Data visualisation: an aid to understanding?

Data visualisation made it onto the BBC’s Newsnight last night, but can it really aid understanding or is it just another (albeit powerful) way to tell a subjective story?

The subject of graphic design rarely makes the national media in the UK, so it was with some surprise that we noted a segment on the BBC’s Newsnight programme last night. Particularly as its subject was the previously arcane world of data visualisation.

After a filmed report on the emerging influence of data-driven imagery – both practical and artistic – presenter Kirsty Wark quizzed Information is Beautiful‘s David McCandless and ‘legendary designer’ Neville Brody on the potential and pitfalls of attempting to extract meaning from data by creating arresting visuals (watch the debate here, starting at 26.05 minutes in).

That Newsnight was interested at all in the subject marks something of a high point for an area of practice that has become increasingly prevalent and controversial. As the debate between McCandless and Brody revealed, data visualisation has both its advocates and its sceptics.



The advocates maintain that we are swamped by data. New methods, they argue, are required to make sense of that data. By using them, we can tell compelling stories about our changing world that will engage people more powerfully than words alone and that, therefore, may act as effective calls to action. Which all sounds reasonable enough. But some don’t stop there. Data visualisation, it is also sometimes contended, will actually aid our understanding of an ever more complex world.




Detail and full image of Left Vs Right by David McCandless and Stefanie Posavec (more here)


Here, things are confused slightly by the presence of a splinter group of artists using data as a source to create generative works. For example, Stockspace by Marius Watz, which was displayed as part of the Decode show at the V&A last year, drew on activity on the German stockmarket to create abstract geometric forms. Beautiful, certainly. Informative, less so.



The sceptics, as represented last night by Brody, argue that what in fact data visualisation is doing is creating a lot of pretty pictures that do nothing more than please the eye. At one point in the discussion Brody dismisses one of McCandless’s pieces as something he might like to hang on his wall – the implication being that this is all it is good for.



A beautiful geometric pattern may well be visually seductive, but is it any more successful in getting over the facts or arguing a case than bald, unadorned figures? Data visualisation’s adherents argue that a certain amount of visual flair is necessary in order not just to explain complex data but also to encourage engagement with it. The question is at what point does the pursuit of the latter undermine the former?


An image from The Little Book Of Shocking Global Facts, described as “possibly the worst graph I have ever seen” by information designer Andy Kirk on his Visualising Data site


Further tension surfaced recently in debate over Barnbrook Design’s Little Book of Shocking Global Facts. Information designers accused Barnbrook of ignoring the basic rules of the craft to produce visually arresting imagery that was confusing at best and deceptive at worst in the way that it interpreted data visually (Nicholas Felton will address this in a piece for the September issue of CR, see also here and here). A counter argument, as put forward by MLA in a comment on our original piece on the book, is that “while the pages do use some aspects of information design, these aspects are primarily employed as graphic devices and not as objective, statistical referents that convey quantifiable information. In that sense they are much closer to the subjective quality of illustrations, and in particular the satirical cartoon, that conveys facts as politically charged struggles.” In other words, the book is not a neutral presentation of data but a polemic that employs some of the language of data visualisation to make its highly-illustrated arguments. (See this interview with Barnbrook’s Jon Abbott on the ideas behind the book).

This I think approaches the core of the issues surrounding data visualisation. By deploying the visual language of science it suggests a cool, rational neutrality. Here are the facts, it says, QED.

A core of information designers believes that the authority of data visualisation rests on its rigour in adhering to the accurate presentation of data.

But it’s not as simple as that. As Brody points out in the Newsnight interview, information is most often deployed in a political cause. Just as statistics are routinely manipulated in order to fit the argument, so inevitably will be charts, graphs and their ilk. The Barnbrook book takes the language of data visualisation and runs riot with it. It is presented as ‘fact’. The sources for those ‘facts’ are listed extensively in the back. And yet the way in which those ‘facts’ are given visual form is highly subjective, in some cases twisting them in the service of its agenda.


Graphic from The Little Book of Shocking Global Facts purporting to show relative carbom emmissions by country. Felton and others have accused it of representing data in a misleading way


In the way that it is employed, data visualisation is no more inherently neutral than any other form of statistical analysis. It should come as a surprise to no-one that its tools will be used to make politically-charged and politically-biased arguments. Graphics that purport to make a statement of fact should be approached with as much caution as a government press release.

This, then, is where the great hope of some data visualisers runs into the buffers of reality. Yes, graphical invention can be used to explain complex ideas and present detailed data in digestible form in the cause of an argument or political position, but this will not necessarily aid understanding. As newspapers have known for decades, a graph is just another way of telling a story. But whose story?


  • Mark

    Poor David McCandless, he got caught up in Neville Brody’s own personal agenda against todays design industry.

    Sure there’s a debate to be had about manipulating political agenda through the format in which it communicates – but it doesn’t start or end with info-graphics.

    I’m sure Brody knows this – which made his condescending, bullying tactics look even more pathetic.

  • I watched this last night. I felt frustrated with McCandless. He doggedly stuck to the claim that infographics illuminate the reader, when he could have stated the truth of the matter – designers have found a way to get illustration back into journalism.

