Painting with Data

While I have prior experience designing data-driven stories, creating the Food For Free data mural was dramatically different from the design processes I was used to. As laid out in the Data Journalism Handbook, my typical process involves querying a data set to answer specific questions or identify outliers and interesting patterns. Brainstorming for the mural felt a lot less structured, more akin to the “blue sky” ideation of early stage product design (what I like to call “brain vomit”). The narratives we created — while derived from a structured typology of different data stories — were distilled to far broader big picture ideas when we translated them into visual language, perhaps because this was presented as a creative artwork rather than a quantitatively-focused chart/graph.

I did like the concept of drawing for a short period of time and then passing it on; not only did this process promote the creative “piggybacking” you see in a typical group brainstorming session, but it also allowed us to see which common thematic strands kept popping up to create a more consensus-driven design. The resulting artwork is more based on visual metaphors and symbolism rather than the design techniques of narrative visualization identified in Segel & Heer’s case studies. However, the mural still uses basic design principles of alignment, sizing, and color to achieve the more general tactics of visual narrative (structure, highlighting, and guidance).

This experience helped expand my definition of what a data visualization could be; there are definitely opportunities to be creative with the data presentation. My one criticism of the medium is that the data doesn’t always feel entirely integrated with its presentation. Sometimes, it felt like we were just adding numbers to the artwork as an afterthought. There is a distinction between the fields of art and design, and to me this mural definitely felt more like data art than data design — and not just because we were painting. That’s not to say that a mural is any less valuable or less informative, but we certainly took more artistic liberties and the result feels far more subjective than I’m used to.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *