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The purpose of data visualization changes depending on the audience for which the graphics have been designed.

No, I’m not being indecisive regarding my stance on visualization, but I believe that audience plays a big role in how the graphics are presented and received. If I were designing for a textbook or a scientific review, my approach would be considerably different. The audience has two important characteristics that would change my design process. They 1) have the desire/need to learn and 2) have an interest in the subject or past knowledge of the topic that has led them to that particular visualization.

These two descriptives of this audience mean that as a designer I do not need to necessarily waste time on “visual fluff,” the very concept that Robert Kosara, Nathan Yau, and so many others supported. With desire and interest already present in my viewer’s stance, my main focus as the designer would be to convey the information as clearly and concisely as possible in order to generate the greatest understanding. Perhaps this data visualization would serve to accompany and digest a large amount of text. Perhaps it would be a review of what an author has already published. Yet, still, the directive is clear — it is all about data and information delivered in the clearest manner possible.

On the flip side, if I were to focus my attention on the general public, an audience not intending to learn about a particular topic nor seeking information regarding the issue at hand, I would change my approach considerably. I would not throw data and information out the window, but rather would, as Kosara put it, (in his article, “Where Infographics are Going”), find the “sweet spot” between data and “shiny, colorful graphics.”

The reason is, in my mind, so alarmingly simple. We live in an age of visuals. And unfortunately, we are bombarded by them (half of which are poor design from the start) — at every corner by a billboard (or ten), at every meal by a dozen instances of packaging design, at every commercial break by every graphical trick in the book, at every facebook post by a growing number of flashing side-bar ads. And over time, we’ve learned (or at least I have) to blur them out. We’ve become accustomed to them, and as our visual stimulus has reached its peak, we have to purposefully attend to something to pay attention.

It’s very unfortunate actually. I can multi-task to my extreme detriment. My MacbookPro balances on one knee with Facebook chat, a Vimeo video, the Skype window, and this blog filling my screen and begging for my attention. My iphone sits next to me; it keeps buzzing with new texts and an alert to play my friend back in scrabble. And my iPad is on the other side (I keep tapping its screen to keep it from going dark) as I haltingly read through a PDF and scan through my emails and calendar. And even amidst this all, the TV blares in the background, my fiance (on Skype) is making funny faces at me and laughing at the movie he is currently watching (I can hear that as well), and my roommate is trying to decide what to wear tomorrow (and showing me each and every option). And I am exhausted. I’ve got my reading glasses on. I’m in my sweats. And I’m watching the clock like a hawk for Grey’s Anatomy, while dreaming of my down comforter and body pillow waiting for me in the other room.

I could care less about a well-visualized info-graphic at the moment (sorry Nathan and Robert). And I have a feeling that much of the American population is in the same boat as me. We are stretched beyond our limits, over-worked, over-tired, and over-stimulated by all that we see and do.

That is the audience I must cater to. I must give them a desire, a reason, an interest to view my work and comprehend the message (via the data and information) that I am trying to convey. I have to keep it sweet and short, with a direct and succinct message that will last long enough to be digested and perhaps conveyed to a passerby or their family waiting at home.

Unlike the other audience, the desire and interest has not already been supplied. So the clearest of forms minus the “shiny, colorful graphics” isn’t going to cut it. However, “shiny, colorful graphics” isn’t necessarily the answer. How is this different than all the other bombardments that we face?

The catch is this. We are visual people, and there is an element that unites us in the aesthetic world. Beauty. Pure, unmarred beauty. Something alarmingly different than the graphics found in popular advertising. If you can capture that essence of beauty in graphics, you’ve hit the mark. That is the entry point into a visualization that will reach its core purpose. Beauty stirs something inside of us. It plays with our emotion. It can incite us to learn, to change, to grow, to do, to become.

Yes, you can form an accurate data visualization that would make Edward Tufte proud. But, encase that in an element of visual beauty, and you can stop the most visually exhausted individual in their tracks and incite in them the want to learn and know and understand what you are trying to convey.

It hurts me when Robert Kosara says that “There is a place for art, and there is a place for visualization. Mixing the two is difficult and dangerous, and often leads to things that are neither.”

Art via the means of beauty has been used as a powerful way to learn, especially when conveying messages that are perhaps at time abstract and conceptual. Just watch the occupants of an art museum — they walk around in such sincere reverence, glass preventing their wandering hands from marring sacred surfaces. And even in my time in Italy, cathedrals used elaborate forms of art and beauty to convey Biblical truths and doctrine.

While I acknowledge that there is a fine line, and that pure art and beauty without a foundation of information and data can be detrimental to the purpose of visualization, let’s not count it out. There is something powerful about using beauty (and in this case, I’m saying that art can be a form of beauty or exhibited as beautiful), to convey a conceptual and emotional connection that pie charts and bar graphs can otherwise not achieve.

In my work, I want my audience to be drawn in by beauty — to be emotionally stirred and conceptually challenged by the data visualizations I create. Yes, I want to show an accurate display of my research, but I don’t want to exhibit static work that is mere data  and information and has no heart. I believe part of the responsibility of being a designer is creating movement and motions in which the overstimulated population is forced to stop and think for once, and perhaps act, talk amidst themselves about something other than the contents of the US weekly magazine.

While I regard statistics with high esteem, I must tastefully amend that the candy coating of data visualization is not just “shiny, colorful,” but it’s about creating a beauty that stirs people to read further, learn more, and share, something even the most accurately rendered bar graph cannot do alone.

The graphic below is actually a piece created by one of my peers, Molly Smith, for a class in Applied Typography. And I think she struck gold by combining data and graphics in a powerful way. It makes me stop and think. I consider my life at my thirteen birthday party, and the comparison is sobering. The information has been brought to life and been made real through her poster, in one simple, beautiful image. This class was not information design, so the rest of the information is included as simple typography, but as you look deeper, you see that part of the written portion is displayed as quotes of girls and women whose lives have been deeply affected by prostitution. These appear as murmurs, thoughts, breaths, scattered across the black background of the poster, drawing the emotional connection even deeper.

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