2019-05-052 Comments

Fonts for Data Visualizations

Professor Cairo has a voracious appetite for reading and he thankfully likes to share books and articles. One article he included, Finding the Best Free Fonts for Numbers was an interesting read as I have a thing for type and fonts. I get picky and can spend probably too much time selecting a font that I feel works well. I've also taught typography classes so while I am not a type expert, I am knowledgeable about typography.

In general, I agree with the list Samantha recommends. Not everyone can afford some of the best designed super families out in the wild. I also agree that free fonts aren’t always the best choice. Most are poorly designed and more importantly were probably created for the most generic of applications. So, again, she has compiled a thoughtful list.

Old Standard TT

I disagree about one typeface: Old Standard TT.

I do not think it would function well for data visualizations where type sizes are below possibly 14 points and that might be generous. Why? Old Standard TT can be quite interesting at large sizes; however, at smaller sizes, it starts to fall apart.

I need reading glasses to be able to read Old Standard TT at 14 pts. Even with it set in black on a white background (great contrast between figure and ground), it is quite challenging to read. Imagine if it is set in a color also on a colored background. Personally, if it is hard to read, I won't. In my mind, that is the worst possible user experience.

My recommendation: If you want to use Old Standard TT, use it for display copy—headlines, subheads, or instances where you want to set a numeral in a particularly large size.

Oldstyle or Lining

Samantha's recommendation for lining and tabular is a good base; however, this should not be a hard and fast rule. Why? Because there is a purpose for Oldstyle figures. Oldstyle figures work well when used with running text. They don't interrupt the flow of reading because they share the same x-height as their lowercase character companions. Lining numbers in contrast stand out when sharing the same baseline as lowercase characters in running text.

Oldstyle figures can be used for data visualizations especially in places where numbers share the same baseline as text. For example, annotations. They are also readable in tables and other data visualizations purposes. Oldstyle figures can also be tabular so please, don't rule out a typeface because they have oldstyle figures.

OpenType and Investing in Typefaces

With OpenType fonts, you get the best of all worlds, usually. For figures, OpenType give you the flexibility of setting figures in tabular and lining and tabular and oldstyle. Usually a designer can also set type as proportional as well. This is one of the perks of OpenType fonts and investing in building a library of high-quality typefaces. (Use a font manager such as Extensis's Suitcase Fusion). Many free fonts are not OpenType.

My Favorite Fonts for Data Visualizations So Far…

Below is a short list of sans serif typefaces I use over and over again. Many are large families so you also have a choice of many styles: thin, light, italic, regular, bold, etc.

Benton Sans

Fira Sans

Gotham

Whitney

Interstate

Poynter Gothic Text

PT Sans

Nimbus Sans

Myriad

News Gothic

FF Meta

Soleil

If you have an Adobe CC subscription …

Many of the fonts above are available through fonts.adobe.com (formerly TypeKit). It's one of the perks of having an Adobe Creative Cloud subscription. If you are interested in others, try a search for sans serif with a large x-height. (A larger x-height usually means greater readability at smaller sizes.)

If you want to learn more about typography, I highly recommend Ellen Lupton's website and book, Thinking with Type. I also have plenty of books which I'll try to share soon. The great part about owning high-quality typefaces: you don't need many. This is what makes OpenType super families so appealing.

2019-05-04No Comments

Data Illustrator: What I Love and Hate

Early in the semester, Professor Cairo introduced us to Data Illustrator, an open source tool that was designed to create data visualizations and infographics without programming.

My first graphic using Data Illustrator:

This was for a class exercise. I used data already provided by Data Illustrator so I could get a feel for how to use it. I imported it into Adobe Illustrator to clean it up and add copy.

My second graphic using Data Illustrator:

This is a heatmap I made to include in my final project for the Intro to Data Visualization course. I made it in DI and then exported as an SVG to modify using Adobe Illustrator. I love how this turned out.

What I Love and Hate

Love: The seeming flexibility.

Even though I don't really feel anywhere near comfortable using DI, I can see from the examples that it is very flexible in terms of the type of visualizations that can be created. Plus, I was able to create the heat map above with Data Illustrator which I could not figure out how to do with any other tool in my student tool kit.

Hate: The hurdles of learning its flexibility

I am a beginner with visualization and Data Illustrator but as someone who is learning about user research and user experience, the UX could be greatly improved for novice users. I have no idea how experts in data viz feel about Data Illustrator but from a novice point-of-view the usability — efficiency, effectiveness, and satisfaction — is low.

