There is a part of me that sometimes feels that dataviz might be an informational extravagance – a pomping up of statistics with unnecesary decoration, or at worst an intellectual troupe d’oeil for conning people into a distorted view of facts. But there is a much larger and more influential part of me that thinks that dataviz is an important part of communication that very sincerely aspires to illuminate conclusions that would be too esoteric or incomprehensible in the form of raw data. I strongly suspect that my opinion and my overall affinity for dataviz are the results of a lifelong affection for comics and graphic design, my appreciation of visual thinkers, and a sincere belief that effective communications can affect lives.
Like many geeks, the reality of my childhood was enhanced by the super-reality of comic books. The CMYK-rendered world of comics grabbed my interest and imagination in a way that humdrum normal reality never seemed able. After all, from the moment we are born, we are surrounded by mundane, everyday reality, as miraculous and astonishing as it is. So it seems perfectly normal that as soon as we are cognitively capable, we would seek to escape it through representations of alternative realities. Continuously shattering box office records with releases like Harry Potter, the Hunger Games, and the Avengers, Hollywood films demonstrate that the general public shares this interest in escaping from reality. For me, the convergence of talents that is specifically required to create comics, from the inception of writing a fantastic story, to the imagination and envisioning of compelling visuals, to the polarizing and stylizing of pencil renderings through inking, and finally the enriching and emotion-establishing coloring of panels, creates a unique form of magic to engage and entertain us. The abstraction and distillation of reality into some new kind of visual representation of imaginary worlds provides a very intense and engaging interaction with the media and I think you either feel that way, or you don’t. In the way that you either get Justin Bieber or you don’t. Or maybe Wittgenstein, rather. Same idea.
Important visual communications obviously predate the day of enormously successful pop-culture franchises. From cave paintings to illuminated manuscripts, engaging visuals have been critical to communication since the technologies and techniques emerged to give them expression. Consider Leonardo DaVinci. DaVinci represents unparalleled genius immediately perceivable through his illustrated works. He wrote prolifically and had the talent to express his genius with illustrations that remain unrivalled examples of creative-thinking and innovation. The visual nature of his creative expression immediately fills the viewer with the understanding of DaVinci’s creativity, and that is the essence of brilliant communication.
So thinking about the ever growing amount of RAW DATA that our electronic world generates on a daily basis, I think that there’s a case to be made that in order to make that data relevant, explorations in dataviz allow us to make fantastic what would otherwise be the impossibly boring task of evaluating context-less statistical data. For example, the Japanese have been using manga for corporate communications and education vehicles for decades because an illustrative context evolves the expression of mere facts and statistics into an engaging and relatable narrative. The imagination engages with the visuals while one’s rational mind follows the written dialogue – it’s a communicative experience that is unique in that it can be reproduced in printed form for offline consumption at liberty as opposed to a DVD or YouTube video. It is consumed at exactly the right pace for each consumer because he or she can read or re-read the content as often as is needed to achieve comprehension.
This leads me to why I think dataviz is so important. If you have a message that you need to communicate – some serious reality that you need to share with the public – you need to think seriously about how to deliver it effectively. Consider the following article in which Dr. Kumar makes the case that 39% of ICU patients with sepsis die compared to 18% with heart attacks. The message formulated in 2006 seems like a pretty straightforward one – that the mortality rate for sepsis is over twice that of heart attacks when one enters a hospital. Yet it has taken years and thousands of deaths to move thinking about early administration of antibiotics to patients.
“Nobody really realized how important the antimicrobials are” ends the last paragraph of the article. Therein lies the failure of communication to be persuasive and the consequence of that failure is a lack of mobilization by medical boards to consider changing early treatment patterns, allowing for possibly preventable deaths. I am reminded of that line from the Talmud, “Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.” That is why dataviz is important to me and why it is probably important to you too. If you have a message that you need to communicate – some serious reality that you need to share with the public – you need to think seriously about how to deliver it effectively.