If a picture is worth a thousand words, then visual approaches to communicating large numbers or complex topics are worth their weight in gold.
Yet much sustainability communication still relies on words, even though 75% of our brain is devoted to visual processing.
Animations, photography, data visualisations, art, film – all play a critical role in communicating meaning through converting data into narrative. They enable the human brain to grasp and process concepts much more readily than trying to analyse reams of information.
A Map In the Information Jungle
Data journalist and information designer David McCandless, founder of Information is Beautiful, visualises information with a minimum of words in order to ‘…help us understand the world…and reveal the hidden connections, patterns and stories underneath.’
By visualizing information, we turn it into a landscape that you can explore with your eyes, a sort of information map. And if you’re navigating a dense information jungle, coming across a beautiful graphic or a lovely data visualization, it’s a relief, it’s like coming across a clearing in the jungle. The eye is exquisitely sensitive to patterns in variations in color, shape and pattern. If you combine the language of the eye with the language of the mind, which is about words and numbers and concepts, you start speaking two languages simultaneously, each enhancing the other.
FlinkLabs took 200 years’ worth of global temperature readings released by the UK’s Met Office and turned it into an animated visualisation to show changes in global temperature readings.
The Met stated that the data, taken from a subset of stations evenly distributed across the globe, provides a ‘fair representation of changes in mean temperature on a global scale over land’.
This approach makes it far easier for the average person to grasp the meaning that would otherwise remain hidden in the data – the Earth visibly becomes ‘pricklier’ with temperature changes over time:
Weaving Data Visualisation Magic
This represents a great momentum for all of us involved in Visualization at large to be part of the solution and deliver a clear unequivocal view on what’s happening with our planet. Regardless of how you label your practice, Information Visualization, Data Visualization, Information Design, Visual Analytics, or Information Graphics, this is ultimately a call for everyone dealing with the communication of information for human reasoning.
Using an ordinary home PC, Pharand input data from agencies such as the Geospatial Intelligence Agency and Atmospheric Administration to create accurate illustrations of how humans have ‘domesticated’ our planet – superimposing the data on images of the earth’s cities lit up at night.
The series literally illuminates how much the face of the Earth has been modified by human beings through plotting and representing every road, shipping route and flight path.
Represented here are the air traffic routes across North America and Europe, from hubs such as Heathrow, JFK in New York and Frankfurt:
A stunning animated version of Pharand’s work has so effectively captured data that it needs no words to convey its meaning; for example, it offers a clear observation: the contrast between the extent of human encroachment in Europe and North America, compared to Africa and vast areas of South America.
And ‘The Master’ (as David McCandless refers to him in his talk above), Hans Rosling – Professor of International Health at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute and creator of The Gapminder Foundation – is a wizard at presenting outrageously large amounts of data spanning space, time, and issues in a compelling and entertaining way.
In this amazing clip from ‘The Joy of Stats’ – and channelling special effects akin to those used in the movie ‘Minority Report’! – Rosling plots life expectancy against income for every country since 1810, using an incredible 120,000 numbers in four minutes:
Rosling interprets the data in relation to world events, putting it into context – he tells the story.
The Gapminder Foundation, established by Rosling and others, developed the Trendalyzer software Rosling uses to plot his data. Gapminder has been made available for others to create their own graphs, from their own data sets or those sets available on Gapminder.
In this age of highly visual, shareable communication, having a visual designer on your team (or having access to one) is as essential as having a web designer or writer.
What opportunities can you think of to use visual communication in your work to better communicate its meaning?
What barriers do you face in making this happen – skills? Money? A perception that visual communication is less important?