Information Design Watch

June 27, 2008, 1:35 pm

An Anchor and a Twist

By Lisa Agustin

Explaining an innovative idea or product can be tricky. What if your offering is so unique and/or complex that attempting to explain it could potentially confuse or overwhelm your audience?

Try communicating your innovation using an anchor and a twist, say Made To Stick authors Dan Heath and Chip Heath. Anchoring, or “hooking into an existing idea,” as the Heaths put it, seems counterintuitive when you want to set yourself apart. But it works because it puts your idea in the context of what people already know, making your idea easier to grasp. An example from the Heaths: Lumineyes, a laser-based process that permanently changes eye color. The innovation was described as one that “uses a laser to heat the pigment layer [of your eye]. The process either bursts the pigment cells, resulting in the release of free pigment into the iris, or simply damages them.” (Sign me up!) But describe it instead as “LASIK for eye color” and the listener immediately realizes it’s similar in some way to the popular surgical procedure that eliminates the need for eyeglasses or contact lenses.

So where does the “twist” come in? While the anchor sets the stage for your idea, the twist is your differentiator that will make the audience sit up and take notice. In the case of Lumineyes, it’s “like LASIK, but it makes your eyes blue.” The anchor and twist approach to communicating innovation no doubt has many uses — how about the good ol’ elevator pitch?

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Business, Marketing

June 26, 2008, 11:52 am

Running the Numbers: A Portrait of America

By Lisa Agustin

Van Gogh Skull and Cigarettes Cigarette Boxes

To photographer Chris Jordan, today’s American culture is the product of daily and often unconscious decisions made by individual citizens. Further, these decisions can add up, to the detriment of the environment or the population (“One million plastic cups are used on airline flights in the US every six hours.”)

While such statistics are important, these large numbers are also abstract, harder to comprehend, and therefore easier to dismiss. Jordan’s exhibition, Running the Numbers, addresses this by visualizing such data in a way that makes these numbers tangible and accessible. Each large-format photograph is the result of assembling many small images (or individual choices, if you prefer). For example, the image “Skull With Cigarette, 2007″ (based on a painting by Van Gogh) is an assemblage of 200,000 packs of cigarettes, or the equivalent of Americans who die from smoking every six months.

From the artist’s statement:

My hope is that images representing these quantities might have a different effect than the raw numbers alone, such as we find daily in articles and books. Statistics can feel abstract and anesthetizing, making it difficult to connect with and make meaning of 3.6 million SUV sales in one year, for example, or 2.3 million Americans in prison, or 32,000 breast augmentation surgeries in the U.S. every month…Employing themes such as the near versus the far, and the one versus the many, I hope to raise some questions about the role of the individual in a society that is increasingly enormous, incomprehensible, and overwhelming.

Jordan’s approach to visualizing statistics addresses a common challenge in visualizing complex data. Statistics themselves will do little to convince or persuade an audience and can even have the opposite effect. (When was the last time you were inspired by a pie chart?) But presenting data in the context of a visual analogy or story makes the numbers easier to grasp, more memorable, and more likely to motivate.

For more on Chris Jordan, see: http://www.chrisjordan.com/

For his related talk at this year’s TED conference, see: http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/view/id/279

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Comments (2) | Filed under: Art, Visual Explanation

June 26, 2008, 10:59 am

New York City Waterfalls

By Henry Woodbury

Artist Olafur Eliason’s public art project, New York City Waterfalls, officially opens today.

Waterfall and Brooklyn Bridge

There’s a lengthy write-up on The New York Times City Room blog, while the project’s elegant Flash-based web site provides background information, photos, directions, and this visual explanation (click on “About The Waterfalls” then “How The Waterfalls Work”):

How the Waterfall Works

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Art, Current Events, Design, Visual Explanation

June 24, 2008, 12:15 am

Your Risk of Death, Annotated

By Mac McBurney

Update (27 June): The comments posted by Wired Science readers are an amazing case study in information design, how well-intentioned readers get confused, limitations of the Google Motion Chart. I chronicled my own confusion and suggestions on a screen shot.