Love: Downloading the files as SVG

The ability to download SVG files and modify them in Illustrator is very cool. The files are relatively clean (compared to Flourish) and works great.

Hate: Saving projects

Ok, it would be nice if I could save the project name within Data Illustrator rather than having to rename an Untitled DI file after I it downloads to my desktop. This is just so counter-intuitive. Still, at least when you re-open a saved DI file, the web-based tool actually recognizes it and it works so you can continue to modify as desired.

I wish and hope…

A usability test will be done if not already with Data Illustrator to improve it. It think it has a lot of promise but from a usability standpoint, it really needs refinement. Some user testing and UI improvements and improvements to the Help and Documentation especially for novice uses would help make Data Illustrator really shine.

2019-05-04No Comments

Maps, Maps, Maps …

So … where do I start? I love maps! As strange as this may sound, I had forgotten how much I love them. It took an Intro to Data Visualization course to remind me or renew that spark and I'm so glad.

Even with my love for maps, I never really studied them; looked closely or heck, even questioned them. For me, it was about where I had traveled, where I wanted to go, how I would get from point A to point B. I used to be the navigator for my dad when our family would take road trips. I loved having that responsibility; knowing where we are, how we will reach our destination … Big girl stuff.

But I guess with GPS, maps aren't so much a presence in our daily lives and perhaps that is how I forgot my love of maps?

Learning and looking at maps through a different lens

These are just a few of the maps I've been drawn to of late. The first of measles in the United States in 2019. It's nothing ground-breaking but it sure is astonishing as it is attractive which is an odd thing to say about a map that presents disease.

But, I think that is what is most interesting about being human. What catches our eye can be a twist on the expected? I'm not sure if I'm explaining that well but that's how it feels for now.

Source: NYTimes.com

The colors are striking. The reds are a direct link to measles (I have no idea if that was intentional but that's what it seems to be) and set off against the neutral grays and creams, they pop out.

Having lived in the Pacific Northwest, I'm a bit shocked that there are so many cases in Southern Washington and Portland, Oregon. But then again, maybe not. I'm not sure what the connection is but it would be interesting to investigate more.

Source: The Economist

This map above scares me but also comforts me in that currently I live in Syracuse, New York (Miami is temporary as far as I know). I worry about my parents who live in the South and this just brings to mind a ton of questions. What are states doing to prepare for this warmth? It is going to have such an impact on daily life. Bandaids here and there are not going to help though it may make people feel better … I'm no expert on what impacts are but the first thing that comes to mind from just reading the news is water and disease. Everything else from there is like a row of dominoes.

Oh but what I also love about the map above is the pairing with the bar graph of income! If I'm reading this correctly, the intensity of the orange bars are connected to the colors of the map, too. Scary and depressing. Will those with less survive? What will we do as a country to help people who don't have the resources to escape climate change?

Source: Morphocode

This last map … It's a map of that shows the age of buildings in Lower Manhattan. The project is called Urban Layers. I looked up one building where my husband and I stay when we visit the City and I definitely want to explore this more because I wonder how the building of buildings is connected in terms of where they are located in Manhattan.

One thing I sort of wished for or thought of was when hovering over the different colors or buildings, it would be cool to read more about them, especially the historic buildings. I guess I'm wishing for just a bit more depth! Check it out.

Plans to learn more about Maps

My summer plans include a lot of learning; mainly code such as R and Javascript. Perhaps I can dabble in some mapping tools as well to get my feet wet. I know that for my final year of graduate school a GIS class is planned but in the meantime, I want to study them more. Maybe there's a way to practice building maps using R? Or perhaps D3.js?

2019-05-02No Comments

Two Data Visualizations about Women

So I can't remember how I arrived at Scientific American and these two data visualizations but upon first impression, I really like them.

Why?

  • Both are about topics and issues about and related to women. I am a woman, therefore I am partial to stories about anything that could affect me or enlighten me about what it is to be a woman.
  • At first glance, they are beautiful. Not in that omg, wow, cool sense but in that I'm looking out on a lake and watching the sunrise; those moments before the sunrises. Slow, quietly beautiful. I think what I love most is the contrast between the organic, fluid shapes and the harder edges; the natural and scientific for lack of better terms. Hmm
  • In diving in more, the content is rich, helpful and fascinating. I took a physiology and anatomy class so more medical jargon of The Menstrual Cycle is familiar to me. The Maternal Mortality visualization was just downright shocking. This was a visualization from 2009 and maternal mortality has been in the news quite a bit lately but this visualization, I think, hits hard about the U.S. Seriously, flat-out sad.

