Recently, I attended the first-ever Tapestry conference in Nashville, Tennessee. Sponsored by Tableau, a creator of data visualization software often used by journalists, the conference focused on how storytelling converges with data visualization and information graphics. These forms of visual design have existed for centuries, and Tapestry presented innovations in new media that enhance how they appear to a public inundated by incidents, but in need of meaningful stories. In data visualization, spreadsheets of numbers transform into more accesible charts and graphs—a natural, visual way to contextualize a lot of information in a relatively small space. Information graphics, meanwhile, present a more conscious crafting of a more limited set of data to guide the reader; they seek to tell a story. Often, information graphics convey or imply a message to an intended audience.
We live in a world made more transparent by a previously unimagined amount of information, quantitative and qualitative. This information, culled from nearly every known subject of inquiry, glows with a potential for enhancing our understanding of complex, even contentious subjects. The best practitioners of information design understand the challenges inherent in honoring credible data: Those who can collect, organize, manage, analyze, and present information credibly and clearly, can help shape how we communicate with each other. Visual stories often transcend language barriers in a global society that's interconnected from Tennessee to Timbuktu. People read the universal shapes of data visualizations and information graphics, just as they read sentences in their own language. Given our short attention spans online, how we visually present our information, with typography, open space, and color, becomes as powerful a rhetorical technique as any of Aristotle's classic oratorical principles, logos, pathos, and ethos.
Effective presentation matters, whether you are a scientist, journalist, designer, or nonfiction writer—all disciplines deeply affected by our access to so much, even too much, information.
The Tapestry conference took place at Nashville’s historic Union Station Hotel, a former train station in the Music City that retains the signboards, stained glass, and ornate craft of a prior century—an apropos location for conference attendees who all began at different places, seeking a common destination. Journalists, computer scientists, designers, writers, cartoonists, business people, and non-profits mingled in the old train station, sharing their experience and interests in storytelling with data.
I'm a humanist by nature, my imagination warmed by the arts and cooled by too many numbers. At the same time, I work as a designer in the burgeoning field of information graphics, a practice that I had once seen as more analytical than soulful, more linear than lyrical. Yet the Tapestry web site included an intriguing quote by Deena Metzger about soulful storytelling, "When stories nestle in the body, soul comes forth." Many of the Tapestry lectures focused on the seeming incongruity of soulful data. At Tapestry, I distilled some of the lectures to simple ideas that remain helpful to any person who must integrate data, or information, into their practice:
- Giving information a soul
- Medium as Message
- Pairing Text with Image
Giving information a soul
Information, otherwise known as data, and soul, too evanescent to quantify, seem like opposites. As Aristotle might say, one is logos, or logic; the other, pathos, or emotion. How do we give information soul?
For some answers, I look toward writers like Barry Lopez, who tell information-rich nonfiction stories with the voice of a humanist and naturalist. Right now, I'm reading a collection of his essays, About this Life: Journeys on the Threshold of Memory. I brought the book to Nashville.
In the preface to the book, Lopez advises the mother of a young, aspiring writer, "If she wishes to write well she will have to become someone. She will have to discover her beliefs, and then speak to us from within those beliefs. If her prose doesn’t come out of her belief, whatever that proves to be, she will only be passing along information, of which we are in no great need."
Though Lopez wrote this book in 1999, long before recent innovations in working with data online, he poses a challenge to information graphics designers and journalists in new media: especially today, we are in no great need of information, which is abundant, even overwhelming and oppressive. We need information with soul, provided by those who have a persuasive inside view of the story. Audiences only remember information that they can first feel, connecting stories to the archives of their memory, collective and personal. Here, the audience can contextualize a once distant story, and then compare and contrast the information in it within their realm of understanding.
Storytellers inhabit their stories, understand and encircle them from every angle like a sculptor before a sculpture. Lopez, for instance, writes about the Arctic by living in that snowy world. Howard Pyle and NC Wyeth, the great early 20th century illustrators who popularized our conception of pirates and even Santa Claus, would work in freezing temperatures to accurately paint winter scenes. They believed that to tell a story, one has to live in it.
In an attempt to give information graphics designers the mission of the storyteller, designer Nigel Holmes prefers to call information graphics “explanation graphics” instead. In an interview, Holmes was asked how designers might create graphics that have an emotional impact. Holmes responds, “By being human, above all. But also by knowing thoroughly what your subject is, and by making it accessible—not talking down, of course—to other humans just like you. By allowing people to laugh. By involving their imaginations. By referring to things outside the direct subject being discussed. By drawing comparisons. By enjoying what you do. It shows.” Though not quite as dramatic as the exemplars of Lopez, Pyle, and Wyeth, Holmes certainly advocates for some expression in communicating ideas, and he replaces the neutral word information with a friendlier, more human term, explanation.
Even for objective scientists or journalists who are not seeking to persuade an audience to believe in a single point-of-view, idea, or experience—a traditional mission of a storyteller—this idea holds true: communication without expression, mind without heart, will not be memorable for many readers. Designers in more objective stories can simply assure that color themes and typography speak in an appropriate voice for the audience, like a narrator in a documentary film, and that all imagery hues to an appropriate emotional tone.
