Stalking the Viz-Elephant

April 5, 2012

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Will the “blind” men and women of info/dataviz ever see the viz-elephant as a complete whole?

If the word “infographic” is starting to cause heart palpitations and uncontrollable urges to click associated links, then the term “data visualization” or anything plus “viz” is guaranteed to pack the house at events covering the subject. This bottomless appetite isn’t all about empty calories, however. There is growing interest in the rationale behind visualization and a curiosity to hear professionals reveal the “secrets” of their trade. Yesterday evening’s hybrid talk/panel discussion at the New York Public Library, enticingly titled “What Makes Good Data Visualization?”, certainly tapped into the current info/dataviz trend; Isabel Graves, organizer of the event and co-founder of Leaders in Software and Art, mentioned in her introduction that 240 people signed up for only 177 available seats. Compelling data in itself. The lineup of speakers didn’t hurt either: recognized figures in data visualization such as Manuel Lima and Kaiser Fung shared the stage with statisticians Mark Hansen and Andrew Gelman, creative director/multimedia artist Tahir Hemphill, and journalist/computer scientist Jonathan Stray, who moderated the discussion.

Before giving my overview this particular talk, some personal context is necessary. For years, I’ve made it a habit to go to as many information design and data visualization happenings as possible in the NYC area. I’ve put together a mini chronology of events I have attended (some more notable than others):

Time after time, I sign up for these events with the same high expectation: maybe they’ll break through the surface of show-and-tell self-promotion and finally, finally dig into the real issues of information design (yes, I use the term broadly). One can’t expect truly deep, engaged dialogue to happen in the space of 1-1.5 hours at the end of a work day, but there should at least be an effort to unpack and clarify the difficult work of data analysis and visualization, or simply acknowledge that there is a bigger picture to define. More often than not, however, I walk away disappointed at repeated servings of appetizer-like slideshows and tepid Q&A. These events present only one tightly-framed glimpse into a larger realm: generally speaking, designers tend to speak from a design perspective, programmers from a technology perspective, journalists from an infographics perspective, and so on. Nevertheless, I always remain hopeful that the next talk will broaden the view, or that I’ll be bold enough to raise the more pressing questions myself at the very end.

Much to my delight, yesterday’s event broke the mold. For once, professionals from diverse backgrounds were brought together to actually discuss each other’s points of view and address real questions about data visualization. Some of those questions were even baked into the agenda:

  • What perspectives should be considered in judging data visualizations (and why)?
  • Where does the data come from, and why does it matter?
  • Can a discipline of data visualization be established based on scientific or design principles?
  • How do I get started?

I appreciated that there was a deliberate decision to scale back the usual canned presentations and allow more dialogue to take place around the above questions. For their part, each speaker was forced to distill their points as concisely as possible in uniformly formatted slides, which helped keep the audience attentive and attuned to the juxtaposition of viewpoints. During discussion, each speaker was given the opportunity to comment, so that no perspective would be left out. When the inevitable question of utility versus aesthetics came up, a mild debate ensued between Kaiser Fung and Manuel Lima. Each presented a well-reasoned case in support of their position (I tended to side with Fung’s advocacy of a more sparse aesthetic to invite attention and investigation, rather than Lima’s defense of visual appeal as a cognitive hook for attention). It was also great to hear Mark Hansen speak to both the analytical and artistic sides with equal enthusiasm; his comments on enforcing data checking and standards for training data visualization professionals were most welcome. An interesting moment occurred towards the end of the discussion when Tahir Hemphill made reference to a photo of data art sculpture by Marius Watz. When Kaiser Fung asked “What is that?” (or more likely, what data set it was meant to represent), Tahir replied bluntly “It’s art!” to jolt the “numbers guy” out of his frame of reference. Everyone seemed to get a kick out of that.