I need to subscribe to Scientific American. If looking at and studying more visualizations is key to learning to be a better data visualization designer, then I think this magazine would be helpful. I'm also thinking that I want to collect visualizations about women.

2019-04-25No Comments

Final Project: The Changing Landscape of HIV

I started work on my final project for Professor Cairo’s Intro to Visualization course. My topic: HIV. This was based on a story I read in The New York Times about how HIV has become most prevalent in the South, in rural areas, and among gay, male, people of color. I wanted to explore how HIV has shifted over the years.

Above are my most recent drafts and I think I finally have a direction I feel confident about. It's quite astonishing the number of details and polish required before a visualization feels complete especially in print.

What I'm working on to refine:

  • Color choices. I think one of the greatest challenges is creating a color palette that is attractive and is colorblind safe. This is harder than it may seem.
  • Copy. Writing never comes easy to me, so this is going to take more time than anything else.
  • Typography. This is a particular favorite of mine. I love type and tweaking its use… well, I might need to cut myself off. I use Suitcase to manage my type library so I've created a folder just for typefaces that work well for data visualizations.

Professor Cairo mentioned how 80 percent of visualization is understanding the data. This project is proof that statement is true.

Data from the CDC's Annual HIV Surveillance PDFs.

The Excel workbook above is just one of many I created and combed through to understand what the numbers show. In my case, I needed to visualize it because with a table this large it is difficult to see or compare much of anything.

My initial plan was to show the shift of HIV in the U.S. over 20 years. But after downloading 20 years of PDFs and using Tabula to extract the data, I discovered that in 2007, a change in how the data was reported presented me with anomalies and a decision; actually a question. What do I do? In sketching the numbers with Flourish, there was clearly a dip that without a note people could interpret incorrectly. In fact, I wasn't sure what to make of it.

There were two options, according to Professor Cairo:

  • Annotate 2007 with a note about the change in reported data
  • Visualize only last decade.

I chose the latter because after reading through the technical notes, 2008 was when all states had enough data and it could be standardized. What is shocking to me is that data about HIV wasn't standardized until 2008!

Above is a sketch of visualizing HIV diagnosis in nearly every state. Its more than our project brief required because there isn't room for a grid of mini line charts but once I started to see how each state compared to each other and the national rate between 2008 and 2017, I couldn't stop. The group of this mini line charts is visually interesting. I plan to organize each one regionally and in the future, I want to explore further iterations.

2019-04-20No Comments

The Functional Art: Interview with Stefanie Posavec

Of all the interviews in The Functional Art, the interview with Stefanie Posavec is my favorite.

Alberto Cairo: How did you do the graphics? Did you do use any scripts to count the words, organize them, sort them according to themes, etc.?

Stefanie Posavec: Believe it or not, I didn’t. I did it all by hand.

The Functional Art, p. 343

Wow.

Literary Organism, by Stefanie Posavec. Source: http://www.stefanieposavec.com

I am aware that I need to automate, but sometimes I feel that it’s important to spend that kind of time gathering your information by hand. It feels a little more natural. Also, it creates bonds with what you are working on: I had to read On the Road over and over again, so the outcome was as much a representation of the text as it is a representation of the novel in my head, of my experience of exploring it.

Stefanie Posavec, The Functional Art, p. 343

Stefanie’s reply resonates with me so much yet, I have to give this more thought as I’m sleep deprived and my head is a bit scrambled from switching mind gears for each project, but here’s the immediate thought: As a graduate student in an interactive media program, naturally, there is great focus on code and digital. While people, through emphasis on user experience and user research, are at the center of what students create, I’ve often wondered if students, my classmates, feel a connection to the experiences they are creating.

Does that sound weird? I can hear the other side of myself asking, “Why do we need to connect with what we are creating?”

Seriously though, do screens and the code that have been designed to help us making things more efficiently, disconnect us from the experience, the tactile and physical nature of human movement, of making? By removing the slowness of making by hand and touching materials disconnect us as makers, as designers?

