Big data is changing visual journalism

A design challenge that we in newspaper design rarely talked about until recently is dealing with “big data.”

Computational power has increased quite a bit in recent years and yet another round of buzz words has arrived, with big data and “data visualization” two of the most prominent. This is at the same time as datasets were growing and were filled with more and more information. Big data.

Not that it is any different from the visualizing of data that people did a decade or so ago when the area of interest was “information graphics.” Some back then even called the people who created these things “visual journalists.” They still do today to a certain extent.

But the big deal today is that with those gains in computer power and storage, datasets have become much richer and more complex. So turning those datasets into an easily understood visual presentation has become more complex, but with an opportunity for creativity as well.

If you are tasked with presenting a large amount of data, you could present it in a list or in a table, but that does not necessarily maximize the understanding of the receiver of the communication, which is – or should be – the goal of all written and visual communication.

I like to call it “meaning transfer,” because that should be the goal of all professional, journalistic communication: the transfer of what the communication means, not just the communication of raw, unfiltered information. Edward Tufte would likely be a little wary of data visualization because in a lot of ways, it means putting in non-information gee gaws just to create visual interest.

But wait! If the visualization, as superficial as it may seem, e.g., displaying a dataset of hotels not by price or customer ratings but by how literary characters might evaluate them (as odd as that may seem), actually helps comprehension, then isn’t it an integral part of the information transfer? Where should the line be drawn?

That is why I never liked the term “information graphics,” although “meaning graphics” doesn’t have the same ring to it.

But if you transfer information without the meaning or the context, then what have you achieved?

Especially in today’s information glut-world, a little less info and a little more meaning would be a positive change from the polarized Hatfield and McCoy political world of competing ideological information we live in today.

Good journalism, which includes good writing, editing and design, and it must include all three to be optimally effective, is interested in meaning transfer, not simple information transfer. Design can be an integral part of good journalism and not an add-on.

What do you think? Start the conversation below. Thanks!

(Cross posted from News Design School)


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