DRAW YOUR FEELINGS
What do we allow to be data? What is worthy of visualization?
The functional-aesthetic scale
I love data visualization because it allows us to make sense of the invisible structures around us. It challenges me to transmute thoughts into matter, and give information a new form.
I knew when I started at The 19th, there would be little established guidance on how to work with data. As the newsroom’s first data visuals reporter, it is my job to develop stylistic standards — a challenge I welcomed and continue to be excited by.
It was also completely new to me, as most newsrooms I’ve worked in have had founts of institutional guidelines that I learned to work within. The first few charts I made heavily drew on the smorgasbord of best practices I’ve accrued over the years. (Enforcing boundaries on a blank canvas to pursue creative momentum.)
Three months in, I’ve found myself starting to relax. Instead of shoving all the rules I’ve absorbed over the years into one chart, I’m now more conscientious about which principles I use, bend, or break at any given time.
Edward Tufte is considered by many to be one of the founding fathers of data visualization. His collection of books are often cited as first-line reference material. He talks about data visualization in terms of the material means of production; one of his most wide-known rules is when printing a chart, the majority of the ink should be used on on the data points (“data-ink ratio”).
Alberto Cairo, another modern parental figure, refers to data visualization as “the functional art” and “the truthful art.” When I am creating a chart, truth and function are top of mind as I assess precision, accuracy, and accessibility:
Are the key takeaways clear?
Do the colors have a high enough contrast?
If someone screenshots this and shares it on Twitter, is there enough information that the chart can stand alone?
How easy is this chart to be manipulated by someone seeking to spread disinformation?
I argue that all of these skills, honed over years and now deployed rapidly, are an art. But oftentimes taking the time to pay attention to visual aesthetic is a luxury — a luxury that is traditionally poo-pooed in the industry. There is a hierarchy of elements for all visualization, and many times beauty is judged only by clarity of communication. Oftentimes beauty and clarity, aesthetics and accessibility are posed as opposites on the scale, so that the more one is expressed the more the other suffers.
What data deserves to be visualized?
I often think about a paper I read in undergrad about the need for feminist data studies. The researchers showed a magazine visualization to interviewees and asked for their thoughts on the information being presented. The comments were full of vitriol — the chart is “useless,” it shows “meaningless” information, it is “garish,” it should be easily dismissed. Notable in the visual language of the chart are the use of multiple photographs, icons, pictograms and a liberal dose of pink.
What data deserves to be visualized? I have a checklist for disqualifying characteristics — biased source, out of date, nonsensical structure, no clear point. If I think about what deserves to be visualized, actively, I think about the data not available to me. I think about all the information we don’t collect, because it isn’t deemed important. I think about how a lack of information can obscure structural trends — if we don’t collect accurate data on gender, we are not able to analyze inequity in the same way. Often when I think of information I would love to dive into, insights I’d love to unearth, I picture a spreadsheet.
Which is funny because my favorite kinds of charts challenge what we believe “data” to be, the ones that explain a concept or system. Something that is more subjective, harder to capture in cells. I’ve always been drawn to diagrams, a form of archival work that seeks to label each individual part and somehow together, everything transcends mechanistic function and something entirely new emerges.
“Glowy, gauzy diagrams” have gained social media traction over the past few years, and I love them. I love how they force me to confront my own biases about what deserves to be visualized, what qualifies as information. How, if challenged, I would explain my internal state to an external audience with color, shape and line instead of verbal stream-of-consciousness.
Something difficult happened in one of the communities I’m a part of last week, and I was struggling to hold all the feels I had inside me at the same time. I could see myself parsing out a thought, then swooping in to dissect that thought ad infinitum.
I thought about the work of Britchida and Vent Diagrams and decided to borrow their methods to help me sort through my feelings. I took out my colored pencils and drew Venn diagrams full of wonky shapes, layering the different thoughts on top of each other. I drew out all-or-nothing thinking, and compared it to all the emotions I was having, and also saw that I couldn’t find an answer to the key question of Am I a bad person? with all of the complexity I was mapping.
Later in the week I attempted to draw out the tug and pull I feel inside whenever I am tired. Every month I am exhausted during my period, so tired I just want to sleep for a day or two. I know it is my body telling me it needs to rest, but I can’t take a cumulative month of the year off to hibernate. Logically I know that I need to sleep, I also know other people don’t seem to have this need, I also know that others not having this need doesn’t invalidate my need, I also know the fact I refuse to rest will ruin my body long-term, I also know —
— and you can see why drawing helps me make sense of all the thoughts. The charts force me to label the different parts, and explore how they interact with one another, name the relationships emerging and examine the source. Both times I felt the same sense of peace when I finished my diagram as when I finish writing morning pages; the emotions are still there but I know them more intimately, I took time to feel them in my body and not just intellectualize them to my therapist once a week.
I’ve shared here a tool that I’m playing with for personal exploration that heavily draws from the practices of several artists. Right now this is a personal practice for me, so I am letting go of comparisons and fear of copying. And because of the direct line to other artists, I’m not hyping these publicly as “my art.” I’m excited to perhaps develop my own style and methods, and then share my own distinct work — but right now I recognize I’m not there yet. If you try this exercise — and I hope you do! — I encourage you to practice discernment about where and how you share your work. Celebrate and uplift those who inspire you, and don’t seek to profit off of someone else’s work. Austin Kleon has a useful chart about good theft vs. bad theft.
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If you made it to the end — thank you so much for reading. I hope you take some time to approach your feelings with a sense of playfulness this week. Tell me how it goes — or any other thoughts you have about this essay!