Visualization: The Artist in the Data Scientist

Data Scientist Insights

The artistic part of data visualization is one of the most under appreciated parts of data science. On a day-to-day basis, we spend most of our time aggregating data sets, exploring their multidimensional depths, making and testing models, and visualizing the results. However, the visualizations produced by many data scientists are often lack luster and uninspiring. But we can do better.

Infographics , data visualized to yield revelations over observations, is one of simplest ways a data scientist can turn on the artisan within. Whitespace, darkspace, type fonts, graphics, colors, and textures are new concepts encountered in this new world. While seemingly complex and confusing, the good news about infographics is there are several great sources of information available to these looking to start this journey.

From a book perspective, one of the best texts on the market is: The Power of Infographics: Using Pictures to Communicate and Connect With Your Audiences. Mark Smiciklas covers everything from the business value to the creative process and into distribution. This is one of those books that tools like the iPad and Kindle were made for.

In addition to books, online courses are also available to those looking to build out new skills using tools like Adobe Illustrator. My two favorite online training sites are:

Tut Plus: How to Create Outstanding Modern Infographics

Lynda: Creating Infographics with Illustrator

Of the two, I found the Lynda course taught by Mordy Golding the most useful. He identified five core characteristics of great designs that you will want to consider: Contrast, Hierarchy, Accuracy, Relevance, and Truth. The last being probably the most important in that Edward Tufte says, “style and esthetics can not rescue failed content. If the words aren’t truthful, the finest topography won’t turn lies into truth.” Without truth there can be no understand.

So, putting all this together and fingers to my keyboard, I produced this renewable energy infographic. It is based on the techniques discussed by Golding, data from various government agencies, and a bit number crunching. Not bad, can use some more artistic flare, but much better than just the tradition scientifically based graphics I am so used to producing.

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The Art of Data Visualization: Getting Design Out Of The Way

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This is a great PBS Off Book webisode that covers the visualization topic from the point of view appreciated by a data scientist – the data. Edward Tofte points out that “You want to see to learn something, not to confirm something.” At the same time, Jer Thorp says that “Data Visualization is about Revelation – seeing something you have never seen before.”

Revelation is truly seeing to learn, a key characteristic that differentiates data science from business intelligence. BI visualization (e.g., dashboards, pie charts, etc.) is all about seeing to confirm. Very operational, very tactical. In contrast, Data Science strives to learn through visualization, which is very strategic and hopefully transformative.

From scientific visualization to pop infographics, designers are increasingly tasked with incorporating data into the media experience. Data has emerged as such a critical part of modern life that it has entered into the realm of art, where data-driven visual experiences challenge viewers to find personal meaning from a sea of information, a task that is increasingly present in every aspect of our information-infused lives.

This short 8 min webisode features:
Edward Tufte, Yale University
Julie Steele, O’Reilly Media
Josh Smith, Hyperakt
Jer Thorp, Office for Creative Research

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