Think + Do » an exploration of nonprofit marketing and design

Data Visualization

Illustration of the Milky Way galaxy with an arrow pointing to the outer regions and the words "You Are Here"Big Data has a tendency to make us feel very small. The digital universe is large and getting larger, doubling in size every two years. All those numbers taken from everyday life have changed the way we live, as companies use algorithms to offer customized services and experiences that were once unimaginable.

This newfound power to recognize and predict patterns in human behavior presents opportunities and challenges. We have access to more information than ever before, but can we make sense of it?

Math for dummies
Mathematics plays a vital role in our quest to understand the world we live in.

The great book of nature can be read only by those who know the language in which it was written. And this language is mathematics. – Galileo

Unfortunately, most of us only read words and pictures. We like stories.

The rapid growth of available data has been matched by a similar growth in attempts to translate math into a language we understand. Complex subjects are summarized by making the math visual. Behold, the rise of the infographic!

Problems without solutions
The popularity of infographics as a way to quickly educate an audience hides one very inconvenient truth – they are incredibly difficult to do well. Unlike a mathematical formula, you can’t just plug in some numbers and produce an answer.

Charts, diagrams, and illustrations all have the power to convey vast amounts of information. If a graphic doesn’t bring clarity to the chaos, your reader must decide whether or not to spend time digesting it. (Hint: They won’t.) If it’s as easy to digest as a Twinkie – and just as nutritious – you’ve missed the opportunity to enlighten.

Short stories
The scarcest resource of the 21st century is human attention. Designers are up against it when attempting to quickly display loads of dense information in a single, compelling graphic. One must understand both the audience and the story you want to tell them. Do they have two hours, two minutes, or two seconds to get your point?

Under the direction of the most skilled practitioners, a great data visualization has a clear narrative. It provides context in both logical and unexpected ways and leaves the audience richer for the experience. Such a deft touch is uncommon.

Far more common is the jumbled collection of anecdotes, arrows, and armies of gender-neutral figures against a backdrop of colorful, oversized numbers. The infographic is supposed to say something, but seems designed to distract.

It’s as if someone took random pages from a handful of sources, stapled them together, and called it a story.

Distilled insight
A primary goal of data visualization is to make information more accessible, understandable, and usable. Though the amount of information is increasing by the day, the amount of useful information almost certainly isn’t. Most of it is just noise.

No matter how much data exists, correlations and insights do not magically appear by themselves. Data is only as useful as the people interpreting it.

An abundance of information requires inquiry and analysis to extract meaning. An ability to edit is more important than the choice of bar graphs or pie charts. Designers have the skills to help determine what is necessary and what is not. The trick is in bravely drawing and defending that line.

Big outcomes
Modern life is enriched by data in countless ways. However, there is a shortage of people who can both tame the data and tell you what to do with it. Data visualization is one way to bring focus to what’s important and prompt behavior change.

Before you jump on the infographic bandwagon, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is my information suited to an infographic?
    Don’t try to force a square peg into a round hole. Choose the best method to clearly communicate your message, not the trendiest.
  • Am I trying to do too much?
    It’s your job to deliver the needle in the haystack, not just scatter the hay. The most common pitfall of the infographic is including everything. When in doubt, leave it out.
  • What is the story?
    Focus on the idea, not the numbers, and your design choices should become much clearer.
  • What is the desired response?
    Life is not theoretical. Any data visualization is only as valuable as its ability to prompt thought and action.

To paraphrase the ancient mariner, there is data, data everywhere, yet scarcely a drop to drink. Those who can give numbers context, and connect them to a compelling story, will prove to be very valuable.

Related content:

How a Civil War Vet Invented the American Infographic

Spurious Correlations

Clarity vs Memorability: Which is More Important to Data Visualization?

Future Forecast

Photo of old man in turban whose face is glowing in the light of a crystal ballEvery year, it seems, Christmas decorations appear in stores earlier and earlier. As back-to-school sales fade from memory, jack-o-lanterns and witches hang on twinkling artificial trees in the seasonal section of your friendly neighborhood big-box retailer.

In that tradition, I’m skipping right past Thanksgiving and looking to the new year – and the year after that.

People are fascinated with the future. Most want an estimate of a specific future outome at a specific time. When will I meet my true love? Who will win the big game? Will this be a good investment? Lucrative industries sell predictions to eager buyers.

Forecasts, on the other hand, tend to focus on process, patterns, and potential outcomes. They are more useful for developing strategies in a dynamic environment – one that offers a range of outcomes and responses. For example, it may not matter much if it’s 83 or 79 degrees over next weekend’s beach vacation, but it will be good to know if you’re going to need an umbrella and some backup plans.

I’ve observed the early stages of a few trends in nonprofit marketing and design. Each involves multiple behaviors and tactics that together begin to coalesce into underlying themes. None are particularly widespread now – or effectively implemented. I believe all of them will be used increasingly by successful organizations going forward.

Over the next four months, I will delve more deeply into each of the following topics:

Building Capacity
There is never-ending pressure to be more productive at work. And yet complex problems require people to think and solve problems more creatively than ever. There is an inherent conflict between these truths. Limited by time, money, and imagination, organizations will need to learn how to build capacity – both to scale up successful products and services and to do more with less.

Perpetual Beta Mode
We are all works in progress. Somewhere along the way, however, businesses evolved to a much more rigid way of working, with a goal of getting to the “finished” product as soon as possible. While there are benefits to having deadlines and targets, eliminating experiments and a tinkering mindset sacrifices big ideas on the altar of risk aversion. Future leaders will recognize that perfection is overrated.

Data Visualization
We may be in the age of Big Data, but it is rarely used in ways that bring clarity to complex issues. People aren’t rational. They make decisions and process information based on a jumble of experiences, instinct, and emotion – backfilling decisions with data because it sounds better. Those who can give numbers context, and connect them to a compelling story, will prove to be very valuable.

Designing Experiences
Organizations that are determined to help and delight their audiences will grow faster than those that do not. Designers will spend less time making artifacts – logos, publications, websites – and more time applying creative thinking to the ways that customers interact with an organization and the world around them. British designer Patrick Cox put it best, “Companies don’t need advertising, they need to be designed better.”

As we turn the page to 2015 and beyond, I hope these forecasts help generate ideas and strategies for a better-designed future … which I’ll be working on just as soon as the leftover turkey is gone.

What trends do you see emerging?