Dec 11, 2008
Adam, who is the designer behind the Wired graphics special on "The Future of Food", asked about the rest of the series. We previously made some comments on a set of mini donut charts.
The first thought that came to mind after browsing through all the charts was: what a great job they have done to generate interest in food data, which has no right to be entertaining. Specifically, this is a list of things I appreciated:
- An obvious effort was undertaken to extract the most thought provoking data out of a massive amount of statistics collected by various international agencies. There weren't any chart that is overstuffed, which is a common problem.
- It would be somewhat inappropriate to use our standard tools to critique these charts. Clearly, the purpose of the designer was to draw readers into statistics that they might otherwise not care for. Moreover, the Wired culture has long traded off efficiency for aesthetics, and this showed in a graph such as this, which is basically a line chart with two lines, and a lot of mysterious meaningless ornaments:
- A nice use of a dual line chart, though. It works because both data series share the same scale and only one vertical axis is necessary, which is very subtly annotated here.
- The maintenance of the same motifs across several charts is well done. (See the pages on corn, beef, catfish)
- It would be nice if Wired would be brave enough to adopt the self-sufficiency principle, i.e. graphs should not contain a copy of the entire data set being depicted. Otherwise, a data table would suffice. The graphical construct should be self-sufficient. This rule is not often followed because of "loss aversion"; there is the fear that a graph without all the data is like an orphan separated from the parents. Since, as I noted, these graphs are mostly made for awe, there is really no need to print all the underlying data. For instance, these "column"-type charts can stand on their own without the data (adding a scale would help).
- Not sure if sorting the categories alphabetically in the column chart is preferred to sorting by size of the category. The side effect of sorting alphabetically is that it spreads out the long and the short chunks, which simplifies labelling and thus reading.
- Not a fan of area charts (see below). Although it is labelled properly, it is easy at first glance to focus on the orange line rather than the orange area. That would be a grave mistake. The orange line actually plots the total of the two types of fish rearing, not the aquaculture component. The chart is somewhat misleading because it is difficult to assess the growth rate of aquaculture. Much better to plot the size of both markets as two lines (either indiced or not).
Reference: "The Future of Food", Wired, Oct 20 2008.
All good points, but I hasten to correct the misapprehension that I was the designer. My fault for being unclear. I'm a senior editor, a word guy, responsible for features and front-of-book stuff as well as our recurring "Infoporn" pages. Pretty much our entire design staff worked on various elements of the package. Scott Dadich, Wyatt Mitchell, Carl Del Torres, Maili Holiman, Victor Krummenacher...the list goes on.
I'd like to respond to some of your criticisms; I'll try to be as thoughtful as you were.
You're incisive about our attempts to balance information and aesthetics in our infographics. It's a longstanding conversation here that occasionally boils into an outright argument, ideally of the creatively productive kind. Fundamentally, we have a responsibility to inform, but also to draw readers in and entertain, as you note. And Wired has a tradition and reputation for being highly designed. We do our best to keep those sometimes competing goals in balance...and usually it works. I believe we were right to make that opening spread pop the way it did--we're trying to keep people reading on the strength of, as you say, a line chart. It needed something.
We are definitely "loss averse," as you construct it. Maybe we shouldn't be; I'll bring it up.
We went back and forth on weather to sort those columnar charts alphabetically or by size. Ultimately we made an aesthetic judgment--sorted alphabetically, the columns were more visually interesting (there's that balance thing again).
Argh, that area chart. In retrospect, I think we should have tried a different approach. We went back and forth on it so many times--and ended up changing our data set at one point--that the area chart seemed like the best solution in the heat of production.
I'm sending this link around to other editors and designers involved in the project. We're trying to close another issue at the moment, but if they have time and inclination, they may want to weigh in as well, correct my misapprehensions, etc.
Posted by: Adam Rogers | Dec 11, 2008 at 03:35 PM
As one who has spent time as both an editor and a designer in the magazine world and who is at least a casual fan of Wired, I understand where Adam is coming from. His rationales both explain some individual decisions and underscore the overall point that critiquing the effectiveness of the Infoporn department's information design is a little like complaining that the storyline of an adult film isn't entirely credible.
While Wired is often informative, Infoporn's primary responsibility is not to inform but to catch the eye and to entertain. Adam's comment that "We ... ended up changing our data set at one point" to produce a more attractive display is really all you need to know. (I say this affectionately, and I do get the joke, but the department's "raw data" tagline is pretty silly; the data within is always thoroughly processed for your consumption.)
Posted by: Mr. Harrison | Dec 12, 2008 at 07:23 AM