The human race is estimated to produce 2.5 exabytes (or 2,500,000,000,000,000,000 bytes) of data every day, and experts believe that number doubles roughly every 40 months (Harvard Business Review, October 2012). The challenges of this information tsunami have been well documented, such as in the recent New York Times cover story in relation to sustainability. HDR, among many other firms that specialize in the design of data centers, already serve this market and stand poised to respond to the increasing need.
What fascinates me more than the technical ways in which we will store and manage this data, is how we will turn it into something useful. Large amounts of data are not valuable unless you can easily organize, parse, analyze and share results in an effective way. Data is only as good as your ability to communicate and make decisions from it.
I deal with this challenge in my own job. Originally a graphic designer, my day-to-day role is now more of an administrator. I use various systems to organize and manage details like budgets, schedules, hit rates and other “numbers.” When asked to communicate all or part of this information, it is usually easiest to send the obligatory spreadsheet, hopefully condensed to focus on the issue(s) at hand. But I have found this format to be less and less effective, as my audience generally seems to “glaze over” at the seemingly endless amount of various “reports” we share, on top of an already declining human attention span.
Of late I have been experimenting with more creative ways to effectively communicate data. I have come full circle, back to my graphic design roots, fully embracing the “infographics” movement. Infographics, a mash up of “information” and “graphics,” are a relatively new phenomenon without a formal definition, but I would submit: a simple and dynamic way to communicate large amounts of data. “Simple,” “dynamic” and “large” all being relative terms, of course.
There are countless examples in various formats, with new ideas emerging every day. The following are some of the sources and examples I’ve been referencing:
- Edward Tufte – Tufte was probably my first exposure to infographics, the grandfather of the movement, if you will. His Visual Display of Quantitative Information was published in 2001, back when the web was not as robust. A colleague at HDR shared her copy with me in my first weeks; I promptly bought my own and have referenced it ever since. Required reading for aspiring infographic designers.
- The Wall Street Journal Guide to Information Graphics – Published in 2010, this book claims to be the “definitive guide to the graphic presentation of information”, though it already feels a bit dated. The real-world applications in the Journal give it great credibility, albeit not all that exciting compared to some of the other examples out there. Good fundamentals and practical tips, but nothing groundbreaking.
- Visual.ly – “Empowers people to tell stories with data.” A self-proclaimed online “community,” the site showcases countless examples, many of them very funny, in an effort to create the first marketplace to connect infographic producers and consumers.
- Pennant – This source is particularly close to my heart. Steven Varga was a student in an undergrad graphic design packaging class I taught several years back. He later received his Masters at Parsons School of Design and somewhere along the line created Pennant. In his own words: “Pennant is both an attempt to explore the vast amount of baseball data that has been collected in the last sixty years as well as a study in using interactivity as a means for investigating the extremely large data sets that are becoming increasingly available.”
Sometimes I feel like graphic design as a whole has become stagnant. Design tools are becoming increasingly available, which gives more and more people the chance to design, and that’s good. But it also makes it harder to filter and recognize substantive design. Design that isn’t just polish, but truly integrated with the content. Design that’s supportive and symbiotic. Design that’s not subordinate, but never overshadowing either. Good infographics feel like hope.
Image courtesy of Hot Butter Studio © 2012 (via visual.ly)