Complexity Simplified

I saw a really compelling infographic recently that portrayed how the word of the capture and killing of Osama bin Laden spread via twitter. It turns out that one primary source and one influential re-tweeter were the loci for the spread of the news. Two people! This is a tremendously complicated data set to disentangle, yet it was instantly recognizable on the visualization that these two twitter users were hugely influential. This kind of three dimensional infographic has become increasingly common in the main stream media as we are subjected to a constant fire-hose of data from an exploding number of sources. The raw data, as impressive as it is, is completely incomprehensible to our unaided minds. Only when the numbers are turned into a visual representation does it begin to make sense. Most of us can cobble together a pie or bar chart to represent simple data sets, but when the data becomes complex we simply get bogged down, and can’t find the way forward. Enter the infographics professionals.

The grandfather of modern information design is the legendary Edward Tufte. With a background in statistics and political science, Tufte teamed up with graphic designer Howard Gralla in 1983 to create the highly influential book, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. Visual Display laid the groundwork for the data-rich presentations that we have come to expect today. He went on to publish Envisioning Information in 1990, and Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative in 1997. Tufte is still active in the field, and still very much influential. Example? I spotted this post on today, talking about a Twitter trend of using Tufte’s “sparklines” to convey information more clearly within the tight constraints of a tweet.

I recently discovered another very talented practitioner in the field of information visualization: Manuel Lima. He comes to this field with a very different background than Tufte, he’s an Industrial Designer and MFA in Design & Technology. His site is a must-see resource for examples of visualizations from many fields (over 750 examples when I last checked). The examples cover the gamut from “A Grand Taxonomy of Rap Names” to a global map of scientific collaborations. His book Visual Complexity, Mapping Patterns of Information is to be published in September, 2011, and is available for pre-order on Amazon. Lima is currently the Senior UX Design Lead at Microsoft’s Bing project.

So why does any of this matter for Museums and Sites? I firmly believe that information visualization can help our audiences/visitors/users connect with complex data-laden subject matter more fully and deeply. Visualizations that explain and simplify complexity make it possible for more people to experience the “aha” moment when a tough concept clicks for them, and it helps them to get there faster. Yes, perhaps a long written explanation may engage a few, but it will do it slower and less compellingly. We owe it to ourselves, and our audiences to be open to presenting information in whatever way will make the complex a little simpler, and a lot more engaging.

Have you been using data visualizations in your exhibits? If not, why not? I’d love to hear from you…