Data Visualisation

We recently attended a fascinating talk at Somerset House on Data Visualisation as part of the Pick Me Up event. Adam Frost, Data Visualisation Manager and Tobias Sturt, Design and User experience manager, from the Guardian Visual Agency spoke about 'telling stories with data'

They described data visualisation in interesting ways encompassing the idea of how text and images have to work together to allow a piece of coherent data. Without the data, it is just pretty bars or circles, and without the visuals it's just numbers, not meaning anything.

When collecting data, there has to be integrity authority. This means a sample of 49 cannot encompass everything that goes into a piece of infographics. This would be just creating visuals for no purpose other than to look pretty. With this in mind, they believed that data visualisation requires collaboration. People who are good at designing the graphics for information are not keen or good at collecting the required data needed, while people who perform well at this task are unable to make it visually understandable.

Often we come across a piece of information graphics that appears overloaded with information or visuals but we cannot construct a meaning from them. They refer to this as 'information anxiety' or more simply put, a gap between information given and information you actually understand. Data should not confuse or contradict each other and we should not be constantly wanting to look for a key to understand the data.

So they showed some examples, both of good and not so good design.

'The True Size of Africa' by Kai Krause demonstrates a quick and easy way to show information. They use different levels of information, with the large diagram being the main point, and ranked lists to show more detailed data.


This interactive infographic is a perfect example of things which can go wrong when visualising data. To start, there should never be a need for a 'How to use' section..this automatically implies it is confusing. The information is not coherent, and you cannot quite work out what everything means. 

However, a perfectly great piece of data visualisation comes in the form of the linked image below

You can instantly see countries with the most medals, with it broken down into specifics under the page break. Although the human eye find it difficult to tell size difference between circles, this piece uses other methods, such as the 'by ranking' button at the top to help combat that problem. Frost also mentioned that as you move through the years, it tells of historical events and influences, including the effect of increasing transport links and the cold war.

Tobias then handled talking about the design aspect of data visualisation.

On first glance, this piece looks nice, the charts they have used seem appropriate (with the bar graph being the easiest to read of them off even with a pixel difference). However on closer inspection, we can see that the key is confused. On the first graph, it shows blue as immigrants with bachelor degrees, where later on blue is used to represent native born Americans. Choosing a key carefully is important when trying to relate data to an audience.

This example showed how the data you have collected can design the visual for you. This is a piece which appeared in an Italian newspaper looking at music covers over the years and has ended up forming a sort of musical looking piece itself. With year markers and ranked positions, it not only reads well, but also looks interesting.

I took a lot from this talk, and although there is no way I could mention all the great points the pair made throughout the talk, it highlighted some things I have never thought about.

These are some of the general points I picked up:

  • You need a good amount of data
  • Charts must show patterns and allow the lookup of data
  • You should not need a 'how to use' explanation
  • The key must remain the same throughout
  • We like straight curves are hard for us to interpret
  • You can have different levels of data

Here are some infographic sites with more examples

And The Guardian Digital Agency

Posted: Mon 29th Apr 2013

Tags: Articles, Data, digital, Examples, graphic, information, Interative, Visualisation


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