The “art” of compromise: Is there room for compromise in designing data graphics?

In my last post, I discussed how expectations and perceptions of designers are as important to quality data visualizations as are more conventional resources, such as time, people and money. But there is also a flip side to this–there are times when, as designers, we may be faced with a choice to compromise on how we present data. The compromises we agree to–or reject–are as important to our field as anything else. (Kudos to me for resisting the urge to title this “drawing the line in infographics.”)

A friend related to me a recent conversation in which an art director who, when presented with a bar graph of extreme values (very high and very low), asked the designer to “fudge” the size of the smaller bars. (They were visible–not hairline–but too small to comfortably fit the values inside of them. Presumably the art director wanted to nudge them up so that the numbers would fit inside of the bars.) My initial reaction was er… not favorable. I felt like a mother bear protecting her cubs (the cubs, in this tortured analogy, are the data). I may have uttered a few choice words, even.

The ethics of compromise.

But, once I calmed myself down, it occurred to me that this might be something interesting to write about. I polled a few designer and non-designer friends. What do you think, I asked. Was this a bow to art or clarity? Was it an unintentional breach of ethics or a well-intentioned attempt to make information easier to understand? Was it goal-driven or just lack of creativity? Don’t jump on the art director just yet. This isn’t about the choice that person made (that’s the subject of another post). It simply reflects the reality that, as in other professions, we’ll all be asked to make choices that, to others, may appear to be inconsequential. We need to make sure we handle these choices intentionally and carefully.

Here’s what came to mind after my conversations with other designers.

Book-binding: an invisible art

Let’s think about the book-binding trade of back in the day. The men (mostly men, anyway) who bound books hundreds of years ago were tradesmen. They had a craft which they revered. They apprenticed and, as journeymen, they traveled from place to place, learning and honing their craft to become–eventually–book-binders. This is not unlike the path that many information designers take today.

For all the painstaking zeal and meticulousness put into the binding of the book, the end result was rarely if ever examined once produced. If the thing didn’t fall apart in your hands, you were satisfied as a consumer.

I won’t bore you with the mechanics, but suffice to say that binding a book involved a lot of work, much of which was invisible to the eventual and subsequent owners. Once purchased, the book was read, perhaps the craftsmanship briefly admired, and then it was shelved or passed on, sometimes for generations (think of the family Bible). And yet, for all the painstaking zeal and meticulousness put into the binding of the book, the end result was rarely if ever examined once produced. Again, not unlike the process of visualizing data, much of the effort and care involved in sewing pages into folios, hand-stitching the spine–remained largely unseen. If the thing didn’t fall apart in your hands you were satisfied. End of story. And yet, despite this invisibility, these bookbinders pursued their craft with diligence and and care nonetheless. How well or how poorly they plied their trade was not immediately evident, as these old books often outlived their makers. They had no immediate incentive to be unduly diligent. And yet, I like to think that most of them did not cut corners. Why? I’d say it was self-respect and public recognition of the importance of their craft. Maybe I’m over romanticizing books (I do collect them).

Our craft: Are we short-order cooks or visual content experts?

My point? This is an issue of the ethics of our craft. As designers, we need to ask ourselves: are we short-order cooks or visual content experts? Are we hacks or tradesmen/women? Is data visualization a craft or only a paycheck? Is data an obstacle to be overcome or a living boundary that, with each challenge, offers us the opportunity to learn, do better, and to empower our readers by bringing information to the surface in a manner that brings with it a new understanding? And while, from the perspective of the client (or, in this case, the art director) it may not always be apparent that the accommodations they ask us to make are not wise, it is–nonetheless–our responsibility to do the right thing, and bring others along. In this way, we advance the field forward and our professionalism as well.

And that’s the crux of this post.

Whatever your intentions, what is the effect of the small compromises that you make in being precise, transparent and correct in how you present data?

The more seasoned amongst you may shake your heads and think that these things are self-evident. But to those of you who are just starting out (be it as younger designers or managers in charge of new data viz projects), this may not be something you’ve thought much about. It may not even seem like much of a big deal to you.

Making those small compromises weighs on you, wears you down and–worse–makes the next compromise all the greater in scope and easier to bear.

What is the effect of compromise on the designer and the team?

So, what happens when a designer makes those compromises? When I asked a few designers, they all had one response in common: morale and self-esteem. Here’s the thing: making that one small edit will be invisible to everyone but you. It’s not like your readers will ask you to send them your Illustrator file so that they can measure pixels before they read further. Like the bookbinder who sewed thread onto page folios, no one but you will see the guts of your files. But making those small compromises weighs on you, wears you down and–worse–makes the next compromise all the greater in scope and easier to bear. And these things add up to the slow devolution of what was once a craftsman/woman (if I may be allowed to use such an archaic term) to a hack.

And what happens when an art director suggests those compromises? Well, you risk losing the respect of seasoned members of your team, that’s obvious. Worse, you risk creating an environment that is progressively sloppy. And while no one will catch the small compromises, they sure as hell will catch the big ones. Remember the infamous Fox piechart?

