Information Design Watch
September 28, 2011, 9:54 am
By Lisa Agustin
Leave it to an architect to diagram the pasta family tree. George L. Legendre has profiled 92 different kinds of pasta in his new book, Pasta by Design, classifying them into types using ‘phylogeny’ (the study of relatedness among natural forms). From the publisher’s site:
Each spread is devoted to a single pasta, and explains its geographical origin, its process of manufacture and its etymology – alongside suggestions for minute-perfect preparation. Next the shape is rendered as an equation and as a diagram that shows every distinctive scrunch, ridge and crimp with loving precision. Finally, a multi-page foldout features a ‘Pasta Family Reunion’ diagram, reassembling all the pasta types and grouping them by their mathematical and geometric properties!
Check out this one for Cavatappi:
Many of the pasta shapes are diagrammed on the Z-axis (a d/D favorite!), showing the delicate shapes in their full undulating glory (view more pasta diagrams on the NY Times site). I’m hungry already.
August 16, 2011, 9:31 am
By Henry Woodbury
Conceptual artist Roman Opalka made this challenge personal, making his life’s work the painting of integers in sequence:
Starting at the top left of a canvas measuring a little over four by six feet, and using acrylic paint, he used a fine brush (No. 0) to inscribe 20,000 to 30,000 white numerals on a black background in neat rows that ended at the bottom right corner. Each succeeding canvas, or “detail” as he called it, picked up where the previous one left off. As of July 2004, he had reached 5.5 million….
All the paintings in the series bore the same title, “Opalka 1965/1 — ?.” “All my work is a single thing, the description from one to infinity,” Mr. Opalka once wrote. “A single thing, a single life.”
Starting in 1972, Opalka began taking self-portraits, also in sequence. These have been published in the stunningly crafted book shown in this video:
This is the kind of photography an artist now would turn into a digital animation.
You can see the physical experience that would be lost.
August 10, 2011, 11:55 am
By Henry Woodbury
It may not work for every web site, but it does for Flip Flop Fly Ball. I’m talking about a site masthead with more iconography than a pre-renaissance painting.
The key to the masthead is a nice example of information design in itself.
Click through to read the labels.
July 24, 2011, 5:56 pm
By Henry Woodbury
Self-taught astronomer William Herschel discovered the planet Uranus through a series of observations in the winter and spring of 1781. The discovery was widely published the following year. “Instantly,” writes Richard Holmes in his splendid history The Age of Wonder, “all orreries were out of date” (p. 105).
While Dynamic Diagrams’ digital orrery include Uranus (and Neptune), it is inaccurate in a way common to almost all maps of outer space: that of relative distance. Uranus is more than twice the distance from our sun as Saturn. The distance to the stars is ever more impossible to project. While Herschel was one of the first astronomers to conceive of deep space, not even he guessed at its vastness. In a footnote Holmes writes:
No astronomer yet had the least idea of the enormous distances involved, so huge that they cannot be given in terms of conventional ‘length’ measurements at all, but either in terms of the distance covered by a moving pulse of light in one year (‘light years’), or else as a purely mathematical expression based on parallax and now given inelegantly as ‘parsecs.’ One parsec is 3.6 light years, but this does not seem to help much. One interesting psychological side-effect of this is that the universe became less and less easy to imagine visually. (Holmes’ emphasis, p. 88)
Here is a challenge to champions of visual explanation and yet I fear Holmes is right. An example can be drawn from the use of parallax to measure astronomical distances. In another footnote, Holmes writes:
As with road directions, a diagram is a much better way to explain parallax than a written sentence. But it is interesting to try…. Stellar parallax is a calculation which is obtained by measuring the angle of a star from the earth, and then measuring it again after six months. The earth’s movement during that interval provides a long base line in space for triangulation. (p. 90)
Could Pantheon Books not provide Holmes a designer? Let me try a sketch:
The difference in angles A and B allow a simple trigonometric calculation with a baseline of about 300 million kilometers (left). However, astronomical distances are so great, the actual angles are nearly equivalent (right).
William Herschel and other 18th-century astronomers did not have the instruments to measure that difference. It wasn’t until 1832 that Thomas Henderson used parallax to calculate the distance to our closest star, Alpha Centauri. It wasn’t until the 1920s that Edwin Hubble was able to calculate distances between galaxies using the red-shift method (p. 90).
Holmes describes one other picturesque scene, a “human orrery” played by the poet John Keats as a schoolboy:
Keats did not recall the exact details, but one may imagine seven senior boy-planets running round the central sun, while themselves being circled by smaller sprinting moons (perhaps girls), and the whole frequently disrupted by rebel comets and meteors flying across their orbits. (p. 113)
One must assume that like mechanical orreries and the dD Orrery, the position of the planets was calculated in reference to the sun, not to each other.
