Fast Company on Info Viz

Fast Company has an interesting piece on information visualization: Is Information Visualization the Next Frontier for Design? Author Michael Cannell is placing big bets on the future of info viz:

Designers have historically excelled at finding insightful ways of looking at complex problems. Visualization will likely play a prominent role as design evolves beyond the consumer economy (selling $2,000 poufs and other high-end furnishings) and helps create efficient new forms of buildings, food distribution and transportation.

He also mentions Edward Tufte:

You might think of visualization as the antithesis of Power Point, which sometimes seems to make us dumber. Six years ago, Edward Tufte, a Big Thinker in the field of information graphics, issued a 28-page pamphlet that dumped on Power Point as “a faux analysis” that “turns everything into a sales pitch.” Visualization does the opposite: it reflects the complexity of the world in simple terms. It is a window onto the world, in all its digital complexity. Though of course data can be skewed in deceitful and insidious ways.

I quite like that last bit. It reminds us that information visualization isn’t about reducing complexity, but embracing it and devising ways to make the complex clear.

There are some interesting examples of information visualization in the article, reflecting a rather broad definition of the field. In particular, the article links to a YouTube video of the introduction of a “word cloud” on CNN.

I’m a big fan of info viz in general and feel there is a wealth of potential there we’re just starting to realize. In Designing Web Navigation I briefly touch on the subject, but I warn that most info viz mechanisms aren’t mainstream yet–use them with caution. I wrote:

Visualization mechanisms tend to have limited use and should be reserved for special situations. General web users may not be accustomed to them. But, as research in information visualization mechanisms continues, their application may become more widespread.

I think that’s still true. You don’t want to have info viz be you’re ONLY navigation possibility on your site or application–at least not at the moment. But leveraging them as supplements to traditional browse and search options can bring value to users. And in doing so, info viz may become more and more common and understood.

About Jim Kalbach

Head of Customer Experience at MURAL

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