Andrew Vande Moere digs deep in his information channels to gather the most interesting forms of data visualization. Yes, those common diagrams and charts that haunted you during your school days (for example, displaying the annual per capita income of Togo’s citizens in the most boring way). However, his blog infosthetics.com brings up the most beautiful outpourings of information aesthetics. For him this is a symbiosis between creative design and information visualization: form follows data and evolves in such unique graphs that you can call them art. Can you? PingMag talked to Andrew about infosthetics.
Written by Verena
First, would you quickly sum up your background for us? I only figured out that you are from Belgium and worked as an assistant at the ETH Zurich…
Way back, I studied Architectural Engineering at the K.U.Leuven University in Belgium. Even during my studies, I was always interested in how computers could create electronic forms of architectural spaces, non-physical places in which people still could meet, work and play.
In contrast to most currently existing shared 3D worlds, such virtual architecture is not necessarily based on traditional considerations as climate protection, privacy or constructive needs. Instead of bricks as the smallest delineator, such places have only one material in common: digital data. I discovered an academic group at ETH Zurich in Switzerland, who succeeded in merging architectural insights with the creation of such purely electronic spaces, including intriguing data-driven worlds and large-scale abstract visualizations that were both useful and beautiful.
I was lucky enough to become a post-graduate student there, then a research assistant, and finally a PhD student. During my PhD, I developed several novel visualization techniques that were specifically designed to be used in immersive virtual reality environments, such as CAVEs. After my PhD, I moved to Australia and became an Assistant Professor in Design Computing at the University of Sydney. I am now exploring more broadly the borders between IT and design, especially in the context of data visualization.
For an introduction, would you explain shortly the difference between information architecture and information design?
Information architecture is an approach that focuses on organizing and categorizing data, conceptually as well visually, and is related to functionality, navigation, and interaction. It most often is referred to in the area of web design.
Information design is about the design of information graphics, and the design of visual displays of information. Think about the diagrams you can find in newspapers and magazines. However, different definitions exist.
In your infosthetics blog you were wondering about your own attraction to data visualization: “is it the attention to superficial decoration, a creative design approach to visualization, the desire to merge beauty & functionality, or a general lack of effective information communication?” What would you say about it right now?
To be honest, I really do not know the answer to this question. That is why I asked it to my readers. First of all, I especially appreciate the definition of information aesthetics (or esthetics according to him) from Bradford Paley, who states that information aesthetics works are based on an understanding of how human information processing capabilities can enhance esthetic appreciation. Such applications use aesthetic engagement to increase the information flow, and thus make the visualization, as a tool, more useful.
Close-up of the Map of Science. “…Links (curved lines) were made between the paradigms that shared common members, then treated as rubber bands, holding similar paradigms nearer one another when a physical simulation had every paradigm repel every other: thus the layout derives directly from the data. Larger paradigms have more papers. Labels list common words unique to each paradigm.”
Although I agree to this definition, I do not know the conclusive answer to your question. However, some of my research students are currently investigating this matter. For instance, Nick Cawthon is determining whether subjectively judged aesthetic visualizations are considered more useful, and have inherent qualities that might have been overlooked by traditional visualization evaluation studies.
Andrea Lau, another research student, is currently investigating the characteristics of information aesthetics in visualization, such as aesthetic quality, data treatment and interactive features, and is analyzing several info-aesthetics works in terms of intent, purpose and employed technique. Our first findings show that aesthetics clearly don’t consist of superficial decoration, and most info-aesthetic visualizations seem not very effective in augmenting the knowledge present inside the dataset.
Instead, information aesthetic visualizations rather seem to communicate messages that are based on the meaning represented by the data, and instead exploit visualization techniques as tools for slightly different goals than they originally were meant for.
Of course, these visualizations are not superficial decoration – but still their mere looks are a beauty of its own. Is it an art form to you or more a scientific output?
If you mean “information aesthetic” infographics, then they should include both. Information aesthetic visualizations should appeal both the mind and soul. While they positively stimulate our senses, in terms of engagement, involvement, and imagination, they are also optimized for the specific task of conveying complex data-driven concepts in intuitive and easily comprehensible ways. It is not a surprise then, that the most successful infographics use creative design insights.
So in terms of these design insights: what determines a superb made info diagram for you? And what would a real bad one look like?