April 16, 2011, 4:30 pm
By Henry Woodbury
This online guide starts with “What is the Internet” and quickly jumps to topics near and dear to Google’s heart, like “How Modern Browsers Protect You from Malware and Phishing.” Yes, it’s self-promotional. But it’s also engagingly written, sprightly illustrated, and brilliantly executed.
Check out the interface. It’s not Flash. It’s HTML 5. That’s the plus one.
February 6, 2011, 8:34 pm
By Henry Woodbury
Given multiple documents, readers will make more judgments based on typography as they find it harder to make judgments based on substance.
On one level this is pretty reductive. A situation where all other considerations are equal except typography (or design, for that matter) never exists. But just because a reader starts reading an article or brief doesn’t mean the reader will finish it. Butterick writes:
I believe that most readers are looking for reasons to stop reading. Not because they’re malicious or aloof. They’re just being rational. If readers have other demands on their time, why should they pay any more attention than they absolutely must? Readers are always looking for the exit.
It’s an information design problem: How do you move a reader along in the flow?
Next question: Is legal size really necessary?
February 2, 2011, 1:25 pm
By Henry Woodbury
I’ve been reading Jacques Barzun’s magisterial history of western culture, From Dawn to Decadence. His final chapter on the late 20th century is titled “Demotic Life and Times,” “demotic” being a word that means “of the people” even if it happens to sound like “demonic.” Of the internet, Barzun writes:
That a user had “the whole world of knowledge at his disposal” was one of those absurdities like the belief that ultimately computers would think–it will be time to say so when a computer makes an ironic answer. “The whole world of knowledge” could be at one’s disposal only if one already knew a great deal and wanted further information to turn into knowledge after gauging its value.
Information isn’t knowledge. This fact points to a certain friction in the terms we use in our practice. Most often, an information architect really is concerned with information. The goal is to help individuals locate information in a context that helps them gauge its value. An information designer, however, is more focused on knowledge. The designer seeks to communicate ideas within a dataset. I wouldn’t advocate a change in terms. Knowledge designer sounds hopelessly pretentious. But the distinction between the two practices is important.
January 21, 2011, 2:14 pm
By Henry Woodbury
In its Digital Gallery, The State Records Authority of New South Wales offers an exhibition on the design of the Sydney Opera House. The exhibition is really just the online presentation of two documents, the competition drawings by Jørn Utzon and The Red Book, by the same:
This 1958 report (known also as the Red Book) was presented by Jørn Utzon to the Premier and the Opera House Committee in order to “give … a project which realizes in practical form the vision of the competition”. The report comprises: plans, sections, elevations, photographs of models of the Opera House; and reports by other consultants.
The technical plans are intersticed with Utzon’s free-form drawings and conceptual studies, creating, as a whole, an extraordinary essay in realized imagination.
October 1, 2010, 2:57 pm
By Lisa Agustin
According to a recent article in strategy + business, creating a better shopping experience is really about offering a better choosing experience. More specifically, fewer choices. Offering people lots of options — 31 flavors! (Baskin-Robbins) 87,000 drink combinations! (Starbucks) 27 million books! (Amazon)– sounds like a great idea. But too many choices can have the opposite effect, leading to confusion, anxiety about the “right” choice and ultimately a poor choice or even No Sale. Why? In a nutshell, it comes down to neurological limits on our ability to process information–while the idea of lots of choices sounds exciting (there’s one made “just for me”!), it can be paralyzing to choose from too many options.
The article references studies performed in a grocery store (choosing a jar of jam) and a workplace (choosing a retirement savings plan) to illustrate its point, but it struck me that this applies to online experiences, too. A web site with a lot of content that offers too many options that are poorly organized will lead to frustrated users who will abandon your site for your competitor’s.
So how do we– marketers or user experience (UX) practitioners–craft a better choosing experience? Authors Sheen Iyengar and Kanika Agrawal offer the following tips, to which I’ve added my UX take:
- Cut the number of options.
- Create confidence with expert or personalized recommendations.
- Categorize your offerings so that consumers better understand their options.
- Condition consumers by gradually introducing them to more-complex choices.
Don’t worry about losing shelf space to competitors–in the end, trimming back the product line lowers costs, increases sales, and makes it easier for consumers to choose. According to the authors, “In case the poor performers aren’t evident from sales figures, focus groups and online networks can help you separate the wheat from the chaff.” My UX take: Focus on presenting the content and tasks that mean the most to your users. A combination of web analytics and user feedback (interviews or surveys) will help you figure out what should be on the site and what’s expendable.
Expert reviews and recommendations “let consumers skip over much of the information-processing component of choosing, minimizing cognitive stress and enabling them to make good choices,” according to Iyengar and Agrawal. My UX take: This tip speaks directly to the online experience. Many web sites offering highly differentiated items (books, music, clothes) benefit from recommendation tools, or automated systems (“electronic agents”) that generate suggestions based on consumers’ expressed preferences. While these tools require more of an investment on the part of the organization and sometimes the user (e.g., if a survey or profile needs to be completed), they can be worth it if your web site is one that offers a large quantity of content or inventory to peruse.