Other examples of altering data

It doesn’t stop with information designers, as I’m sure you know. Another designer who Photoshops medical imagery (for example, a CT scan or slides of cancer cells) told me about a doctor who, when preparing images of slides for a research publication, asked the designer to darken some areas to make them more visible (thus allowing him to better make his case). The designer balked–these aren’t just pictures, he told the doctor–they’re data.

And if you want a more mainstream example, how about the furor over the Time cover of OJ Simpson in 1994? Or, more recently (2008), the Hillary Clinton ad which featured then Presidential candidate Obama with arguably darker skin?

What is unacceptable compromise to one might be reasonable accommodation to another.

There may not be room to make the wrong compromises, but there is always opportunity for discussion.

No one is perfect. And each of the examples that I gave leave plenty of room for discussion. As a newspaper friend recently noted, some photographers are adamant about not retouching any photos they take–including not cutting subjects out of backgrounds. Others are not as rigid. And not all of the participants in my informal poll reacted with extreme horror at the thought of slightly lengthening bars. Some merely grimaced. But all agreed that if you’re going to tread on thin ice, you’d best aware of it. Another friend points out that he noticed a disconnect between his former employer (a newspaper) and his current one (a corporation). He’s doing the same work–designing information graphics. But whilst former journalist colleagues (having their own code of ethics) would never have asked him to fudge the appearance of data, he feels that–in his current role as a designer in the corporate world–his colleagues have a lesser understanding and appreciation of what asking this might mean.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing–handled correctly, it can present an opportunity for education. But you have to be willing to put yourself out there–a place that not everyone (perhaps less experienced designers or as employees with less seniority) is comfortable occupying.

As designers, let us be keenly aware of how the small choices we make for ourselves can add up to large consequences for our profession. I’d love to hear more from you on this. Have you been place in similar situations? How did you handle them?

Infographics: Does time equal quality?

Does time equal quality in good infographics? Nope, not necessarily. I’ve been giving this a lot of thought lately and, in reading recent posts by Seth Godin and Alberto Cairo, it’s interesting to see how each touches upon what I see as the pressures and attitudes that affect how well we design good information graphics.

In Mr. Godin’s case, he mentions what he calls “the attention paradox.” While he’s not specifically writing about design, his comments nonetheless aptly relate to the work designers do. As more marketers crave attention, the more they’re willing to part with content that is good at reaching an audience, and terrible at retaining it. Makes sense, right? In a time in which we’re increasingly consumed with tracking metrics and measuring success by the numbers it is par for the course to get caught up in the rat race for the next big thing (big being determined by 30-second relevance and traffic for that day). Surprisingly, information graphics are no exception. And why should they be?

I recently mentioned that, because we’re all under pressure to create more and more content, “repurposing” content is seen as a good way to take advantage of the sweat equity put into other pieces (web articles, reports, data collection) and to convert that into an infographic. This pressure to produce can have real drawbacks–clients mistakenly assume that information can be quickly “designed” just because in their estimation, the facts and the message have already been proscribed. Here–quality can suffer from lack of time. But the point that I was really getting at in my post, which I unfortunately failed to articulate clearly–was the designer’s role.

When designers are treated as service desks and not content experts (“Here are the facts, here is the message, now please make this pretty. Call me when you’re done.”), you simply don’t get the best work.

Fortunately, Alberto Cairo, in “Empower your infographics, visualization, and data teams” gets to the point. According to Mr. Cairo (and I agree) the real problem is the limited perception of the designer’s role. He mentions how, in news rooms, graphic designers are often seen as “service desks.” This isn’t limited to news rooms. In my own life, I occasionally get requests to design graphics “you know, like the New York Times” (yes, I really do). As Mr. Cairo points out, we all laud the New York Times and other large media outlets (one of my personal favorites is New Scientist) for their high-quality information graphics–pieces that can take months to make with large teams of content producers and designers in place. I agree with Mr. Cairo’s perspective that this fact might lead you to erroneously conclude that time and staffing (more people, more time) equals great work (bluntly, he says, “You can’t.”).

The solution lies, in part, in treating and using your designers as partners who help to shape content effectively.

So, what does this mean, exactly? Bring your designer into the room when you’re having editorial discussions about how to create content, before you’ve decided on what shape that content will take. Listen to your designers and expect them to offer up ideas about how to turn that into information design (be it static, motion or interactive).

Designers should read the content.

Expect your designer to read, read, read and understand. I ask my designers to read research reports before they create infographics or data visualizations. This may be a “duh” moment to some of you, but you’d be surprised how many people (including designers) don’t think of this or, worse, don’t see this as part of the designer’s role. How do you design what you don’t understand? How do you filter out the best parts of information and data without having reviewed the source?

And don’t micromanage the design. Leave them alone to create and use their expertise. Trust them, as content partners, to visualize not just the data, not just the facts, but the voice that carries the design.

I’m sure there’s more and would love to hear from you about what other recommendations you have.