I find this a very difficult question. To determine whether a diagram is good or bad, one needs to determine for what context it was designed for. What is the goal of that diagram? Is it task-oriented, or does it aim to stimulate our emotions? Is it meant to communicate previously unknown insights hidden inside the data, or persuade a convincing message based on the same information?
For instance, some information graphics are excellent in conveying the exact amount, place, and circumstances involved in recent Iraq casualties. While others are excellent in provoking thoughts and opinions about the Iraq war in general. Both these infographics could be based on an identical dataset, but both are designed with different intentions, and therefore probably use ‘aesthetics’ for different purposes. And they might be both ‘superb’ within their context. [For example, one telling interactive infographic about Iraq casualities was published in the New York Times, or this artistic one from Shane Carroll called Panic in Detroit.]
What are your all time infosthetics favourites?
With the danger of forgetting some very important projects, people interested in information aesthetics should definitely look at the works of Martin Wattenberg (e.g. Baby Name Voyager), Stamen.com (e.g. Digg Labs), Fernanda Viégas (e.g. Themail), Marcos Weskamp (e.g. Newsmap), Boris Müller (e.g. Visual Poetry), Golan Levin (e.g. The Secret Lives of Numbers), Bradford Paley (e.g. textarc), Jonathan Harris and Sep Kamvar (e.g. We Feel Fine), John Maeda, Edward Tufte, Ben Fry and plenty more. Having said that, I certainly also enjoy more analogue techniques (e.g. Week in Review). [Please scroll up and down the visualizations going with the article.]
With all these fine visualization experts, I bet you have seen a lot of all kinds of graphic depictions. I wonder how far the degree of abstractness can actually go?
Abstractions can reach into alternative human senses, such as so-called non-visual visualizations. There are plenty of examples that use abstract data to stimulate sound, touch, smell, even taste. Just be amazed how Dan Maynes-Aminzade built a working computer interface people can lick and taste.
On a data mapping abstraction level, anything that is created out of data, instead of some random algorithm, could be called visualization. This does not mean they are intuitive or even understandable at all. Some direct translations exist, such as the quite psychedelic depictions of statistical data tracking the US domestic production of shoes and slippers from 1960 to 1998 in 31 categories, created by Jason Salavon.
While technically a visualization, I rather consider them a critique of visualization as a medium of which people inherently expect to augment our understanding. There is often that danger expectation and perceiving meaning where there is none. Other people use data as inspiration of their artistic work, such as Christina Ray, for instance.
In one of your scientific papers you used the term persuasive visualization and you explained it with: “Information visualization that is able to increase awareness & motivate for human behavior modification.” Please explain that a bit!
I propose that visualization has the potential to reach beyond the classical goals of finding data patterns, making better informed decisions or communicating knowledge. In short, I am convinced that designers are ideally suited to present information in engaging ways, which are able to personally involve people and therefore make strong emotional connections with them. A prime example for future visualization research could be part of persuasive computing, which uses technology to make people aware of complex concepts, in the ultimate goal to encourage them to change their behavior.
In a basic form, the movie An Inconvenient Truth is an example of how information display is specifically designed for a non-expert audience, aiming to change people’s opinion and attitude, and hopefully everyone’s everyday behavior. More sophisticated applications could be developed in the healthcare domain, for instance to encourage people to change their eating patterns by informing them in an accurate, timely but always enjoyable way of the consequences of their food decisions.
What I also found really interesting was your issue of real-world buildings serving as information visualizations: the formality of inhabitable designs. Have you been working on any related projects lately?
Unfortunately, I haven’t, but I guess it is only a matter of time before buildings truly are data-driven or data-based. I guess you refer to some conceptually intriguing buildings I consider built data visualizations, such as the Holland Pavilion by MVRDV at the World Expo 2000 in Hanover. From the outside as well as from the inside, it is truly a navigable information presentation of the stereotype interpretation of The Netherlands.
But imagine even more drastic concepts. Currently, most data representations in architecture focus only on the façade, by way of large LED screens or maybe even by a matrix of shape-changing surfaces. However, research already exists that focuses on displays fully integrated in concrete and brick materials. The Hyperbody group in The Netherlands has designed human-scale structures that can alter their shape dynamically. [For example, have a look at their Muscle Tower II]. Once buildings can dynamically alter their form, space and functionality based on data streams – how would that change architecture? Will the old cyberspace concept finally be built in physical reality, closing the conceptual loop?
Interesting question, opening up a whole new world of data driven fluid architecture! Thank you so much, Andrew Vande Moere, for giving us insights in the realm of information aesthetics!