“For an expert, there is no completely unique product or service; rather, each offering is a distinctive combination of attributes that the expert has seen before.” The key is getting a novice to act like an expert by creating top-level categories that are easily understood. As an example, the authors cite wine retailer Best Cellars, which limits its varieties to 100 wines that are divided into eight top-level categories, such as “fizzy,” “juicy,” and “sweet.” Once the novice has chosen a category, he or she can choose a wine within that category by reading the detailed labels that accompany all the bottles. My UX take: For web site users that rely on browsing to find what they want, category names are critical. This means avoiding terminology that is either organization-centric (“Initiatives”) or vague (“Solutions”) and using what makes the most sense to users.
“For certain kinds of decisions, you can set up consumers for success by encouraging them to learn from, and build upon, their own previous choices.” Iyengar cites a study in which two groups of car customers were asked to customize their vehicles, choosing everything from the engine to the rearview mirror. The first group started by choosing features with a high number of options, moving to those with low numbers of options. The second group started by making choices for features with a low number of options first. In the end, the first group had a less satisfying experience: “They began by carefully considering every option, but they soon grew tired and settled for the default. In the end, they wound up less satisfied with their cars than the buyers who had progressed from low choice to high choice.” My UX take: Users can go through a lot of information online, provided it’s presented to them in a way that lets them process it in logical bite-sized pieces. This means creating an information architecture that uses categories that make sense to the intended audiences, a hierarchical structure that lets users drill down and expose more information as they need it, and a supporting design that visually prioritizes information on each page.
Iyengar and Agrawal acknowledge the dilemma: “Don’t marketers have to give consumers what they want? Yes and no. We should give them what they really want, not what they say they want…They want to feel confident of their preferences and competent during the choosing process; they want to trust and enjoy their choices, not question them.” The online experience should work the same way.
August 10, 2010, 11:54 am
By Henry Woodbury
How is the Internet Changing the Way You Think?
Is it? That’s up to you. Editor and Publisher John Brockman anticipates the point:
We spent a lot of time going back on forth on “YOU” vs. “WE” and came to the conclusion to go with “YOU”, the reason being that Edge is a conversation. “WE” responses tend to come across like expert papers, public pronouncements, or talks delivered from stage.
In the North Pacific ocean, there were two approaches to boatbuilding. The Aleuts (and their kayak-building relatives) lived on barren, treeless islands and built their vessels by piecing together skeletal frameworks from fragments of beach-combed wood. The Tlingit (and their dugout canoe-building relatives) built their vessels by selecting entire trees out of the rainforest and removing wood until there was nothing left but a canoe.
The Aleut and the Tlingit achieved similar results — maximum boat / minimum material — by opposite means. The flood of information unleashed by the Internet has produced a similar cultural split. We used to be kayak builders, collecting all available fragments of information to assemble the framework that kept us afloat. Now, we have to learn to become dugout-canoe builders, discarding unneccessary information to reveal the shape of knowledge hidden within.
Give us a tree and we’ll carve your canoe. That is what Tim Roy is talking about.
(via Andrew Gilmartin who linked to Dyson’s quote on Facebook. Andrew blogs here.)
Update: I rewrote my lede, up to the Dyson quote, to add context and incorporate Brockman’s “you” vs. “we” statement.
May 27, 2010, 11:15 am
By Henry Woodbury
From the Harvard Business Review comes a cautionary tale of bias and visualization. Visual information can make people overly confident in predicting outcomes. In the study described in the article, viewers who watched a computer animation of driver error “were more likely to say they could see a serious accident coming than those who actually saw it occur and then were asked if they had seen it coming.”
The way human brains process the sight of movement appears to be one reason for this outcome. The visceral reading of trajectory events — such as an animation of moving cars — creates an anticipatory judgment that is highly persuasive to higher brain functions.
Also important is the fact that every visualization incorporates a point of view, one that is all the more convincing for its visual immediacy:
The information can be conveyed with certain emphases, shown from certain angles, slowed down, or enlarged. (In a sense, all this is true of text as well, but with subtler effects.) Animations can whitewash the guesswork and assumptions that go into interpreting reconstructions. By creating a picture of one possibility, they make others seem less likely, even if they’re not. (my emphasis)
In essence, this is what we do on purpose. Whether for marketing, analysis, or scientific reportage, we quite explicitly present the story of the strongest possibility (which may well be that there are multiple possibilities). We do it ethically; we rely upon validated data to tell a story and honor the integrity of that data as we work. The Harvard study cautions us not to let our visual tools — especially our analytical tools — persuade us too easily of what the real story is.
