May 2017

What is data visualization?

  • Article
  • Data Visualization

In a nutshell, data visualization is the visual representation of information. 

It's designed to help people understand information quickly, spot relationships and patterns, see the significance of the data points through a particular lens, and communicate effectively by telling data-driven stories. 

Information designers create a kind of visual language using data (whether big data, aggregate data or statistics); transforming them into a codified language of charts and graphs. In practice, these visualizations can be used in static infographics, interactive data visualizations, or data-driven applications. 

This venn diagram was created by FFunction's Creative Director Audree Lapierre in the early days of the studio to help describe data visualization to clients who were new to the concept. 

She created three concentric circles ascribed to three major fields of inquiry: Design, Communication and Information

Then, she tagged hybrid disciplines—in between Design and Information is UI, in between Design and Communication is Visual Communication; in between Communication and Information is Data Journalism

The Design bubble contains keywords like “look and feel” and “visual design”. In Communication you have things like “idea” and “objective.” And the Information bubble contains “data” and “dataset.”  

In every sphere, the external bubble is the field and the internal field is the output. When these circles are overlapped, they reveal some fertile middle ground. The keyword “Readability,” for example, belongs in both Design and Communication. “Usability” is in Information and Design. “Concept” belongs to all three. 

And right at the centre of this forest of ideas lies Data Visualization. It is the nexus of everything. 

Why use data visualization? 

The human brain is highly adept at identifying trends if given the right visual cues. Using design to leverage our brain’s built-in pattern detection system makes it much easier to understand complex structures and most importantly, data relationships. This can have far-ranging consequences in a business context if you use it for its analytic qualities - the ability to make decisions based on what’s really happening instead of what you think might be happening. 

It can also be incredibly useful as a means of communicating the scale of a social issue to a wide readership; providing more precise information by offering filtering options, drill-down exploration and inviting comparisons. 

In this context, data visualization can become a solid resource for journalists, policymakers and engaged citizens.

Where did data visualization come from? 

Although data visualization has enjoyed a renaissance of sorts in the last 15 years, it‘s an area with deep historical roots across cartography, medicine, politics and astronomy. 

Below, you'll see an early data visualization from Florence Nightingale. 

Nightingale wanted to map out the causes of mortality in the army in order to present her findings to Parliament, knowing they would be more amenable to hearing her ideas if they understood the problem in a data-driven way. 

She was arguably the first person to use data visualization as a call to action; a persuasion tool. 

Today, the practice of using data to spur change has gained popularity. Nonprofits and companies are increasingly putting their information to work: telling data-driven stories, mapping out concepts, creating interactive charts and disseminating salient statistics across social media platforms. Data has shaken off its dry reputation and is taking its place at the helm of information-driven communications plans globally, in ways that are evolving daily. 

From our perspective, one of the greatest aspects of the information design boom has been seeing the visual literacy of the general public get more sophisticated, and more ready than ever to take on the beauty of complexity.


Rebecca Galloway