I once heard a TED lecture by Brené Brown, a researcher in sociology. In the lecture, she tells the audience how she had bristled at being called a storyteller. The term sounded too fluffy, even inaccurate, given her adamant dedication to objective research. Finally, she relented to the appellation, wondering aloud to her audience if stories could simply be “data with soul.” I might agree with her definition, but stories are not incidents, those fragments of the daily news, some happy, others tragic, that seem to lack meaning. Incidents resemble data points that fail to assemble into a recognizable story.
For data visualizations that aspire to actual storytelling, the reader can see patterns appear, evaluate measurable states of change, and even possibly infer causation. A designer can organize the information according to the LATCH acronym: Location (maps); Alphabetical (like phone books, from long ago times); Time (timelines); Category (divided pie charts); and finally, Hierarchy (bar charts comparing quantities). To make the soul visible in information visualization, one would need to work upon a quantitative base, such as a chart, map, or graph, organized in concert with the LATCH paradigm, and the shape of that graphic would need to accurately reveal meaning.
What is form? Form is shape that memorably conveys its essential quality, character, or purpose by its very shape. We recognize the function of a teaspoon by its shape, and we understand the character of a rabbit by its long ears and bounding legs. In Tolkein's Lord of the Rings, we know the hideously misshapen Orcs are evil, while the graceful elves are gentle and kind. Even their names convey meaning: the dark vowels in Orc and Mordor form deep in our mouths, and give our tongues an upside-down, unhappy form; the bright vowels in Elf and Middle Earth form near the front of our mouths, and give our tongues a more upward form. Orcs speak in dark vowels, while elves speak in bright vowels. It's the difference between a moody, gloomy poem and a light, gentle, happy one.
How does form apply to the two types of storytelling with data discussed at Tapestry, data visualization and information graphics? And how can form achieve a type of visual poetry?
In data visualization, form reveals the shape of a story that might remain impossible to see in spreadsheet format, but big data is presented objectively, allowing the user to explore the story and construct her own meanings; in data storytelling, information graphics often result, charts and graphs are eloquently complemented with written annotations and context, guiding the reader like a narrator in a story. Interactive data visualization is relatively new and most often conveyed in online user experiences. To show classic form, however, I'll return to information graphics, which have probably existed since the first Sumerian scribe applied a reed to a clay tablet.
Edward Tufte, one of the first experts in the field of information graphics, celebrates Napolean's March to Russia, by the French engineer Charles Joseph Minard, as an example of form with soul. Minard lived during the time of Napolean, and he sought to expose the cruelty of the empire. Here, Minard charts Napolean's troops in multiple dimensions, as numbers of troops according to line thickness, marching across space, from France to Russia, across time, and all of this narrative movement has a tether to temperature charts at the bottom of the chart. The beige line begins at 422,000 troops in France, marches to Russia, and returns to France as a thin line, numbering only 10,000 haggard souls. The numbers of troops drop most dramatically when crossing a river at freezing temperatures.
In this famed chart, Minard critiques the hubris of Napolean, and suggests his decision to invade Russia in the wintertime killed more French troops than any Russian soldier. It is a rare example of data presented credibly, with an ethical intent to enlighten society about the twisted nature of Napolean's ambitions. This chart is so well known amongst information graphics designers, Tableau engineer Robert Kosara introduced it almost sheepishly during his Tapestry lecture, goaded on by a knowing murmur from the crowd. I wonder if it's a coincidence that the word Tableau announces itself in this iconic information graphic.
To open the series of lectures at Tapestry, Jonathan Corum, Graphics Editor at the NY Times, showed a memorable example of form in storytelling. For an article about whale diving, Corum referred to a chart published in a scientific paper that recorded the depth of whale dives. Because these whales plummet so far down into the ocean, the scientists simply broke the Y Axis to fit the chart into the published 8.5 by 11 inch sheet of paper—after all, that in-between space was devoid of data points. A designer by education and philosophy, Corum decided to include this empty space in his graphic, restoring the form to the visual storytelling—the reader feels the profound drama of the whale dive by the tall, scroll-like form of the information graphic. He also placed persuasive, to-scale illustrations of the whales to make the information graphic more accessible—our minds find living creatures inherently more interesting than abstract symbols, such as data points. What could be more enchanting than peering below the ocean to find the once mysterious, ancient habits of the whale so lucidly charted? In the final, published information graphic, our eyes delve with the whale’s deep, gliding dive down, context provided by measures of fluking behavior and speed.
In his lecture, Jonathan Corum showed another remarkable example of distance, this time in the high-profile realm of human achievement: the NY Times motion graphics chart of every long jump gold-medal winner in Olympic history, which provides the reader the opportunity to compare-and-contrast juxtaposed jumps. The reader encounters a time-defying, lyrical space for Bob Beamon’s astonishing 29-foot jump at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, world-record for decades.The narrative also provides context by overlaying a basketball court above graphs of the jumps, to show how Beamon jumped from off the playing court to beyond the three-point line.
