Data & Design How-to's Note 4: Visualisation basics – the three 'gets'

Contents of the stomach of a Laysan Albatross. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. Source: Bay vs Bag Campaign poster by Greenpeace. Photograph of albatross chick Copyright David Liittschwager, 2005. Photograph of stomach contents Copyright Susan Middleton, 2005
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Accumulation and fragmentation of plastic debris in global environments. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society The Trash Vortex
Is this yours? Through the Gyre. GOOD Magazine. 2009. Screenshots from Plastic Pollution Growth Model
Have a quick look through the gallery above. It shows nine different ways of presenting evidence about the same issue: plastic waste in the ocean. Click on any image to see a larger version of it along with details about who made it.

Why visualisation is useful

Visualisation can be used to help understand and communicate about any issue. In this Data and Design How-to Note we introduce the basics of how to present evidence visually.
The examples above not only look very different from each other but they also use completely different techniques to convey various levels of information with different ends in mind. Some use simple strategies to draw in the viewer. For example, the Greenpeace example with the diver and the toothbrush uses a strong image as a stepping stone in a larger process of engaging the viewer in the issue of plastic waste in the ocean: it helps you get the idea. Other examples above use visuals as a way to simplify and explain what the problem is. For example,'The Great Pacific Garbage Patch' is an info-graphic that takes more of an educational approach. 'The Trash Vortex' is a simple animation that shows how ocean currents move trash around the ocean; these visuals help you get the story. Lastly, more detailed pieces like the 'Plastic pollution growth model' use maps, video and online interaction to go a step further and help explain the root causes of the problem. They enable you to get the detail.
Looking at a wide range of visual representations of the same issue can help us think through the various levels of evidence that can be conveyed through its visual presentation, from one toothbrush as a symbol of a much larger problem, through to time-based modelling that gives us much more detailed information. Looking at so many examples can help compare the audience's experience. Even when using visual formats, people are interested in different levels of detail depending on their own prior knowledge and involvement in the issue and as advocates we can create ways of meeting those needs. Further, they may or may not engage in the issue depending on the way the information is presented and how appropriate it is to the medium. Designing information to pass on to someone walking down a street looking at a poster is different from designing information for someone following a link online from a blog. 
This is tremendously important because - like it or not -  when using information we are unlikely to have a captive audience that stands still and simply takes us at our word. We are competing with a wide range of others for their attention and trust across different media and channels of communication. There are a few realities to note here:
  • Competitors are different: The imbalances in access to publication tools and information are not as great as they used to be. Right now, anyone can tell their story online using whatever evidence they are able to gather. The use of online media, social networking and cheap technologies like smart-phones shows that individuals or small groups of people are not only creative and brave, but can make interesting media with mass appeal. They have broken down old communication barriers and challenged the 'gatekeepers' of information. These include governments, businesses and established mass-media, but also NGOs, advocacy groups and movements.
  • Audiences' consumption habits have changed: In addition to having more choice of information sources, audiences are taking in information differently. As audiences have a greater willingness to forage through lots of material, the challenge for all media creators is to attract and maintain attention and have on-going relevance to audiences with a near-infinite choice. New ways of packaging news and narrative material, including data and information, are emerging. For example, info-graphics have become hugely popular, particularly in online news reporting. One explanation for this is that their popularity is earned because they are useful and effective ways to pass on information, but the driver behind their expanding use - and perhaps your pressure to make them - is because they have become popular media, and people vote with their feet (or mice!).
As a response to this, it's an opportune moment to broaden the understanding of what can be achieved through visualisation. Campaigners and advocacy groups have always adjusted their communications to meet the evolving needs of different audiences. Imagery and visual communication are staple parts of advocacy, but their use has often been quite narrow, focussing on beautification of materials, attention grabbing tactics such as using shocking and moving images, or messaging and 'sloganeering'. There is far more to visualisation than just this communications-oriented view. 

The three 'gets': a simple framework

The possibilities outlined above open up a wide range of ways to represent ideas, designs and information about an issue. To simplify this, the most useful starting point in deciding how to use visualisation is to think about what it is you are trying to help audiences do. You can help audiences to:
  • Get the idea - which is about exposing the issue, and being exposed to it
  • Get the picture - which is about understanding an issue
  • Get the details - which is about exploring the issue
Using a wide variety of different examples we'll walk through these three approaches and give helpful hints about the key challenges and creative tactics involved in their successful use. There is a broad and lively terrain between the cautious and necessarily detailed 100-page report and the eye-catching, message driven and memorable poster. The common thread between them is the way they blend evidence and visual presentation from the simple to the complex, using them to influence their audience.
In the next chapter, we look at ways to blend the use of strong visual techniques with minimal evidence to help your audiences  'get the idea'. Continue reading Data & Design Note 5: Get the idea