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With two decades of experience in information graphics and data visualization, Alberto Cairo has mastered the art of data storytelling with a solid portfolio in large media companies in Spain, Brazil and the U.S.
A highly productive writer, designer and educator in information graphics, Alberto has authored two influential books in the field of data visualization: “The Functional Art: an Introduction to Information Graphics and Visualization” (Peachpit Press, 2012), and “The Truthful Art: Data, Charts, and Maps for Communication” (Peachpit Press, 2016).
After decades of working in data journalism, in recent years Alberto has shifted his focus more towards teaching what he practices. He is now the Knight Chair in Visual Journalism at the School of Communication of the University of Miami (UM). Apart from teaching, Alberto also consults on high-profile clients on data visualization project from his design studio and speaks at international conferences on visual journalism and design.
We have had the honor to interview such a well-respected figure in the data visualization community, and ask his expert opinion on how to tell effective stories with information graphics.
1. Given your expertise in data journalism, how do you visualize complex data in a way that is simple but still interesting?
It largely depends on whether the graphic that you’re creating are going to be repeated over and over again, for instance you have a reporting which has tons of the same kinds of line charts or bar graphs. It is better not to use a lot of variation to those unless absolutely necessary. You can just stick to the graphic form that is needed here, and try to add visual elements such as typography, color, headlines, etc. The visual attractiveness of the graphic doesn’t only depends on the graphic itself but the elements included in the graphic as well.
The answer is different for an infographic that is going to be a single, stand alone graphic within a report. In that case you can be a little bit more creative and try to design something that is more unusual. Again, even the most unorthodox graphic can become tiresome if you repeat use it over and over.
2. How do you go about choosing the best format to visualize your dataset?
Visualization is all about the visual encoding of data. Using visualization jargon you would say that you begin with the data and map the data with spatial properties. These spatial properties could be the length, height, position, angle, area or size of an object. There are different kinds of methods to represent data when you’re going to do visualization.
And in terms of choosing the best one, I have actually written 2 books about it so I would refer you to the books. But the general question that you need to ask yourself is what the graphic is for: what do you want people to see. The simplest example that I can give you is choosing between a bar chart with a table or a data map. A data map encodes information using shades of color that is called a choropleth map.
So you begin with the same data, and you need to choose between those two. Which one would you use? It all depends on what is the task that you want to enable here. If what you care about is to give people an overall impression of the distribution or concentration of data over a geographic region, then the map is more appropriate. But if what you care about is accuracy, being able to compare and rank the different regions or states or continents or whatever, the map doesn’t really work. You need some sort of table or a bar graph to be able to compare the figures.
Again, the key is to ask yourself what the graphic is for and what people are supposed to see in the data. And then try to facilitate those tasks by choosing a graphic form that works well in those circumstances.
3. Data storytelling doesn’t end once we’ve visualized the data. How do you craft story in a way that truly engage the audience?
Well I don’t usually talk about stories, I talk about narratives, and a narrative is just one of the many structures for a series of charts and maps and diagrams. A narrative is just a linear sequence of events that are schematically connected to each other. When put together as a whole, it presents a story in a cohesive manner that is comprehensive and understandable.
So how do we build that? There are several strategies for that, and one of them is to begin not by designing the graphic but begin by writing a very long sentence that describes the narrative that you want to tell. This is something that I’ve borrowed from several friends who also work in infographic design. So you write that long narrative first, for example, An employment in the US went up last year but then you know, the deficit of the government went down and that is due to certain policies here in the area that the government implemented and these policies have these origins and that origins…
As you write that very long narrative, you try to find natural breaks of the sentence and split it up into components. Then you can transform those components into the headlines and segments, and illustrate each segment with a series of charts or maps.
That’s usually a strategy that works quite well when you have a linear narrative. In other cases when what you are trying to tell doesn’t have a clear linear structure, you will need to look for alternatives.
4. In your book “The Truthful Art”, you advocate the truthful presentation of data. How should we avoid fake data for false expectations?
What I’m about to say might sound like a no brainer but it’s all based on not letting our instinct take over our rationality. Never rely on our snap judgments whenever we face a story based on data, and always try to find evidence to support the assertion made in the headline. If possible go to primary sources, and check for the quality of the evidence that is provided and decide for yourself if the story is bogus or true.
This sounds obvious but it’s important to remind people that critical thinking is based on good understanding of very elementary statistical thinking methods. You don’t need to be statistician or mathematician to do these. You can avoid 4 out 5 problems in problematic stories if you just apply very elementary critical thinking skills that everybody can learn. I am certainly no statistician.
5. There is so much public and private data out there available to us. How do you choose the most relevant data that is sufficient to tell the story, but not so much that it overwhelms the audience?
Imagine you have a huge data set and you only report the average of the data set. That’s an example of an extreme summarization of the data. And then on the other end spectrum would be visualizing every single data point and then overlaying everything into a visualization.
So you have maximum simplification on one hand and maximum complexity on the other. So how do you decide at which point of this spectrum you need to position yourself? I’d say whichever level of complexity your visualization needs to have in order to tell the story truthfully.
This is something that I discussed in my book “The Truthful Art”. Sometimes reporting an average, a median or a mean is enough to represent the truth behind the data if all of your data distribution clusters around the mean. In that case the mean is a good summary of the data.
Let’s supporse in another example of height data, the minimum value is 2 feet and the maximum is 10 feet. And then you have a distribution that is not normal or perhaps a bimodal distribution where people all over the place in that high spectrum. In that case just reporting the average is not enough and you have to show more data.
This is the kind of thinking that we need to apply when deciding what level of simplification or complexity is needed to tell the story well. There is a quote that I really like from Albert Einstein, which goes like “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”
That’s the key thing: to make things as simple as possible but never go beyond a certain threshold that will lead you to oversimplify the story. You need to identify what is the minimum amount of data that you need to present in order to tell your story truthfully.
Turning boring information into beautiful visuals doesn’t have to be a daunting task. At Visme, we help you use the drag-and-drop visual content tool with the best help content.
We will bring more expert content like this Q&A with Cole above. Stay tuned!