In an uncanny example of convergent thinking, designer Nigel Holmes later lectured about context in information design, and he also used Beamon's jump to tell his story. He quipped, basketball courts aren't enough, and he made Corum’s long jump example even more memorable and real for the audience by introducing a 29-foot length of string and pulling it taut before the audience. He attempted to jump and landed about two feet from his origin, staggering hesitantly upon the landing, with the string stretching endlessly across the entire width of the laughing lecture hall. We could imagine Beamon’s awe-inspiring flight, which seemed more the provenance of a bird than a man. Since elementary school, I had been aware of Beamon’s 29-foot long jump. But Holmes vivified those raw numbers with his futile jump and taut string, turning information into a story that I won't forget.
Medium as Message
While Corum and Holmes discussed timeless principles of design, and their work often appears in print, Hannah Fairfield, Graphics Editor at the NY Times, and Scott McCloud, author of the classic book Understanding Comics, also discussed the glowing possibilities of on-screen interactive stories.
Fairfield showed Snowfall, a mesmerizing interactive story set in the mountains, which layers text, photography, video, illustration, animation, and information graphics—virtually every medium of storytelling available, integrated. Surprisingly, she cited the illustrated young adult novel The Adventures of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick, as an inspiration for this harrowing story about an avalanche and the intrepid souls caught in its deadly sweep. In Hugo Cabret, the mystery originates in a silent film, and at times, pages of text give way to pages of black-and-white images, which unfold the story; one flips through the images like a silent film. Ironically, Hugo Cabret also takes place in a beautiful, fin de siècle train station.
Fairfield noted the enchanting quality of the book and the fact that Selznick harnessed the power of each medium, writing and art, to tell the story when that medium’s very nature became the most appropriate vehicle to do so. She wanted to capture a similar quality in Snowfall, and she noted that its success resulted from close collaboration and a mutual understanding of the mood they wanted to achieve, the single powerful effect in spite of the complexity of the story. The Snowfall avalanche, presented in an integrated way by a collaborative team, seems groundbreaking for those in once far-apart fields of writing, film, art, and design.
Scott McCloud echoed the lesson of the avalanche in his talk, by showing how comic book artists—and really any creator of sequenced, informative storytelling— can begin to see beyond the traditional format of the page, and ironically hearken to ancient forms, such as the scroll, to change the way readers experience stories. With the pacing of horizontal and vertical scrolling, the opportunity to delight and surprise the reader becomes endless. With new tools and formats in which to engage in storytelling, the definition of how we read broadens, too.
Pairing text with image
I gleaned one final point from the presentations: When presenting work that relies upon writing and images to tell the story, try to highlight the image only at the moment it becomes relevant in the written narrative. Though this simple pairing of text and image is often not possible, and could diminish the power of context in design, it could be a helpful technique for more guided presentations of information. Scott McCloud mentioned this principle in comic book storytelling. Brian Connor, a Baltimore-based information designer and educator, also demonstrates this principle in his elegant forum about information design, The Why Axis, As the reader scrolls down a case study, grayed-out text becomes black and complements an image adjacent to the text. The reader has only one place to focus: one work of art, and one main idea contained in a topic paragraph. The pacing feels natural, like breathing.
A similar moment appears in Snowfall, and NY Times Graphics Editor Hannah Fairfield mentioned it in her presentation. In the section titled “To the Peak,” a small man, animated on the margin of the page, inflates air bags at the precise moment the reader encounters accompanying text in the narrative about safety gear on the mountain.
The journalistic effect is at once quiet and startling; art enhances text as if it were language. Though it seems like a unique reading experience, the animated moment has a kinship with margin notation from Renaissance times, reminiscent of Galileo’s sketches of Saturn. In Italian, Galileo indicates that Saturn is just like this—and word gives way to image, as if there were no difference. Edward Tufte highlighted Galileo’s Saturn drawing in his classic books about information design. I imagine the NY Times team is well-versed in Tufte’s Galileo exemplar. Here, we can see here how classic techniques renew themselves and vivify in fresh mediums.
I left the beautiful old train station in Nashville with a renewed confidence that scientists and humanists can work together to deepen information design buzzwords such as “user experience,” and also offer forms of “reader experience.” For me, reading has a depth of understanding and imaginative possibility, much needed in an information age bustling with users and distraction-based interfaces. At times, we use interfaces; other times, we read stories. We all need more opportunities to read.
Data tells a persuasive story on its own—to discerning audiences. Design alone may also persuade a broader audience, as seen for centuries in advertising and fashion. But with the mindfulness of storytelling's classic techniques, and the magic of new media, data and design weave into one: unifying seeing, reading, and understanding.
Imagine the possibilities of conveying stories, closing the distance between us and hidden truths— just like Galileo, gazing at unseen planets through his telescope. He aims his telescope toward the glittering night sky over Florence, squinting, sketching the rings of Saturn in his notebook, La Figura di Saturno cosi, he writes. Just like this.