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?

The ethics of information

I don’t pretend to be an expert on any subject other than one: how to recognize a perfect pizza. That’s not false humility, it’s a candid admission. Most of what you’ll read in this blog are summaries of my learning curve in pixels–summaries built on the experience of those more patient, methodical and talented than I. Thank goodness for the interwebs.

To the wealth of information out there, I can add only a small amount of experience, most of which is gleaned from making mistakes; from not asking the right questions; from not sufficiently challenging, and thus not understanding, the premise of a project; and from occasional bouts of arrogance or foolishness. Okay, the confessional is closed. But the reason I make this point is because this is exactly where ethics and best practices come in. It’s your first line of defense against silly ideas foisted upon you by unknowing clients, editors, writers–even you.

A recent post by Alberto Cairo entitled “Infographics as Moral Acts” reminds us, yet again, that as much as we raise the bar in each and every way–via the visual arts, or through  technology, or by envisioning new ways to tell our stories through data–it doesn’t amount to much without some guiding principles. This is not a new idea, but I when I look at the proliferation of infographics I do wonder how top of mind this is for information designers (myself included). Some signs are encouraging–as some of you may remember,, a popular data viz sharing site, adopted a code of ethics for data visualization in February (other blogs, including Tableau, wrote about this as well, though the discussion generated little comment other than a reference to Fox News–below).

So, read this post, as well as a related article from the Harvard Nieman Watchdog Journalism Project (co-written by Mr. Cairo) which the article references, and try to make it part of your work in meaningful ways.

We’re listening to you, Alberto. But apparently, Fox News still is not.

Gas prices example from Media Matters