The concepts of art and its occasional companion beauty are, perhaps intrinsically, impossible to define to a certain degree. Subjectivity obviously plays a part in this complexity: beauty as we know, is in the eye of the beholder. However it’s safe to assume that when we do ponder the nature of this dualism, graphs and data charts do not immediately feature. Unless of course your name is David McCandless, founder of Information Is Beautiful. It's a website dedicated to championing data presented in a revolutionary and fascinating manner, with fantastically easy to read visualisations explaining a huge range of subjects, from Atlantic fish stocks to the true value of a billion dollars via an insight into the shadowy world of cunscreen. We asked David a few questions about the nature of his work and the true value of information.
Click for large version - Mountains Out Of Molehills - David McCandless
Yours is somewhat of a niche industry inside a monolithic one. Data representation is ubiquitous but is rarely good looking or even interesting, let alone beautiful, what inspired you to start IIB?
Back in 2007 I was working as a freelance journalist and found myself trying to stay afloat with lots and lots of different subjects. One day was researching a complex piece. I was struggling to keep track of the subject. I had huge amount of notes. So to keep track, I sketched a visual map, and tried to sum up and condense each aspect into the barest minimum of words.
In the end, I had this pretty interesting diagram. I looked at it and thought: “Hmmmm, I don’t really need to write the article now. I’ve done my job as a journalist. I’ve conveyed my understanding of this subject ". Then I thought: “Maybe I could do this to loads of subjects? Instead of writing an article, maybe the diagram could be the article?” I then started looking at my notes and article ideas with that in mind. That was it really.
Are there any precedents to what you do? Were there any trailblazing data artists of earlier years we should check out?
Edward Tufte. Richard Saul Wurman. Florence Nightingale.
Do you ever find it hard to strike a balance between clarity of information and the aesthetic values in your work? Would you sacrifice a design if it became hard to understand, or are the two intrinsic?
Click for large version - Left V Right - David McCandless, Stefanie Posavec
I am a rampant perfectionist and have regularly sacrificed a good design that became too 'spaghetti' or too 'ultra-conceptual' to grok. The two - information and design - have to be in harmony in information design. If one gets out of proportion, it breaks.
A lot of work on IIB serves to demonstrate how easily raw data can be misconstrued. Information can undoubtedly be beautiful but it can also be dangerous. Would you advocate a campaign similar to the ‘Plain English’ movement for data representation?
Yeah I think you can lie with statistics. But you can really lie with visualized statistics. Great design conveys authority and concreteness. So if you bundle a lie in great design, it has real power - and it's hard to question it. That's why I think visualization has to be paired with transparency. You've got to be share your data, be open about your process and methods, invite others to check your conclusions and your numbers.
Do you think there would be any value in trying to integrate the art of visualisations into the national curriculum? I went through school believing a pie chart was the most far out bit of data representation going.
Kids seem to be really like this kind of presentation. It's very intuitive. I think it could be cool to bring information design to text books.
You have clearly done more research than the average person could ever contemplate, what has been the most shocking piece/set of data you’ve uncovered while trawling?
The data on fish stocks for 'Plenty More Fish in the Sea?'. When I visualized it, the results were shocking.
Click for large image - Billion Pound O Gram - David McCandless
Do you have any words of wisdom for young designers adrift in a sea of competition?
Study journalism and learn to concept and how to tell stories - the art of information, essentially. Combine it with the art of design and you can create powerful visualized stories that reveal hidden patterns and secret connections. Who wouldn't want to do that??
See more of David's work and buy prints and books at informationisbeautiful.net