More than an infographic

Why I believe we need to combine qualitative and quantitative data in an illustrative, visual manner? In my opinion, the existing methods to visualise information are not designed with the balance of this duality in mind.

Word clouds

One example is the use of word clouds to add qualitative textual information to geographical data (GIS or Geographical Information Systems). Cidell (2010) used this method to quantitize data, in essence bringing qualitative information back to ‘the amount of times a word is mentioned’ and visualising this by means of font size. Haggerty (2014) used a similar method in forensic research to connect the content of emails to their sender / receivers. Different networks of email adresses resulted in different word clouds of ‘qualitative’ information. Both cases, however, lost a large part of their context by using this quantizing method. The information given was hard to relate to because of this effect.

Image from: Cidell, J. (2010). Content clouds as exploratory qualitative data analysis.
Image from: Cidell, J. (2010). Content clouds as exploratory qualitative data analysis.

Infographics

Perhaps the most well known method of visual storytelling through mixed data is the infographic. Don’t get me wrong, there are some lovely infographics out there, but more often than not they consist of sequential facts and bold percentage statements. As a visual thinker I find them generally cluttered, monotone and confusing, due to a lack of information layering and a context that does not speak to the imagination.

Part of image from: de Volkskrant Nederland (April 2017)
Part of image from: de Volkskrant Nederland (April 2017)

Story-based illustrations

The illustrations of Flatland are unique because they offer information while staying true to the context and emotion of the customer’s story. After the first qualitative impression, their illustration serves as a unique carrier for further layers of information.

A good example is that of Deloitte’s Future of Health. This image translates a long term vision while highlighting priorities and next steps to accomplish this vision. It is central to their story that the optimisation of health is not only caring for patients, but changing lifestyles and prevention.

Project Future of Health, Deloitte & Flatland Visual Thinking Agency, 2020.
Project Future of Health, Deloitte & Flatland Visual Thinking Agency, 2020.

The challenge for me is to add valuable data visualisations to these kind of stories to address valuable information hidden in complex systems. Together I believe they can provide overview and depth, a story that speaks to the imagination but keeps you engaged with further facts and information.

We can do this using different techniques such as integrating traditional data-visualisation tools in illustration (such as bar graphs, line diagrams or alluvial graphs), or by using illustrations as an template to organise and make sense of existing or emerging data.

By Yael van Engelen, research student Industrial Design (Eindhoven University of Technology)

References:

Cidell, J. (2010). Content clouds as exploratory qualitative data analysis. Area, 42(4), 514-523.

Haggerty, J., Haggerty, S., & Taylor, M. (2014). Forensic triage of email network narratives through visualisation. Information Management & Computer Security.

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