Interactive Chart: Your Risk of DeathWired Science wants to know if a Google Motion Chart helps explain that smoking could kill you. So far, you only includes men born between 1933 and 1973, but that’s not what makes the interactive graph confusing.

Author Alexis Madrigal chose to experiment with this data set, “because the researchers had the stated goal of presenting health-risk data in ways that could let people see the true risks associated with smoking.”

Comments on the blog point out a variety of confusing bits and suggest ways to improve this particular plot and the Google Motion Chart in general.

Interactive Chart: Your Risk of Death

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Information Design, Visual Explanation

June 20, 2008, 10:32 am

A Radiated Library and the Televised Book

By Henry Woodbury

Still from The Man Who Wanted to Classify the WorldIn the canonical history of the origins of the Internet, Belgian Paul Otlet does not make an appearance. He was, perhaps, too early and too utopian, setting forth a plan for “a global network of computers” in 1934. Otlet’s vision derived from his life’s work creating the Mundaneum, a “universal bibliography” cataloged on index cards. For a fee, anyone in the world could mail or telegraph a request that Otlet’s small staff of professional librarians would investigate.

As the Mundaneum accumulated millions of entries, Otlet realized that his index-card-based system was becoming too cumbersome to manage. At that point he began working on ideas for electronic data storage and a totally paperless system — in his words, “a radiated library and the televised book.”

Eventually lack of funding and the onset of World War II doomed the project. Only recently have Otlet’s writings and the remnants of the Mundaneum archive begun to receive attention.

In this vein, The New York Times article linked above provides a history and appreciation of Otlet’s work, a visual explanation of the Mundaneum card cataloging system, and a clip from the documentary film The Man Who Wanted to Classify The World.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Technology, Visual Explanation

June 17, 2008, 2:38 pm

Because All Politics is Local Politics

By Lisa Agustin

Patchwork Nation US MapIn recent U.S. elections, classifying voter opinion has been reduced to describing a state as “red” (voting Republican) or “blue” (voting Democratic). While this approach gives the final outcome at the state level, it says little about the factors influencing voter decision. The Christian Science Monitor’s Patchwork Nation Project explores what voters care about most during this year’s presidential campaign by slicing the American populace into eleven distinct voter communities (e.g., Monied ‘Burbs vs. Evangelical Epicenters) and examining how each community’s issues may affect residents’ votes. Visitors can follow the campaign in real time through blog posts by local community writers, public messageboards, and an interactive visualization that tracks how many times candidates visited each type of community (a particularly interesting feature when it came to following the Democratic primaries).

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Current Events, Maps, Visual Explanation

June 4, 2008, 1:16 pm

John Maeda in the Kitchen

By Lisa Agustin

Designers and technologists aren’t the only ones taking an interest in Maeda’s Laws of Simplicity. Chef and author Mark “The Minimalist” Bittman recently blogged on how Maeda’s law of reduction (Law No. 1) is a good approach to cooking, too. Bittman is famous for keeping things simple (a prime example: “Summer Express: 101 Simple Meals Ready in 10 Minutes or Less”) and is always looking for ways to cut through the clutter of cooking:

I took recipes from whatever cookbook I was using (in those days, almost all were pretty complicated) and I stripped them bare. It wasn’t so much that I didn’t acknowledge that browning meat didn’t add color and flavor to a stew — it unquestionably does — it’s just that I also saw that there were times when I wanted to make a given stew recipe and didn’t have time for either browning or the extra cleanup resulting from it.

The idea of thoughtful reduction is an important one in the creation process, whether the end result is a new recipe or user interface: how do you make things simpler without removing what’s necessary?

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Books and Articles, Business

June 4, 2008, 12:37 pm

Olympic Medals: Small is Beautiful

By Lisa Agustin

With the Beijing Olympics just around the corner, the Economist’s Daily Chart presents a different way of considering wins per country. Using the 2004 Athens Olympics as an example, the typical approach is to show the total number of medals won by each country. As one might expect, the bigger “superpower” countries make up the top ten. But slicing the data a different way — in this case, medals per million citizens — puts the Bahamas in first place. It’s an interesting take; an added plus would have been some reference to total populace for each of these smaller countries to put it all in perspective.

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Comments (1) | Filed under: Current Events, Sports, Visual Explanation