May 25, 2010, 2:58 pm
By Lisa Agustin
Seemingly simple stories often have complex beginnings. Consider the well-known web film (and now book) The Story of Stuff by Annie Leonard. A longtime activist with an interest in waste and its impact on the environment, Leonard was attending a leadership training program when she was asked to give a presentation. She was shocked to find that no one knew what she was talking about. Attendees pointed out that her vocabulary needed simplification and that she was “starting the conversation 20 years down the road.” What to do? Simplify the story:
Humbled, Leonard tried new angles. They all failed. Finally, in frustration, she hung a huge sheet of paper on the wall and crudely drew a mountain, a truck, a factory, a store, and a dump. And then she told the story of stuff. “You ought to make a movie of that,” 30 different people said. [Post-institute, Leonard] traveled the country with her sketch. The rest is Internet history.
Instead of creating “a paradigm shift in relation to materials,” Leonard started asking “Where does all the stuff we buy come from, and where does it go when we throw it out?” By combining this straightforward approach with a simplified visual style (animated stick-figures), Leonard’s film engages and enlightens in a way that makes viewers easily see what the problem is and how they can make a difference.
February 20, 2010, 10:42 am
By Henry Woodbury
The February 2010 issue of Obstetrics & Gynecology features work by Dynamic Diagrams for an article titled Alternatives to a Routine Follow-Up Visit for Early Medical Abortion. The article describes a protocol for assessing a woman’s health after an abortion without routine use of ultrasonography. To quote from the abstract:
We constructed five model algorithms for evaluating women’s postabortion status, each using a different assortment of data. Four of the algorithms (algorithms 1–4) rely on data collected by the woman and on the results of the low-sensitivity pregnancy test. Algorithm 5 relies on the woman’s assessment, the results of the pregnancy test, and follow-up physician assessment (sometimes including bimanual or speculum examination).
A sponsor of the study, Gynuity Health Products, asked Dynamic Diagrams to visualize the data. Our explanation shows the results for the current standard of care and five algorithms tested by the researchers. For each approach we show the total number of cases, the number of women returning to a clinic for a follow-up visit, and the number of women receiving a follow-up ultrasound. In contrasting colors we show specific additional treatment cases in two columns; those identified by the protocol on the left vs. those not necessarily identified by the protocol on the right. In large type we provided the percentage of the number of follow-up ultrasounds to the total number of cases. This combination of rich data points and a key percentage makes it easy to compare the effectiveness of each algorithm. A sample of this visual language (without labels) is shown below:
While we cannot reprint the full text of article, we can provide the visual explanation used as Figure 2: Algorithms identifying women who received additional care after medical abortion (PDF, 409K).
January 12, 2010, 3:42 pm
By Henry Woodbury
In an interview for his book You Are Not a Gadget (scroll down) technologist Jason Lanier looks around and sees Internet dystopia:
Web 2.0 collectivism has killed the individual voice. It is increasingly disheartening to write about any topic in depth these days, because people will only read what the first link from a search engine directs them to, and that will typically be the collective expression of the Wikipedia. Or, if the issue is contentious, people will congregate into partisan online bubbles in which their views are reinforced….
Web 2.0 adherents might respond to these objections by claiming that I have confused individual expression with intellectual achievement. This is where we find our greatest point of disagreement. I am amazed by the power of the collective to enthrall people to the point of blindness. Collectivists adore a computer operating system called LINUX, for instance, but it is really only one example of a descendant of a 1970s technology called UNIX. If it weren’t produced by a collective, there would be nothing remarkable about it at all.
Meanwhile, the truly remarkable designs that couldn’t have existed 30 years ago, like the iPhone, all come out of “closed” shops where individuals create something and polish it before it is released to the public. Collectivists confuse ideology with achievement.
At The New York Times, John Tierney takes Lanier’s critique and runs with it — in a different direction. Where Lanier seeks to change the software technologies that undermine individual content creators, Tierney questions the net culture of intellectual property theft:
In theory, public officials could deter piracy by stiffening the penalties, but they’re aware of another crucial distinction between online piracy and house burglary: There are a lot more homeowners than burglars, but there are a lot more consumers of digital content than producers of it.
UPDATE: Glenn Harlan Reynolds of Instapundit reviews You Are Not a Gadget in today’s Wall Street Journal. While agreeing in part with Lanier’s critique of the failure of the aggregate model to reward creative individuals, he points out that social media applications are popular because they are fun – and not just for geeks:
Mr. Lanier is nostalgic for that era [the 1990s] and its homemade Web pages, the personalized outposts that have largely been replaced by the more standardized formats of Facebook and MySpace. The aesthetics of these newer options might be less than refined, but tens of millions of people are able to express themselves in ways that were unimaginable even a decade ago. And let’s face it: Those personal Web pages of the 1990s are hardly worth reviving. It’ll be fine with me if I never see another blinking banner towed across the screen by a clip-art biplane.
