Data Vis as Guide Dog

Charts and graphs have a job to do: the secret is knowing when they are (and aren’t) on the job

Erica Gunn
Nightingale
Published in
6 min readJun 27, 2019

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As a data vis designer living in both the art and data worlds, I sometimes hear that I should “just go wild” or “let my hair down” to produce more exciting, visually engaging graphics that feel more fun. On the other hand, I also hear that data visualization is a serious discipline with a purpose, where clarity and accurate interpretation trump all other concerns.

So, which is it? (Spoiler: maybe both!)

Some of my recent explorations in playful data encodings. Photo credit: Branden Gunn.

The difference between data vis and data art

To me, data vis is like a guide dog: staid, disciplined, and faithfully focused on the task at hand. Data vis has a job to do. Data art is more like a puppy: energetic, enthusiastic and playful, fearlessly exploring the possibilities of the medium and the moment — an expression of pure, kinetic joy. The guide dog and the puppy can even be the same animal, at different times. The key piece is deciding when the guide dog is on duty, and when he is off-leash and free to play.

Image credit: Guide dog, Wikimedia commons. Playing dog, MaxPixel

When the guide dog is on duty, her focus is on doing her job. For a data visualization, this means helping people to see trends or patterns that they might not otherwise see. A good visualization steers a reader carefully through a complicated narrative, highlights the right information, helps us to understand the things that we should see. It is the guide dog’s responsibility to ensure the safety of her human — likewise, it is the responsibility of data visualization not to create false impressions that could lead a reader astray.

On the other hand, no-one does well without play, either. Time spent “off-leash” can increase the vibrancy of our message and help visualization designers to uncover new and useful visual forms. Engaging in the spirit of play is a core part of the creative endeavor. Done well, it can inform our approach to more sober visualization work. (Note that the content of a data art piece can also be devastatingly serious; it simply conveys that topic in a more visually-playful…

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