Data visualisation has become vastly popular in the last decade. Indeed today the majority of presentations display patterns or trends visually not via the written word.

Visualising information, however, is not a recent development; people have used graphics to display data and facts since the 19th century, in business and in other fields. However, the advent of electronic data processing has brought about one fundamental change: today we are faced with a plethora of structured data on all aspects of business.

With this data comes the notion that the information hidden within is a valuable asset. Information graphics are efficient in making complex data intelligible; in doing so, they seem to have the potential to bring hidden messages into plain view. They have an air of promise about them.

One of my favourite cartoons by Gahan Wilson shows a man presenting a chaotic chart, saying: “I’ll pause for a moment so you can let this information sink in.” And there it is: the information sinks in. The reader need do nothing but allow a few seconds for the message to make its way into the brain, as if by magic.

This ‘magical reception’ is often paired with similar perceptions about how a statistical visual is created. The assumption is that once a data set is cast into the right type of diagram, it will involuntarily reveal the trends hidden in the numbers. Is this how information visualisation works? Certainly not.

Information graphics are highly abstract communication pieces, which – just like books or films – are created through many steps of editing and tailored for specific audiences. Within businesses, there are several different goals for creating information visuals.

Step one is the actual data mining, with the visuals working as tools for analysis. A data scientist will analyse the numbers to discover what patterns they reveal. Once this analysis has yielded a deeper understanding of a given data set, decision-makers within the company will use these findings to draw conclusions.

This is an interpretation process, which can have differing results depending on the underlying objectives. Following this interpretation, information visuals are created to communicate particular goals to clients and stakeholders, and to support decision-making both inside and outside the company. Creating information graphics for communication requires a variety of skills.

Beside the obvious statistical skills, knowledge of human perception and cognition are required, as well as a flair for design. The majority of us, who are neither statisticians, computer scientists nor graphic designers, must begin to understand that information visualisation is a powerful tool that must be carried out by experts, often in interdisciplinary teams.

Finally, consider what we do as readers when we are presented with a beautiful infographic. We all appreciate its potential to communicate an idea almost instantaneously; however, the full complexity of the graphic can never be fully understood in mere seconds.

We must ensure we dig deeper into the information and question how the creators have reached their conclusions – and whether other outcomes would also have been possible. If we make this a habit we can consider ourselves ‘data-savvy’.

Sandra Rendgen

Sandra Rendgen Understanding the World is published by Taschen

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