Highlighted pages of Stefanie Posavec's copy of On the Road. Source: ImageKind

When is the last time you really looked at a book and didn’t take it for granted?

I’ve designed photo books where I've worked with photographers editing with printed thumbnails and taking those sequences to InDesign and printing tons of dummies, mockups to get a feel for the experience. Then if I could be so lucky, see the book printed.

But I gotta say, nothing compares to literally making a book. I personally am not very good at it as I’m a beginner but when you make a book by hand, you start to truly understand and appreciate every page, measurement, type placement, paper (oh the paper!), fold, stitch and more. It feels more personal.

What is our relationship with books? What is your relationship with books? What is a book?

It’s clear I love paper books. I suppose it isn’t “right” to love paper books in this age of climate change, waste, trash and environmental impact but I can’t help it. It’s an emotional relationship. I love the simplicity of interactions: using your hands and a pen to highlight words, jot down notes in the margins, fold the corners to book mark a page … The fact that you can bring it anywhere (well, depending on size and weight), you don’t need electricity though you may need a light when it is dark.

Above all, I understand more when I read from printed words. I’m not sure what it is but if I read, highlight, and write in a book, I retain the information more. It just isn’t the same with the Kindle, PDFs, or web-based books. If paper books ever disappear, I’m going to be in trouble.

Stefanie’s visualization, Writing Without Words: Sentence Drawings of every sentence from On the Road is the transformation of the experience of the book. It is beautiful, poetic, musical. It looks like an expression of our natural world. Looking at it, I’m reminded of mold, of crystallization, of the beauty of science and biology.

It’s always about awe and wonder for me. That’s why I have decided to call myself a data illustrator, rather than a data visualizer. The reason is that I really like the idea of using data to communicate more subjective concepts about the topics I cover. Everything is accurate in my graphics, but they are not necessarily designed just for efficiency, they are not always what you would call information design.

Stefanie Posavec, The Functional Art, p. 348

Sometime I think in the age of digital we have forgotten about awe and wonder; to look at the world as new beings, like children.

Yet, the side of me that loves technology has experienced awe and wonder in multi-layered experiences, especially in virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) … Magic Leap being one of my favorites along with Tilt Brush on the Oculus.

Perhaps it isn't a choice…it isn’t binary but a place where I want to sit; where I want to practice. Hmm…

Stefanie’s interview reminds me that I don’t ever want to be removed from what I create or heaven forbid, dispassionate. Emotions are healthy as much as they can be annoying. They are as beautiful as they are difficult to experience through others and within ourselves.

2019-04-01No Comments

Florida: Why Are So Many Seniors Struggling?

Well, here it is. My first data visualization for Professor Cairo's Intro to Data Visualization course.

The project brief: Create a visualization of financial hardship in Florida based on The A.L.I.C.E. Report provided by United Way. Requirements included:

  • Tell a compelling focus or narrative
  • Deliver a tabloid sized visualization
  • Deliver a mobile version
  • Apply all we have read and learned so far from lectures and our readings

Above are just a sample of my notes and outlining in an attempt to get a clearer picture of what story I wanted to tell. There's a lot of repetition and it is reflective of feeling paralyzed as I was drowning in ideas and data. Apparently, this feeling is normal. This intel reinforces the fact that calling the experts is a must-do.

My first draft. Scary awful. Drowning and uncertain.
Another draft after a couple of weeks.

I learned a lot from this project and these are the top three:

Sketch early and often. Use the same data and try different visualizations. This is key for me. The benefit of experience is that I know my self and I need to see to understand and learn. Tools like Flourish make sketching much easier and faster.

Keep organized. I have to come up with a folder structure toute suite and at the moment, I decided to add the source to the beginning of the folder and files of the data I download. I was swimming in Excel files. Nothing is worse than spending the time hunting among hundreds of files for the source of the data.

Stop digging and start making. This is related to my first lesson on sketching early and often. Seriously, I could have gone on for weeks plunging deeper and deeper on the interconnectedness of our policies and the effect on our communities. It is easy to get sidetracked and lose focus. Still, what you find sometimes can be gems for other visualizations!

One more major project to go …

2019-03-28No Comments

Mental Barriers, Confidence Intervals, and Questions

I do not suck at math

”I do not suck at math. I do not suck at math. I do not suck at math …”
“I think I can, I think I can, I think I can …”

The enormous hurdle in my mind that I’ve been working through as I learn about visualization is the math required to properly, truthfully visualize a story. This is not easy as I have believed over the past 30 plus years that I. Suck. At. Math. I’ve shared this fear of math before and I have been training my self to be more positive. I bought some books and at every opportunity I try to practice.