December 16, 2009, 12:41 pm
By Lisa Agustin
With the end of 2009 fast approaching, it’s time to think about lessons learned, things to improve, RESOLUTIONS. Seth Godin and Ishita Gupta asked over seventy big thinkers to each share an idea to focus on for 2010. The result is a new (and free!) ebook, What Matters Now. Godin challenges us to think about Generosity in spite of the current economy. Author Elizabeth Gilbert talks about the importance of Ease. Guy Kawasaki explains how true Evangelism works. (Pictured above: Hugh MacLeod’s take on Meaning.) My current favorite is George Dyson on the role of Analog systems in the age of Web 2.0:
Complex networks—of molecules, people, or ideas—constitute their own simplest behavioral descriptions. They are more easily approximated by analogy than defined by algorithmic code. Facebook, for example, although running on digital computers, constitutes an analog computer whose correspondence to the underlying network of human relationships now drives those relationships, the same way Google’s statistical approximation to meaning— allowing answers to find the questions, rather than the other way around—is now more a landscape than a map.
December 2, 2009, 12:45 pm
By Henry Woodbury
In Tim Parks lyrical and learned history, Medici Money, he provides this description of Italy:
Let us dispense with the “boot” image and imagine a cylinder topped by an inverted equilateral triangle. The cylinder is surrounded by the sea and mostly mountainous, the triangle is generally flat but shut off to the north by the Alps. (p. 66)
It is an interesting gambit, this delineation of a visual idea with prose, yet the result is quite odd. The cylinder is a three dimensional volume; the triangle is a two dimensional plane. Parks creates this juxtaposition intentionally, to drive home the geographic difference between the mountainous south and the flatter north. The poor fit of the two shapes also evokes the political and cultural disagreement between the north and south of Italy throughout its history.
It is a visual explanation, but one that exists best in a mental space. Made graphic, it adds little to the map.
November 9, 2009, 3:40 pm
By Lisa Agustin
The Freakonomics blog features a short Q/A with Strange Maps creator Frank Jacobs. His perspective on maps ranging from the beautiful to the bizarre is the subject of the new book Strange Maps: An Atlas of Cartographic Curiosities.“
November 6, 2009, 11:58 am
By Henry Woodbury
Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, author of the newly published Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age, points out that for humans, forgetting is an important way of organizing and prioritizing information. Digital storage, however, has made forgetting almost impossible — yet what is stored is devoid of context and may not apply to the individual of the present.
In an interview with Nora Young on the CBC radio show Spark 90, Mayer-Schönberger elaborates on the cognitive issues of memory and what this means for Google, social networking web sites, and other digital spaces:
Now today there are few human beings who, for biological reasons, cannot forget. What sounds like a blessing, they certainly do remember where they parked their car in a shopping mall. It turns out that they have tremendous difficulties in acting in time, in deciding in time, because they remember all their bad, failed decisions in the past, and therefore hesitate to make a decision in the present.
Because they’re forever tethered to the past, they can’t act, they can’t stay put in the present, and they can’t imagine the future. I fear that with digital comprehensive memory, we might resemble these human beings, and we might lose our ability to act in time….
[I]f you ask young people who share a lot of information on social networking sites, and YouTube, Flickr, and so forth, they still are concerned about their informational privacy…. The problem is in a lot of circumstances, young and older people don’t realize when they share information on the Internet that this information not only is shared with potentially everybody, but that this will also remain accessible potentially for a very long period of time.
Once we begin to become aware of these implications, once we begin to acknowledge and understand that digital memory is comprehensive and enduring, we may become extremely more cautious in what we do online.
Mayer-Schönberger proposes that online information be associated with an expiry date, an idea that is being adopted by some social networking sites:
What I want is a world that is teeming with information sharing and information exchange, of experiences being shared among people, but also a world in which we are aware that information is not endless, but has a life span, just like the yogurt in our refrigerator might expire over time.
August 20, 2009, 2:10 pm
By Henry Woodbury
Today is polling day in Afghanistan. One document created to aid the process is Your Vote. Your Voice, a 25-page manual that uses graphic novel techniques to teach “adult learners about issues, candidates, and appraisal of elected officials’ performance.”
(via Boing Boing)
June 2, 2009, 3:30 pm
By Henry Woodbury
Guy Kawasaki interviews Matthew E. May on the concept of elegance. May, author of In Pursuit of Elegance: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing, speaks of elegance as a business concept, rather than specifically as a design concept.
May’s essential insight is that elegance is only achieved when a thing is powerful as well as simple. I’m not enamored with a lot of his examples (Sodoku, charging hippos), as he seems to dwell on the simple. The following example is more provocative:
Chess masters understand the nature of complexity—that it is part of the game, and it’s why they play it. The challenge and thrill lies in the endless search for ways to manage and exploit those complexities. Make it SEEM blazingly simple. That’s elegance. Complexity isn’t the enemy to a chessmaster—without it they’d be playing checkers.
