Thursday, January 13, 2011

Back to the basics of science & data viz

One of my goals for the new year is to take a closer look at the science/design connection – especially presenting lots of data in a coherent (and beautiful) way. To start off, here's a recent article I wrote for the Scientific American Guest Blog about designing and displaying information in science (it's also basically an ode to Tufte). 
Data visualization. Infographics. Ooh, better yet, make that interactive infographics. The recent buzz around the visual display of information makes it seem like everyone should be rushing to whip up some multi-colored cartogrambubble chart or word cloud. Never before have we had both the tools and the vast amounts of raw data to play around with, and scientists and journalists alike are making fabulous use of this opportunity. From unemployment rates to air traffic patterns to the wealth and health of nations to blood test results, information has never been so fun to look at.
But before we get too carried away with swirling globes and animated charts, it’s worth going back to the basics – taking note of some simple methods for visually presenting data. This endeavor is particularly relevant to science and health, where visual information appears anywhere from diagrams in scientific research papers to public health campaigns. The field of information design is vast, but I’ll concentrate on just a few simple ways to approach the combination of words and pictures. Many examples come straight from Edward Tufte, the information design guru who put the serious study of infographics on the map, so to speak (the New York Times has called him the Leonardo da Vinci of Data). Since the publication of his first book The Visual Display of Quantitative Information in 1983, Tufte has demonstrated over and over how the right approach to visual displays can dramatically improve the clarity and effectiveness of data. And in fact, many of the classic principles of good information design can be found throughout the history of science...
The whole thing is here. I'm hoping to write more on this stuff in the near future!

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