This post is part of a new series, in which I will look at the many fascinating ways in which visualisation helps to communicate complex* information.
*as in multidimensional, confusing, fuzzy, uncertain or just plain complicated.
There are only very few visualisation techniques that feed into our perception system so well that they actually do facilitate seeing something “at a glance.” Small multiples is certainly one of the methods which has a potential for that. Small multiples can provide an overview over many individual items and their properties in a matter of seconds. Now, while they have been a classic for comparing statistical values across many entities for a long time, some visualization super-brains have re-shaped the method to use it for representing something even more intricate: individual properties and personality traits.
Once again, Fernanda Viegas and Martin Wattenberg were early drivers of innovation with a piece they did for WIRED back in 2008:
Each item stands for one issue of the magazine over the then 15 years of its existence, and the circle shows the colors that each cover featured – thus celebrating the bold and colorful layout that WIRED is famous for. It’s incredible how the small multiples here serve a double purpose: they not only show individual properties ready for comparison – they also show how a whole (i.e. the history of the magazine) is made of individual items, each of which is represented.
Over many different projects and with various collaborators, Giorgia Lupi of Italian-American design firm Accurat has pursued the idea of using data visualization for creating personal, meaningful communication between people. Traditionally, statistics and data viz all too often have a technical air to them, something impersonal and scientifically “objective”. Lupi, on the other hand, has continually explored the idea that data should be “humanized”, should be about people.
This belief is distilled in a project which Accurat created together with the TED conference in 2017. The brief for Accurat was to create something based on the data the attendants would provide when registering. Accurat turned this into a sort of personal badge, when they set up a set of questions about personality traits (“What does your desk look like? Do you break rules or do you follow them?”) They designed a circular visual system to represent the individual answers and had each personal profile printed as a badge – for conference attendants to wear during the event.
A lovely variation of this strategy can be found in the interactive Canners. This is a really heartwarming project which follows eight canners in New York City (= people who pick up empty bottles and cans to make some money). Each of the people portrayed in the project is characterized by a customized token which shows some basic information about them (gender, age, origin etc.)
Very recently, the Data Visualization Society was founded and quickly racked up hundreds of members. The founders around Elijah Meeks (visualization engineer at Netflix) and Amy Cesal (visualisation designer) created a logo that could in turn be used to represent the specific skillset of each member. They conceived of data visualisation as a field to which many people came with a variety of backgrounds and skills, which they grouped into three main categories.
So each individual member’s logo would be made of three shapes, and their respective shape, orientation and size would transfer information about a specific skill set. What is really lovely is how this customizable concept now stands for both the society as a whole as well as for the incredible variety of individual skills involved.
This same principle is also featured in a FiveThirtyEight piece on personality quizzes. They created a radar chart to represent various personality traits and make them visually comparable.
Now while not all of these are easily de-codable at first glance and require some laborious decoding work on the part of the reader/user, I love the idea that you have a visual system devised which can be customized to an incredible variety of values and scores. Also, all these projects come with an enormous potential to work as a conversation piece: they make people talk with each other about the data displayed…