May 7, 2009, 2:28 pm
By Lisa Agustin
Madness! Magic! Heroic quests! No, it’s not the latest release from Marvel, but rather Logicomix, a graphic novel on the nature of mathematical truth. According to the book’s web site:
[Inspired by the epic story of the quest for the Foundations of Mathematics,] this was a heroic intellectual adventure most of whose protagonists paid the price of knowledge with extreme personal suffering and even insanity. The book tells its tale in an engaging way, at the same time complex and accessible. It grounds the philosophical struggles on the undercurrent of personal emotional turmoil, as well as the momentous historical events and ideological battles which gave rise to them.
Told from the perspective of logician, philosopher, and pacifist Bertrand Russell, the book weaves together the trials and tribulations of thinkers such as Frege and Wittgenstein while exploring topics as diverse as logic, the institution of marriage, and predicate calculus. The web site is worth a look, particularly its Behind the Scenes section, which includes information on the team’s approach to character research and examples of pages in production.
March 19, 2009, 1:25 pm
By Maia Garau
Tactical Tech and John Emerson of Backspace have published a useful information design manual for NGOs looking to strengthen the impact of their campaigns:
Information design uses pictures, symbols, colors, and words to communicate ideas, illustrate information or express relationships visually… It is not the same as graphic design, nor is it only about making something aesthetically pleasing. It’s not about branding, style, making a glossy product or something that looks “corporate.”
They add that information design is not about making something aesthetically pleasing, but about making your data clear, compelling and convincing (to which I would add memorable).
The authors make a convincing case for using information design to effect social change at many levels. Information design is a powerful tool not only for storytelling but also for the earlier stages of discovery (finding patterns) and decision-making (making comparisons and weighing options).
November 7, 2008, 3:44 pm
Best Business Books of 2008 #5: The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures
By Henry Woodbury
The list is by Jon Foro, a books editor at Amazon.com.
Anyone read it?
October 22, 2008, 2:47 pm
By Henry Woodbury
Comics are everywhere. From The New York Times Food and Wine section comes this story of a serendipitous intersection of comic talent and love of wine. Four years ago Yubo and Shin Kibayashi created their series “The Drops of the Gods” centered on a young hero named Shizuku Kanzaki:
At the start of the series, Shizuku has rebelled against his father, a famous wine critic, by refusing to drink wine and working instead for a brewery. Suddenly, though, his father dies and leaves in his will a description of 12 wines he considers the world’s best, comparing them to the disciples of Jesus.
Pitted against his adopted brother, who happens to be a sommelier, Shizuku must catch up in his knowledge so he can find the 12 wines mentioned in his father’s will and inherit his father’s vast cellar.
Now the comic has spread beyond Japan to other East Asian countries slowly opening up to alcohol imports:
At Addiction Plus, a trendy Italian restaurant in central Seoul, men in their late 20s to early 40s often ask about wines featured in the comic, said the owner, Kim Chin-ui, 38.
“They won’t mention that they’ve read the comic, though it’s pretty obvious,” Mr. Kim said. “They try to insert terms like ‘terroir’ or ‘marriage’ to show off — normally, to their colleagues or dates.”
“But I don’t think the women are impressed,” Mr. Kim added. “I can tell from their faces. I mean, the women know where the terms are coming from, because they’ve read the same comic.”
June 4, 2008, 1:16 pm
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?
May 5, 2008, 2:05 pm
By Mac McBurney
Martin Wattenberg and Fernanda Viégas, the two best-known creators of IBM Research’s Many Eyes, brief business execs on the benefits of collaborative information visualization.
Our research has found that the compelling presentation of data through visualization’s advanced techniques generates a surprising volume of impassioned conversations. Viewers ask questions, make comments, and suggest theories for why there’s a downward trend here or a data cluster there. That level of engagement could foster the kind of grassroots innovation CEOs dream of.
The article is available in the May 2008 issue of Harvard Business Review and for free online (at least for now):
You’ll also find Viégas and Wattenberg in MoMA’s Design and the Elastic Mind exhibition.
- History Flow, their 2003 visualization of changes in Wikipedia: http://moma.org/exhibitions/2008/elasticmind/#/106
- Thinking Machine 4, by Wattenberg and Marek Walczak, shows a computer’s possible future chess moves. http://www.moma.org/exhibitions/2008/elasticmind/#/283/
Finally, for even more info-vis star-watching, Viégas and two other designers will join John Maeda (an info design rockstar if ever there was one) later this month for IN/VISIBLE: Graphic Data Revealed. From the event’s blurb:
The visual ethics required in information graphics increase the designer’s burden from faithful executor to editorial arbiter. How do design choices affect the integrity of the data being portrayed?
