Effective Data Visualization: The Argument


I hate taking strong positions. There are no strong positions that are correct!* Here’s one stated on the ol’ social media circles today:

beautiful data visualization < effective data visualization**

Give it some thought. No really, do. Here’s the real deal:

About 90% of the time a beautiful data visualization is an effective data visualization. If it’s beautiful people are going to look at it, which gets you almost fully to the “effective” state. I realize that’s a bit cynical, but really, just getting people’s attention is the hardest part. I’m thinking 10% of the time you might have a beauty of a map but it tells the wrong story, in which case it’s not just ineffective, it’s misleading at best, unethical at worst.

However, I truly believe that the opposite situation favors the visualization side of things a bit more. Therefore, I’d be comfortable saying that 80% of the time an effective visualization is beautiful (rather than 90%). I’m going to get flack for this, especially as a teacher of effective design, but truthfulness requires even myself to admit that there are times that less than attractive visualizations are still effective.

This is especially true for visualizations of NEW data–data that nobody has ever mapped before. These can get away with a bit of ugliness just by their sheer inventiveness. Here’s a great example from this week:

I tweeted this morning about a new visualization of data surrounding the purchase of BitCoin in various parts of the world. I tweeted it because the subject matter and the implications are fascinating. I didn’t tweet it because of the visualization being “pretty”–which it most assuredly isn’t. A map of something more typical, say population movement, I would’ve wanted to look better. But this one was so new and unique that I was willing to put aside thoughts of the rudimentary map style and overlapping text.

If you want to maximize your effectiveness, though, it is better to err on the side of design: fonts, colors, text placement, line width, projection knowledge, and the like, since there aren’t going to be many times that you get the chance (or think of) such a great new visualization that allows the rest of us to momentarily forget our taste.


**no disrespect meant, ht @Option_Explicit

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