Still, the negative experiences I buried for decades feel like they just happened yesterday and this chapter in The Truthful Art about confidence intervals immediately made my want to close the book. Dramatic perhaps but as a kid who was scolded so many times for not understanding (translation: stupid), the first opportunity to avoid those experiences were a blessing. So for years I managed to avoid situations where I would never have to deal with math.

Yet here I am and planning to keep going. There are pattens in life worth breaking or resolving and I’m determined to re-craft my narrative. So, I have to read this chapter again and again and I think it is going to take more than books to help me feel confident in my abilities. It might be time for a tutor or a summer class.

"The predicted probability of having a data policy for English-language general (red, higher) and specific (blueish-green, lower) journals as a function of their impact factor". From "Which political science journals will have a data policy"

Papers that don’t report significance, effect sizes, and power together deserve extra skepticism, as a general rule.

The Truthful Art, p. 324

Keep Asking Questions

I’ve learned over the years not to be duped by fancy names or titles and somewhere during my career, I figured out that surrounding myself with people who knew more than I or complemented my skills were key to doing great work… as a team.

Off the top of my head, here are just a few people who have helped shape me as a designer in no particular order:

  • Michael Kellams
  • Emily Escalante
  • Tina Ullman
  • David Pratt
  • Jerry Sealy
  • Norie Quintos
  • Leigh Borghesani
  • Bill Marr
  • David Griffin
  • Trish Reynales
  • My husband

Of course there are many others—colleagues (designers, reporters, editors, photographers) and people I’ve never met whose work I’ve admired or whose books and articles have inspired me and challenged how I think.

I started my design career in newspapers interning at The Seattle Times, then went on to The Globe and Mail, Copley Sun Publications, The Chicago Tribune and off to National Geographic Traveler magazine. My focus at that time was on photography. I worked with picture editors and photographers in packaging and presenting stories where the photographs were the lead visuals.

So, as the completion of the semester, this class, and my first year approaches, I find myself reflecting on what has transpired in the past 7-8 months. A lot has happened and one thing I didn’t anticipate was the desire to return to the “newsroom”. I never thought I would want to pursue data visualization, especially because it doesn't come naturally to me.

The secret behind any successful data project is asking people who know a lot about the data at hand and its shortcomings, about how it was gathered, processed, and tested.

The Truthful Art, p. 316

Asking questions is paramount to collaboration, understanding people, and being a responsible designer. I’m used to working with others, experts, so honestly, my first visualization for this class made me nervous. I was uncomfortable and uncertain about the data because of my inexperience. I did my best and the project comes with a giant asterisk (* school project!) but I suppose I had to start somewhere.

At least I know for certain that I need to learn more about understanding data and ramp up my math skills. I also have to remind myself that I just started in January. So patience, where are you?

2019-02-26No Comments

Shape for Content, Strive for Clarity, and Provide Context

[O]ur main goal should be to tell a story clearly by achieving order and having some sort of narrative through each graphic. Any project should start by analyzing what your story is about and then finding the best way to tell it by splitting it up into easily digestible chunks, without losing depth.

John Grimwade, Interview in The Functional Art, p. 213

At the recommendation of Professor Cairo, I subscribed to the print version of The New York Times and last week, the first edition arrived at my doorstep. (I can’t remember the last time this happened – remember the newspaper delivery boys?) Immediately, I started to dive into the sections with my coffee and stumbled upon this story and visualization:

The print version of "To Cut Emissions Faster, U.S. Can Apply These Policies" in The New York Times

It immediately grabbed my attention because I’ve been a bit obsessed with climate change as of late. Perhaps it is living in Miami where the weather is such a contrast to Upstate New York and I cannot help feel those contrasts when I’m here and my husband is in the bitter cold. We talk often about which condition is better — more months of extreme heat or extreme cold?

But getting back to the story and visualization, it makes me want to understand what other countries are doing and why it is so hard for the U.S. to adopt these policies? What are the pros and cons? What are the hurdles? In fact, could The New York Times please follow up? This was a great teaser, I want more.

So, I went online to see if the interactive version revealed anything different.

