famous writers’ productivity and the time they used to wake up, with further insights provided by the representation of their most important awards and their life lengths.
For this project we had the chance to collaborate with Maria Popova, curator of the famous blog Brainpickings, who ideated the piece, and with the brilliant illustrator Wendy MacNaughton, who drew simple yet beautiful portraits of the authors.
We decided to built the whole visualization around the illustrations: each author’s portrait is in fact ideally surrounded by a 12-hours clock, where a visual mark points out the time he or she used to wake up at. Radiating from this point, we represented data on the author’s productivity, while a colored shade around the picture displays the prizes he or she won throughout the years.
Authors are ordered from the early birds to the late risers, laid-out over a vertical sinuous path following the progression of the day.
In the design we overlapped and combine two very approaches: the authors’ lovely hand-drawn portraits along with quantitative data visualizations, conveying visual flavor to remind of actual superimposed paper layers. This combination of techniques and the usage of the metaphor of the clock gave led us to build a simple but unusual piece.
“Take your pleasure seriously”
~ Charles Eames
Why are we doing that? Why are we constantly struggling to find pleasant and new aesthetics to tell stories of data?
Most of all, we believe that playing with unexpected aesthetics is a key factor in trigger people interest and curiosity for the topics: catching their eyes, entertaining them, making them passionated to explore more, and thus encouraging to keep their attention on the stories we are telling them.
Lastly, creating highly customized visuals helps producing pieces that can be easily remembered: images that people can recall in their mind as the jump-in point to the topics, to information and knowledge.
During last year we had the opportunity to receive and gather several comments from our readers, some of these stories follow.
“I LOVE YOUR CANDLEHOLDERS IMAGE!”
Often, it is from our family and friends that we receive the most illuminating observations.
_Grandmother: “Giorgia, you know which is the one I like the most of your images?” (Yes, she said images) “The one with the beautiful candleholders! That one, I’d love to hang it on the wall!”
_me: “Oh…Sweet of you! I am just curious, do you remember the topic at least?”
This visualization explores the one hundred geniuses of language in human history identified by Harold Bloom in the book “Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds” featuring a large group of literary greats.
In the visual, each individual is displayed by name, historical period of activity, main profession, continent of origin, number of pages dedicated in the book, and the visits to the relatives pages on wikipedia.org.
Actually my grandmother wasn’t very much interested in the subject, thus this can seem not a great example is, but nevertheless she remembered the piece: this particular aesthetic recalled an image in her mind.
And I guess she wouldn’t bother saying:
“Giorgia, you made so great bar-charts!”
This unusual desire was inspired from the book we took the data from and the peculiar organization of the chapters.
As Bloom wrote: “All genius, in my judgment, is idiosyncratic and grandly arbitrary, and ultimately stands alone. … My placement of the hundred geniuses is hardly one that fixes them in place, since all the Sefirot are images constantly in motion, and any creative spirit must move through all of them, in many labyrinths and transformations. … Since the ten Sefirot form a system in constant motion, all of my hundred persons could be illuminated almost equally well by the other nine Sefirot, beyond the one where I group them, and I intend this book to be a kind of mosaic-in-perpetual-movement.”
The composition of the individuals mirrors the structure of the chapters in the book, using the image of the Kabbalah Sefirots.
Our visualization tries to faithfully represent the 100 geniuses as the author probably imagined them in his mind, and our visual model starts from an accurate reproduction of the well-known Kabbalah Sefirot schema.
Quantitative and qualitative information related to the personal and professional life of each author has been identified as a further attempt to assess the impact they have had in the history of language.
“THE RED AND GREEN JELLYFISHES”
Obviously, I select and feature here comments that are useful to address the point of the article rather than more general ones: observations that helped us reflect and elaborate on the value of unexpected but evocative visuals.
This visualization compares the sovereign debt exposure of sixty-one European banks to the twenty-nine nations of the old continent.
We wouldn’t imagine that this visual landscape of money-transfers could remind of an ocean of jellyfishes, but it actually happened.
_”Oh, Accurat! You guys did the one with the green and red …jellyfishes, right? It’s beautiful!”
This was the feedback I received during a data-visualization meet-up in New York while introducing myself in the first place.
The green, red and grey “jellyfishes’ heads” (i.e. the circles) in the top part of the visualization represent the 29 countries we analyzed.
In the visualization, countries are arranged from left to right according to the internal relationship between public debt and GDP, and from the bottom upwards based on the growing number of inhabitants. Banks are positioned on the perpendicular axis according to the country of origin, and from the bottom upwards, based on the year of foundation, the flow and quality of debt investment in the various states is displayed for each bank, and vertical lines represent banks that invest lot of money in the state to which they belong. Countries are represented through circles, the dimension of which indicates the public debt of each nation. The share of the public debt purchased by the 61 banks analyzed is displayed as well through the inner ellipse shape. Entities of investments are represented through the type and dimensions of the lines connecting banks with countries; the colors of the visual (green, grey and red) indicate Standard & Poor’s rating.) Banks’ names are listed on the right and referred to in the visual with a code number; they are ordered according to the amount of their investments in European debt.
We have been very inspired by the aesthetics of paper-models starting from there to conceive the visualization; and, again, we never thought of jellyfishes!
But, in general, what we like about these comments is the way people remember our visualizations, the ways they name them referring to something that clicked with their mind. Eventually these aesthetics we composed recall something familiar they can refer to, even if we weren’t planning on that while designing: it’s like planting a seed that will flower in different individual ways…!
(For the record, grandmother referred to this piece as “the lamp posts” and a friend of ours as “the 99 red balloons”, from a famous German song from the 80s).
NEW LANGUAGES FOR DATA VISUALIZATIONS: STARTING A DIALOGUE
To be a designer you have to find new languages, new ways of entertaining people; and working with data you also have to make visuals that can become magnetic to people that are not familiar with data practices.
We believe that, sometimes, the act of loading an analytical representation with emotional investment produces attention rather than distraction, creates worlds that are evocative and nameless at the same time, able to inspire sensations, as long as we always respect the values in the data and we don’t manipulate the information.
To this regard, we can define successful designs as the ones able to balance convention (i.e. familiar forms our minds are already familiar with) and novelty: new features that can engage and delight people in the hope they will stick around our visualizations a bit longer, and in the hope we can help the conversations in our fields moving forward.
We believe that there isn’t a unique truth in data-visualization, and that there are more than one instead, more or less appropriate and effective depending on the scopes and the goals, on the data and on the readers, on the situations and contexts.
Dense and non-conventional data visualizations produce a type of behaviour that promotes slowness in this era of short attention span: if we can create visuals that are demanding the right slowness and the right level of engagement, people would slow them down to meet it.
This article is obviously not providing answers; I hope it can rather start a dialogue among practitioners and enthusiasts: how can we keep on exploring, guessing, imagining, hunching, trying combinations and trying to inspire feelings, as visual communicators who use images and symbols rather than words and numbers?
How can we be faithful to scientific accuracy while allowing space for exceptions to flourish, with the aim of bringing a range of new possibilities to the table?
Accurat is a data-driven research, design and innovation firm.
We help our clients understand, communicate and leverage their data assets
through static and interactive data visualizations, interfaces and analytical
tools that provide comprehension, insight and engagement.
We have offices in Milan and New York.