If you see me there, say hello: http://www.aigany.org/events/details/08FD/
April 4, 2008, 12:18 pm
By Lisa Agustin
Many information architects and designers are familiar with Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, which explains the mechanics of the medium while shedding light on the principles of visual communications. Now comes Daniel Pink’s new book, The Adventures of Johnny Bunko, a graphic novel that claims to be “The Last Career Guide You’ll Ever Need.” The book follows the protagonist as he learns the six secrets to a satisfying career, courtesy of a sprite named Diana who can be conjured by splitting a pair of magic chopsticks. (I’m not kidding.) The book is written in the Japanese style of comics called Manga. Why? According to Pink:
Because most career books just plain stink. They’re too long, too boring, and too quickly outdated. Today most people get their tactical career information online — how to write a resume, what questions to ask in an interview, who to use as a reference, etc. What they want in a book, or so people tell me, are what they can’t get from Google. They want strategic lessons — and they want it presented in an accessible, to-the-point way.
It’s an interesting approach, newer in the U.S. than in Japan where, Pink claims, 22% of all printed material is in Manga, covering topics as diverse as “how to help you manage your time, learn about Japanese history, or find a mate.” Will the format work? You decide.
October 5, 2007, 10:38 am
By Lisa Agustin
I’ve been reading Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, in which authors Chip Heath and Dan Heath explore the commonality behind memorable ideas of all kinds including famous advertisements, political campaigns, and even urban legends. Why do certain ideas thrive while others languish? According to the authors, one reason is that “sticky” ideas have a Story behind them. (The other characteristics of a sticky idea include: Simplicity, Unexpectedness, Concreteness, Credibility, and Emotions.) If an idea has a story behind it, people can interpret it in the context of their experience, recall it more easily, and thus use it as a reference point for making decisions in the future. For example:
Firefighters naturally swap stories after every fire, and by doing so they multiply their experience; after years of hearing stories, they have a richer, more complete mental catalog of critical situations they might confront during a fire and the appropriate responses to those situations. Research shows that mentally rehearsing a situation helps us perform better when we encounter that situation in the physical environment. Similarly, hearing stories acts as a kind of mental flight simulator, preparing us to respond more quickly and effectively.
From our perspective, the stories don’t always have to be words on a page, either. A visual story can make an idea (especially a complicated one) both more engaging and easier to understand, increasing the odds that it will be remembered and referred to later on.
May 10, 2007, 9:09 pm
By Mac McBurney
Discussion of the pros and cons will have to wait for another day. Until then, here are two more hyperbolic tree visualization examples:
Tell us what you think.
April 25, 2007, 9:31 am
By Henry Woodbury
My father recently recommended to me a book on technology entrepreneurs: Founders at Work: Stories of Startups’ Early Days by Jessica Livingston. Founders at Work is a collection of interviews with technologists from Steve Wozniak (Apple) to Caterina Fake (Flickr).
Here are some quotes Dad sent my way (all of a theme):
I think I was also surprised by the success of something so simple. [W]hat we built wasn’t that amazing. It was the idea of putting a couple of things together and being able to establish a lead by doing something really, really simple. How far you can get on a simple idea is amazing…. ~Evan Williams, Co-founder, Pyra Labs (Blogger.com)
Do as little as possible to get what you have to get done….Doing less is so important. People often wind up adding features, adding stuff. Making it bigger is the typical way you engineer out of a problem, right? It’s the traditional, ‘I apologize for the long letter. I didn’t have time to make it shorter.’ “ ~Joshua Schachter, Founder, del.icio.us
‘We’re making a product for mom and dad. Some of the features that you think we should add may not be the ones that they want to use. ….. It’s hard to convince 500 flesh-and-blood developers that their pet feature may not be desirable to 500 million imaginary users.” ~Blake Ross, Creator, Firefox
April 24, 2007, 11:00 am
By Lisa Agustin
If you’ve seen a bottle of Corona beer, you’ve already seen a sample of the Mexican Blackletter font. With origins that can be traced back to the Blackletter or Gothic miniscule from 12th century Europe, this font conveys a sense of history and religious tradition. But while it may bring to mind reverential or scholarly images, its use as a multipurpose typeface for everything from shop signs to tattoos makes it a part of contemporary life in Mexico, says Cristina Paoli in her book Mexican Blackletter. Perhaps most interesting is the idea that Mexican Blackletter does not have a fixed appearance, since most of the time it is drawn by hand, usually by someone who is not experienced in typography. As Paoli noted in a recent interview on NPR’s The World:
Most of the time its drawn by hand. And this really has a tremendous impact on the actual shape of the letter. So it makes the whole letter form and its ornaments much more soft and loose. More times than not it’s made by the inexperienced hand of just ordinary people. The outcome is a typographical creation release from the rules and constraints of typography.