The interactive version of How to Cut U.S. Emissions Faster? Do What These Countries Are Doing.

No luck but I enjoyed the difference in experience.

My preference? The print version. Why? I could get a better sense of the story as a whole. The contrast between our possible trajectory based on current policy, how it relates to the Paris Treaty and how, if we implemented some of the same policies adopted by other countries would change earlier stated trend.

(Side note: This makes me wonder if anyone has done a study on the differences of how people perceive the same visualizations differently on screen or in print; like what information is process and what isn’t? And, would that depend on say, education level?)

“We are the Interface”

John Grimwade, graphics editor at Condé Nast Traveler magazine shares how working with reporters and editors taught him to “strive for clarity because we are the interface between a chaotic world of information and the user who wants to understand something. If we can’t bring users clarity, I think we have kind of failed, actually.” (The Functional Art, p. 216)

I haven’t thought about my experiences working at newspapers and magazines for a long time. I miss it in many ways and for many reasons but those days seem long gone since newspapers and magazine have changed dramatically. Still, there are some exciting things happening as companies reimagine what the future of publishing looks like. The New York Times, Vice President of Engineering, Brian Hamman, was a featured speaker at the 2019 Computation and Journalism Symposium last month and it was an exciting look at how they seem to be evaluating and re-evaluating the lifecycle of stories, the products they create and how these stories and products live in the system of the publishing cycle. It’s a fascinating undertaking.

It is fascinating to think of how a visualization or story lives within the world and the relationships it could have with future stories or past stories. This makes me think about how clarity and context are even more vital as content gets repackaged, repurposed, re-tweeted, re-, re-, re …

I haven’t done a deep dive into how much content is shared without its context but I’m sure it is scary. So, this makes me wonder. If “good design is not about mastering technology, but about facilitating clear communication and the understanding of relevant issues”, (p.213, Alberto Cairo about John Grimwade’s style and approach) then clarity and context becomes even more important today. Designers may not need to master technology but it behooves designers to understand how technology can determine how what is created lives within the world now and in the future. The annotation layer or even the metadata, it seems, becomes even more critical. I haven’t thought this through entirely and not sure I can alone but what happens when visualizations lose their context?

Content is King

Raise your hand if you have started to design straight on the computer.

I’ve heard and read this axiom many times. Whether it is King or Queen, all I know is that you can’t design without understanding the content. Without understanding the content, you can’t possibly provide clarity or context. So, in that sense, frankly, your design is destined to fail.

When I was teaching, many non-design students would get excited about an idea and start working on the computer even though I emphasized the importance of sketching. Perhaps it is the (understandable) fear of “not being able to draw” yet what they failed to comprehend is that it isn’t an efficient way to design especially when one is learning how to use the software as well.

Here’s what John Grimwade had to say about working straight on the computer:

[It’s] a very bad way to start. You make a lot of art decisions and then trap yourself into them. I constantly see graphics that have been done like that. A big image or illustration was put in the middle first then the designer tried to make all the other elements in the composition work around it, instead of coming up with a solid structure that would hep tell the story you need to tell.


Jim Grimwade, p. 218, The Functional Art

Chances are you’ve created buckets and then forcing your content into those buckets rather than structuring information and creating shapes based on the content and the priority of content. This is when I’ve seen my students commit “design crimes” of all kinds: Changing the vertical scale of type to make it fit, tracking out type to fit, distorting an image by one percent, and more …

Sketching is a great way to be non-committal. It is a way to think through work; similar to writing draft after draft of an essay. Ideally, each version sheds some light and builds to the final. What I love about sketching and mapping out relationships even with words is that it helps me identify questions and holes. What am I missing? What doesn’t makes sense? Those questions are just as important as what is present and how it looks.

Before you think about style, you must think about structure.

Alberto Cairo, p. 154, The Functional Art.

What I love about design is that it is a process, a way of thinking about the whole and the parts. I’m thrilled I didn’t give it up.

2019-02-17No Comments

The Truthful Art: Uncertainty and The Basics

Here’s the dirty little secret about data: it’s always noisy and uncertain.

Alberto Cairo, p. 112, The Truthful Art

Honestly, I never really gave uncertainty much critical thought until I stumbled upon Visualizing Uncertain Weather a 2017 article by Jen Christiansen in Scientific American (Who was mentioned in the article? Professor Cairo) where she talks about snowfall, Winter Storm Stella and moves into how hurricane visualizations are problematic.

