We live in a world full of data. Statistics, facts, figures, and even our own thoughts can be difficult to sift through, let alone convey to others in a clear and concise manner. Inevitably, this spills over into the way we work and turns into a sea of information that we have to synthesize on a daily basis. But here’s the good news: design can help.
In his captivating new book, The secret language of cards, Carissa Carter highlights three different mapping techniques for anyone who has to navigate a lot of information in their work, whether it’s an annual report or a murder mystery (no, really). Accompanied by lovely illustrations by New Yorker cartoonist Jeremy Nguyen, the book teaches you how to use visual techniques to make data more accessible and compelling, even if you don’t have a degree in cartography.
Carter is Academic Director and Adjunct Professor at Stanford d.school, where she teaches courses on the intersection of data and design, maps, and visual sorting of information. She argues that any information presented visually and arranged in space counts as a map, whether it’s infographics, charts, frames or timelines. It just depends on how you use them.
Experiment with form
We all know what a bar chart looks like, but does it have to be made up of rectangles? A graph of varying sugar content in soft drinks could take on a whole new meaning if the bars were replaced with lollipops. Similarly, a chart involving people might be more powerful if each bar was a hand. “As soon as you add a series of hands with different postures, it’s a layer of meaning,” says Carter.
The same thought can be applied to the size and dimensions of your artwork. Is what you’re trying to say best conveyed on paper or a laptop screen? Or would it be more compelling if illustrated on an unconventionally shaped canvas or 3D map – perhaps an object that can be held in the palm of your hand, or an immersive VR experience, or even a pop installation -up?
Add nuances to your visualizations
Yes, your data matters, but how you present it matters too. You can draw your map on the computer or by hand, and each strategy will have a different effect. “The minute you’re showing super high resolution indicates it’s perfect and complete,” Carter says. “When you draw something by hand and your line isn’t perfect; this implies that the data is not perfect either. Data Journalist Mona ChalabiHand-drawn graphics perfectly illustrate this strategy. “With his drawing in hand [maps]it shows you that the data boundaries are imperfect.
Color and scale are equally important. A black and white graphic scribbled on a post-it note will be interpreted differently than if it were printed in color on a poster board. Colors also evoke different types of emotions. A fun illustration in the book suggests that a red car could mean “I need you to see me”, while a green car means “I was on sale”.
Think beyond charts
Charts are useful, but their scope is limited. Venn diagrams can help you introduce complicated relationships between seemingly unrelated things (and they don’t have to be circles). Continua (a line with two dots on each end) allows you to organize data in a timeline or in a way that explores contrasts. A nested frame can be used to explore the boundaries of your subject and how it fits into a larger context (think of it as a real-life version of Russian dolls). And a magic quadrant (with a vertical axis and a horizontal axis) can help you layer a number of variables.
“Each of them is an exploration tool,” says Carter — and each tool can help you highlight something different. “Similar to how you go to the eye doctor, they flip the lenses over and for a while it’s blurry, then all of a sudden it works,” she says. “You want to look at the information you have and map it out in different ways.”