To read/listen to the NPR interview: http://www.theworld.org/?q=taxonomy_by_date/2/20070423
To read an excerpt adapted from the book: http://www.graphics.com/modules.php?name=Sections&op=viewarticle&artid=476
August 30, 2006, 2:30 pm
By Lisa Agustin
The 9/11 Commission Report is now available as a graphic novel. Two veteran comic book creators, Ernie Colon and Sid Jacobson, undertook the task of graphically translating the 600-page volume in an effort to make it more accessible to anyone interested in understanding the findings and their significance. The project was inspired by Colon’s attempt to read the original report which was “well-written, but [made] times, places, and names hard to track.” According to its creators, The 9/11 Report, A Graphic Adaptation is not a sensationalized, dumbed-down comic book, but “graphic journalism” that quotes directly from the report, and aims to be non-partisan and respectful in its visual retelling. As Colon notes, “We’re in the business of clarification.”
From a personal perspective, I’ll admit that I’ve often thought that the Commission’s report is a must-read, not only for its historical importance, but because of its implications for our near future. But its length and density can make it seem inaccessible. Presenting the report’s findings and recommendations in this way will hopefully make it easier for a broader audience to understand, giving further proof of the power visual explanations can have in telling the most complex of stories.
To hear an interview with the authors on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation,” see: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5690970
August 11, 2006, 9:46 am
By Lisa Agustin
It’s time to catch up on summer reading. The Knowledge@Wharton site offers an excerpt from Idealized Design: How to Solve Tomorrow’s Crisis…Today, in which authors Russell L. Ackoff, Jason Magidson, and Herbert J. Addison propose what seems to be a simple idea: “the way to get the best outcome is to imagine what the ideal solution would be and then work backward to where you are today.” According to the authors, this “ensures that you do not erect imaginary obstacles before you even know what the ideal is.”
The book is based on the collective experiences of the authors. Ackoff’s seminal experience began on a side trip he took in 1951 to visit an acquaintance at Bell Labs. While there, he inadvertently became part of an all-hands meeting called to innovate the telephone communications system–a system that had not introduced a revolutionary contribution since 1900.
Tasked with improving the system as a whole rather than its individual parts, the six sub-system teams were instructed to design whatever integrated system they wanted, subject to only two constraints: technological feasibility and operational viability.
Interestingly, Ackoff noted that after his involvement ended and these design teams continued their work:
They anticipated every change in the telephone system, except two, that has appeared since then. Among these are touch-tone phones, consumer ownership of phones, call waiting, call forwarding, voice mail, caller ID, conference calls, speaker phones, speed dialing of numbers in memory, and mobile phones. They did not anticipate photography by the phone or an Internet connection.
Ackoff’s description of how the teams approached this challenging task contained two elements worth noting: an early phase of analyzing existing system problems and establishing users’ needs or requirements, and then working with each sub-system team to get a better understanding of how suggested improvements would impact the larger system. Above all, this approach reveals that creative thinking combined with a rigorous analytical process can result in big changes.
February 10, 2006, 10:10 am
More than half of Amazon.com’s sales come from outside its top 130,000 titles. For Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired, this is an example of the “long tail,” the market of relatively obscure, niche, or one-off items that online vendors are bringing to light:
“Many of our assumptions about popular taste are actually artifacts of poor supply-and-demand matching — a market response to inefficient distribution…. We assume, in other words, that only hits deserve to exist. But … executives at iTunes, Amazon, and Netflix, [have] discovered that the ‘misses’ usually make money, too. And because there are so many more of them, that money can add up quickly to a huge new market.”
This is not necessarily a new business model. Many of the items in the traditional Sears catalog were likely “long tail” compared to the local department store. But now, when the local department store is Walmart, the long tail is just that much longer.
Anderson’s Long Tail blog is here:
UPDATE: Anderson has now published his research in the well-reviewed The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More:
May 11, 2005, 1:16 pm
Democratizing Innovation, a new book by MIT Professor Eric von Hippel, explains how low-cost design tools let enthusiasts customize high-end products to their own specifications. Using the Internet, these “lead users” are able to popularize their ideas and create demand for them that filters back to the manufacturer:
“In a study at 3M, [Von Hippel] and several colleagues found that product ideas from lead users generated eight times the sales of ideas generated internally — $146 million versus $18 million a year — in part because lead users were more likely to come up with ideas for entire new product lines rather than minor improvements.”
Professor Von Hippel’s book is available for download from his Web site at:
January 12, 2005, 2:27 pm
Five years ago, Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Lessig published Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, a well-reviewed book that argues that the Internet’s hardware and software protocols determine how the medium is controlled by vested interests.
To update the book, Lessig has decided to post its contents to a Wiki, a platform for collaborative editing by everyday users (most famously in the Wikipedia encyclopedia). Lessig will then edit the Wiki-based updates to produce the final new edition:
“My aim is not to write a new book; my aim is to correct and update the existing book. But I’m eager for advice and expert direction…. No one can know whether this will work. But if if does, it could be very interesting.”