Living in Syracuse, New York where tracking winter weather is like a part-time job, her article made me think about all the times forecasters would predict major snow madness and nothing much would happen. It’s like The Boy Who Cried Wolf. Sound the alarm enough with no need and people start to ignore the alarm. Heck, even the cashiers at the local grocery chain, Wegmans, make fun of people who, in their minds, overreact to winter warnings.

I’m one of the overreactors. If there is a storm on the way, I’m going to prepare. Blame my dad. “Always be prepared”, he advised. Plus, here’s the deal: weather shifts. It isn’t some linear condition. There are many variables.

So, now that I’m back in school, I’m thinking: why don’t weather apps do what the National Weather Service does for snow accumulation as Jen had pointed out? All I get are text reports which help to some degree but a visualization would be more effective.

Speaking of hurricanes, I confess I’m nervous about one landing while I'm in school. So, I decided that as soon as any hurricane is considered a Category 3 I’m out. Some apartment neighbors say you can hold it out in a Category 4. Given that most hurricane maps fail to show uncertainty and the scope of its impact, I’m not taking any chances. The traffic alone is a reason to start exiting as soon as possible.

I digress.

Reading more about uncertainty in The Truthful Art brought to mind another article by Jen in Scientific American that I came across through a tweet from Professor Cairo before I started his class: Visualizing Science: Illustration and Beyond It’s a lengthy article but one that I found fascinating as Jen took me on a journey through her experiences as an illustrator, infographer, art director, and I think, educator.

She ends with uncertainty and provides rich examples of how uncertainty has been expressed visually. Reading the entire article again, I’ve understand what she offers differently because I’ve learned more about visualization since my first read. It’s even more a keeper of an article and one I’ll continue to refer back to given the plethora of resources, tips and ideas she presents.

Examples of uncertainty from Visualizing Science: Illustration and Beyond

Being a beginner … again.

All of us who do creative work, like you know, we get into it and we get into it because we have good taste, but its like there’s a gap. That for the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good, OK? It’s not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it not quite that good. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, your taste, is still killer …

Ira Glass, Storytelling

I confessed in a previous post that I’ve always been scared of math. Over time, I’ve come to believe I’m not good at math nor good with numbers. But when I read Professor Cairo’s retelling of Professor Richard Thaler’s experiment with an exam, I laughed out loud.

Basically, Professor Thaler changed the maximum score of a test from 100 points to 137 points. When the exam was 100 pts, the average score was 72. When the exam was 137 pts, the average score was 96.

“Exams will have a total of 137 points rather than the usual 100. This scoring system has no effect on the grade you get in the course, but it seems to make you happier”

Richard Thaler, p. 122, para. 3, The Truthful Art

The visualization Professor Cairo presents shows the hilarity of the experiment.

Perhaps why I’ve come to love data visualization in just a few short weeks is because the good ones help me understand numbers, relationships and more importantly, the stories behind the numbers. Plus, I love information, organizing it, structuring it and even more, helping people understand it.

Of course, the frustrating aspect is that I’m still learning how to find data and then understand the raw information. My frustration is that I have so many questions and stories I want to tell but lack the skills at the moment to execute. I have to remember to be patient when it comes to all this “newness”.

“Encoding” is a new term for me; however, “mapping data into visual properties”, makes perfect sense. I still struggle with which type of visualization would be the most appropriate but what I enjoy most about learning visualization is that I’m learning a process; a structure or framework that gives what I create a strong foundation based in reasoning.

Don’t misunderstand. As a designer I learned early on with mentors and working with my colleagues to base my decisions on audience, metrics, goals, etc. But what I’ve learned so far through the Interactive Media program has essentially provided me with Super Glue. Glue that provides me with the terminology and methods to give cogency to design ideas or solutions. It’s a feeling of empowerment.

“Plot what you need to plot.” For some reason reading this allowed me to let out air. It is a version of sketching and iteration. You need to explore to see. This seems so apropos to why I’m back in school; a reminder for when I’m exhausted and wondering what I’ve done by taking myself out of the workforce for two years.

Learning is exploration. I’m iterating my designer Self. I’m exploring the “unknown unknowns” by starting with the basics.

Graduating in May 2020. Seeking new, full-time adventures in the Pacific Northwest.

Please do not steal. It may bring on bad karma. Thank you.

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