08 May Data visualisation: More than just a novelty
In February we were lucky enough to bag tickets for David McCandless’ sold out talk “Information is Beautiful”, presented at the prestigious Royal Institution, London. For the uninitiated, McCandless is an author and popular figure in the world of Data Visualisation* and his presentation explored a varied handful of his work with creative data.
*Data visualisation presents difficult and sometimes disparate information, in beautiful, easy to digest graphic terms.
Davids’ sense of humour, skill and enthusiasm for data as a puzzle was evident. The talk, however, covered fairly well-trodden ground and near enough mirrored the TED talk that over 2 million people have seen before, except for a handful of exciting new additions.
One of these additions in particular really lodged itself in my brain. As a designer, I am used to seeing information presented in sexy and colourful ways. So when I’m presented with a visualisation of ‘Peak Break-up Times According to Facebook’, or ‘Comparative Military Budgets by GDP’, an interested grin flickers across my face, but ultimately, an understanding of this information achieves very little. The majority of modern visualisations take niche or comedic subject areas and deliver the information in easily digestible ways to those that have both an existing interest in the subject matter and are prepared to go in search of a whimsical graphic. So when David began presenting his visualisations for a revised cardiology report he really grabbed my attention.
Blood tests are a common diagnostic tool and indicate everything from; cholesterol and glucose levels to the presence of cancer. If you have a blood test, it is imperative to your wellbeing that you understand the results of your test so that you can act accordingly, otherwise the whole process is a waste of time and you’re down a few teaspoons of blood. As it stands, patients are presented with a report littered with incomprehensible medical jargon that requires an extraordinary degree of medical knowledge in order to decipher the raw facts.
The beauty of McCandless’ reimagining is that it translates commonplace and in this instance, necessary, information into a language that everyone can understand, and ultimately react to. Its use of colour, hierarchy and form to express complicated information makes the report feel more personalised, and crucially, more understandable. Thomas Goetz, former Executive Editor for WIRED, has spoken at length about the need to redesign medical information and the notion that effective feedback is essential to giving people the capacity to make a change.
There is no shame in ‘dumbing-down’ information if it has a real and positive impact. We have seen it in the addition of Front-of-Pack (FOP) nutritional information that simplifies the content of the mandated Nutrition Facts Panel (NFP). Experiments showed that FOP labels are noticed and absorbed much more frequently than NFPs. Furthermore, this position, design characteristics and use of colour all increase the efficacy of the information.
Design has the ability to make a pivotal change in the way we understand our own health and yet we are six years down the road from this lightbulb moment and nothing has changed.
In this fast scrolling era of social media, with our appetites for rapid satisfaction, there is certainly a desire for data visualisation that presents interesting or novelty information. However, it will undoubtedly be the visualisations that finally make themselves understood to a mass market audience, that will have tangible campaign longevity.