I had hoped that there would be more time spent on the question of formalizing the discipline of data visualization, but breadth won out over depth, and time was short. The point of the event, I think, was really to show that the exploration and untangling of these issues is a work in progress — an imperfect and slow one that has taken considerable effort to get this far. As long as fuzziness and ambiguity exist within the realm of information design and across data-focused disciplines, more forums for discussion and knowledge exchange are needed to build shared understanding. Designers alone will not achieve this, nor will just programmers or statisticians or academics: the effort must be cross-disciplinary. Otherwise, the elusive viz-elephant representing the massive information design & visualization space will remain a fragmented creature, never to be seen by the public or professionals alike for what it really is.

(For those who may be interested, full video of the event is available here.)


Thinking in Sketchbooks

April 2, 2012

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23 years, 36 sketchbooks (stacked in order by size)

Back in 2008, Michael Bierut wrote an excellent post on Design Observer about his collection of notebooks — how he started, what kind he uses, what purpose they serve. His reflections on note taking and the habit of recording thoughts regularly on paper stuck with me, not just as an insight into his creative process, but as a motivation to reflect on my own relationship with my sketchbooks.

I have been drawing my entire life. As a child, I drew on whatever paper I could get my hands on: notepads, copy paper, legal pads, napkins, envelopes. Cartoons and comic books were my inspiration and my “goal” as a young artist. I would spend hours recreating scenes from my favorite shows, like Voltron and the Thundercats, or tracing panels from Fantastic Four and Wolverine comics (among many others). Over time, I accumulated a lot of paper of varying sizes and types, which I eventually kept in a portfolio. But I came to realize that this method would prove inefficient if I was to take my drawing more seriously.

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Superhero drawings, 1989-1992 (yep, I was a Marvel guy)

I started keeping regular sketchbooks around the age of twelve, but exactly how I came into possession of my first one escapes me (it is likely that my mother or my cousin may have bought me my first official sketchbook, which I no longer have). My earliest sketchbooks were large, back when scale mattered more than portability, and they were usually cheap Aquabee drawing pads with coarse-tooth paper. When I got tired of pages falling out from constantly folding them back, I switched to higher quality Strathmore and Canson sketchbooks with smoother, brighter paper and sturdier binding.

I’ve never stuck exclusively to one particular brand or style of sketchbook. I like holding a different book in my hands every now and then, perhaps to make me feel like I’m producing new thoughts and ideas. My only lasting criteria for a sketchbook are that the pages be free of lines and that the paper accept ink well. I make exceptions only under special circumstances: when I want to do guilt-free experimentation, when I find a handsome sketchbook that inspires me, or when I receive a sketchbook for free or as a gift. My preference lately has been for the Moleskine Classic Large Plain Notebook because it’s just the right size for my needs, it withstands daily abuse, and it closes securely with the trademark elastic band.

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Two favorites: a generic newsprint pad (left) and an Italian notebook covered in medieval imagery (right)

Anything goes inside the pages of my sketchbooks: if I can think it, I draw it. My early sketchbooks were playgrounds for my imagination, full of bizarre creatures, invented landscapes, idealized superheroes, and impromptu drawing lessons. Sometimes pages would be crammed with lots of little ideas, and other times a single small idea would occupy a page on its own. I would try out mixed media, watercolor, and collage on occasion, but I typically work in pencil or ink out of sheer immediacy — never in ballpoint pen. These days, my medium of choice tends to be a Pilot Precise V5 Rolling Ball, fine point, although any good rolling ball pen with rich black ink will do.

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A small watercolor sketch for a potential children’s book, 2002

Drawing from life is one of my favorite activities, especially while traveling. I always try to carve out time to just sit somewhere and fill my sketchbook with observations of my surroundings, to impress them on my memory. Museum visits also allow me to engage in sustained, active seeing. Ancient artifacts, modern masterworks, and even museum spaces reveal hidden lessons only after lengthy analysis with pencil and paper. It often takes several tries and many pages for me to really understand what I’m looking at.

