Data communicators, where is innovation happening?

Posted on October 12th, 2013 by Chris Twigg

Being a designer and researcher of data communication I like to keep up with developments in the field. Naturally it makes me wonder where things will go next. Where is innovation happening? (Yes, I’m asking you too!)

I have a hunch that innovation will come from anywhere that thought is extended outside of design to the experience.

A good example is ‘data manifestation’, a project by the Information Experience Design programme at the Royal College of Art. It’s about communicating data by manifestation in objects and spaces that people experience – described in ‘A manifesto for data manifestation’. It’s a vision and mission for where ‘Big Data analytics’ is going next, with an idea that physical manifestation extends communication possibilities beyond 2d visualisation.

I like the idea and think this is one to watch for where innovation will happen in data communication. But what I like even more is that designers are ‘…bringing together data science with an understanding of materials, modes of communication, sensory perception, cognitive and social processes. And especially, good design principles.’ The IED programme thinks about creating data experiences as well as creating data ‘texts’, and these people look outside of design.

Experience = innovation

I see a lot of data visualisation/infographics* and sometimes wonder how much data communicators really think about experience? I wonder about this especially when I’m the audience and it’s my own experience. So – at worst – if I look at a visualisation and I feel confused, patronised, overwhelmed, bored, confined or wondering what the point is then it scores low on my experience scale. At best, well, is it possible this visualisation could really move me…? The immersive approach in Snow Fall by the NYT, which isn’t a visualisation but has visualisation in it, comes to mind as a memorable experience.

I contemplate what success means in data visualisation as have others, because I think the topic will be a catalyst for innovation. I think success goes beyond technical considerations like efficiency, beyond website hits and going viral, beyond professional awards, and is more to do with experience.

*to expand on this distinction and the context of each see this post

Storytelling = innovation

The data manifestation project points out limitations of screen and 2D visualisation. But here there is room still for innovation. This I think is in storytelling.

My interest as a data communication designer and researcher is how story affects experience. That’s because – and it sounds obvious to say – people reason through stories. Stories move people, give them a reason to believe or not, a reason to do something or not, to take this turn or that. Who doesn’t like a story? Yet as a concept story jars with data communication because data are not stories. Data are cold hard facts. But, critically, data *have* story potential, just like any object or action inherently has a story potential. Critically it’s through narrative (by representation of facts and events) that data can *be* a story.

Narrative theory ought to challenge and inform data visualisation design more than it has done. If not the risk is stasis – in a kind of ‘visualisation means this, story means that’ scenario. The idea of storytelling with data visualisation created quite a buzz in the visualisation community last year. The conversation sadly didn’t lead to as much progress in the field as I hoped for, or hasn’t yet. For me this is because there is a skimpy conception of what narrative is or could mean in practice.

Stories can be unclear but gripping, for example. Would we design unclear visualisations if it made for a great overall experience? People don’t seem to be talking about narrative as a creative or experimental approach. Instead data visualisation focuses on quite basic narratives, which on the one hand makes sense. But creatively exploring relationships between narrative and experience is where innovation in data communication could lie. Reason and emotion make up human experience, which as Ken Burns points out in this nice short film, connects very much with stories.

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So, data communicators, where is innovation happening?

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