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Selected sketchbook pages from a trip to England, 1999

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Christian Science Mother Church, Boston, MA, 2000

In college, I started out as an art major, so my sketchbook was an invaluable learning space and work space. As in my childhood, I found myself recreating works by other artists, but with a deeper appreciation for volume, space, and proportion. I planned out compositions for paintings and occasionally took notes for other classes and assignments in my trusty sketchbook. (The pages below are from my best college sketchbook, which I nearly lost in a flood after moving back home from school. Luckily, I was able to remove the saturated cover and let the damp pages dry. Thankfully, all of the sketches survived.)

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Studies of heads after masterworks by Watteau, Fragonard, and de Ribera, 1997

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Life drawing sketch to establish correct figure proportion, 1997

From the end of college up to the present, my sketchbooks have become less artistic and expressive in nature, more functional and diagrammatic. My information design and graphic design sensibilities took shape in the late 1990′s and early 2000′s through logo studies, thumbnails of page layouts, and sketches for personal portfolio projects. I mainly use sketchbooks now for project work, to capture notes from meetings, construct concept models showing relationships between ideas, or figure out how to represent data.

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Logo studies, 1999

My most productive work moments typically happen during my morning or evening train commute, and only occasionally at the office. With headphones on and a block of uninterrupted time (usually 20-30 minutes), I am able to dive into a problem in my sketchbook and rapidly explore every angle. I enjoy looking back at old project sketches and seeing how my thinking evolved on a particular diagram. My first attempts are never successful.

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Sketches to figure out concept diagrams and layout for a work project, 2008

My sketchbook also serves as a journal when my mind needs an outlet for non-work thinking. I rely on words for the most part, but I also try to create simple pictures when it helps me put different ideas together. Sometimes ideas will carry over from one sketchbook to the next as new ideas emerge, in which case I rewrite or redraw the relevant bits.

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Random quotes and thoughts, 2009

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A brain dump on content and the digital world, 2011

The role of sketchbooks in my life has evolved considerably, although I long for simpler times when the only purpose I had was to let my mind wander. Creative freedom took on a much different meaning in my childhood than it does today. For all the latitude that design work affords me, I still feel that my most recent sketchbooks and drawings represent a form of commercial art — artistic production in the service of business. That, fundamentally, is the nature of my work (though not it’s sole purpose), and yet it has led me further away from what compelled me to start drawing in the first place.

The tension I feel between “formal” art and “functional” art is something I hope to explore in my current sketchbook. I want to revive old ways of seeing and creating and allow them to coexist with and even inform my more structured design work. For me, truly fulfilling art work is a convergence of deep concentration, visual reasoning, and artistic production — without the pressure of time, intent, or anticipated outcomes. The state of flow, as described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, came naturally to me in my childhood, but as school and work grew to dominate my life, it became harder and harder to evoke. Collage, for instance, is one means of rekindling flow: it allows me to experiment freely, make spontaneous associations, and assemble my thoughts easily with a minimum of craft. Through this form of “play,” I can break conventions that have become ingrained in my drawing habits and open up more possibilities in how I synthesize information visually.

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Sketchbook #37, customized with a hand-painted network pattern, 2012

As comfortable as I’ve become with ink on paper, I am very curious about the role of devices and software in extending or redefining the sketchbook. I have tested countless drawing apps on my iPad, and while a handful come close to simulating real-live drawing (Bamboo Paper, SketchBook, Procreate, and more recently, Paper), the experience is still rife with shortcomings: the clumsiness of using a nubby stylus, crude recreation of different media, and unnatural control of the page/canvas (never mind the lack of tactility). Still, those don’t deter me from continuing to test them out and finding ways to fold them into a digital design workflow.

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Test drawing on iPad 2 done with Sketchbook app and a Targus stylus, 2012

Technology will eventually open up new creative possibilities beyond what we can imagine today, but for the time being, I’m quite content pushing the boundaries of a good old-fashioned bound paper sketchbook.


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