    Infographics don’t need to justify themselves. I can think of only one type of infographic that has helped me to understand an issue, and those are the ‘scale’ pieces. Truly, I think the numbers alone in the text would still have provided clarity. However, I can think of many times that I’ve read a story which I was going to flip past because the infographic drew me in.

    That, in my opinion, is the true job of infographics. Yes, take away the words and some of them look like abstract art – there are the good ones. Designers can stray too far into the territory of Brasseye/The Day Today, and that’s undesirable: something that’s more likely to happen if the designer tries to do the journalist’s job.

  • Rob

    ‘…There are a lot of old school dinosaurs who need to be weeded out.’

    Kurt Cobain

  • In the term “information graphic”, the word “information” comes first.
    The information should be served by the graphics –
    whereas in McCandless work the graphics are in charge and the information takes the back seat.
    For me his visuals confuse the facts, rather than clarify them…. but they are beautiful.

  • It was great to see design being featured on mainstream telly, but I agree with some of the points above that Brody was pushing a personal agenda that wasn’t really relevant to the topic being discussed.

    Surely he risked putting off people from outside the design industry by just confusing the debate?

  • It was a pretty floored piece of reporting by Newsnight, not helped by Neville Brody following some agenda he seems to have brought into the studio with him (see the Thatcher culture comment). McCandless seemed to get battered by two sides, neither of whom had engaged with the content or the work. Kirsty Wark treated him like a politician who had done something wrong, which seems to be the media default setting for questioning rather than learning from an expert. Brody was, I felt rude, and condescending at times, especially the “It would look nice on my wall” comment.

    A piece like The Billion Dollar Gram ( brings disparate figures to life making them easier to comprehend. Whether you are a designer or not I believe this is a valuable way of examining figures which can at time induce blindness in their size. Information Graphics might not be to everyones taste, but the programme didn’t even give it a fair hearing.

  • I agree with Gareth. I think Brody made some valid points. Do McCandless’ images do what they are supposed to do and convey data in a more manageable, easier to understand way? The answer for quite a few will be yes. We are visual creatures and whilst some may find it confusing for others it may help process large amounts of data.

    However, what Brody was pointing out was – this is all very well, but what relation does the nature of the imagery have to do with the information/facts that it is attempting to communicate?

    I think ultimately that Brody became frustrated at design, once more, being ‘pretty pictures’ and design for design’s sake. If you want to communicate information graphically, fine, do it, but think about what the information you are conveying means and whether or not this is relevant first. Beauty is just one part of the puzzle:

    “People think that design is styling. Design is not style. It’s not about giving shape to the shell and not giving a damn about the guts. Good design is a renaissance attitude that combines technology, cognitive science, human need, and beauty to produce something that the world didn’t know it was missing.”
    — Paola Antonelli

  • Hi,
    Great atricle.

    Graphics and images have always played a large part in all our lifes. They can be used to explain things very quickly and easily. As they say a picture is worth 1000 words. But does it get across the correct message or confuse the message more, this is the question.

  • Where was the discussion, this was more akin to trolling on live air.
    I found it embarrassing to watch and I’m none the wiser about the subject.

  • They ALL missed the point in discussions about aesthetically pleasing of information graphics. It’s about adding visual clarity to seemingly complex and confusing stats information. The fact that is beautiful is an added benefit that supports its accessibility to the masses.

  • A more direct link to the Newsnight item:

  • Its impossible to convey information without some ‘side’ to it, any more than you can have a discussion without holding a point of view – but that doesn’t give the designer an excuse to absolve himself of any responsibility to communicate. A brief, mad discussion with participants at opposite ends of the design spectrum, that must have confused many viewers. Hats off to McCandless though for gaining some high visibility for information design.

  • Nick Beloe

    An interesting subject but not the most illuminating of debates.
    On the point of political involvement and the persuasiveness of information design, it’s worth looking back some 150 years to show how this has always been the case. Florence Nightingales diagrams illustrating mortality during the Crimean War are a good examples of ‘tweaking’ a graphic to get a particular point across.
    And they worked!

  • Not completely related to infographics but something I would hope everyone would find interesting, RSAnimate on YouTube is a series of lectures that are brought to life through hand drawings. is a nice one to have a watch-through.


  • Presenting complex information in a visually beautiful way doesn’t necessarily enhance the information, or make the message clearer – it may do, but it equally may not. One size does not fit all.

    If the aim is to communicate information as clearly as possible, to a wide cross section of the public, then some of the most effective graphics are unfortunately some of the least beautiful.

    Crude and simple is often more effective than beautiful and complex

  • Simon

    I think Neville is a poor intellectual that had to resort to bullying and plugs for his anti-design festival

    Maybe he should spend more time writing a less banal anti-design manifesto instead of being on TV.

  • baz

    I have had a look at the David McCandless book and I must say I really do not like it.
    The fact is many of the examples in the book are very, very bad example of this type of information visualisation design. Under close scrutiny, the book reveals several inaccuracies and poorly conceived ideas – I really do recommend you having a little deeper look at some of the examples. From a purely aesthetical point of view, the book falls short too, IMHO. Some of the designs being a little too derivative in places (Peter Saville, Jonathan Barnbrook and Rod Lord come to mind).

    If you’re genuinely interested in this type of graphical work, and not just jumping on the data vis band wagon, I would recommend I found his books hard going in places but generally insightful, articulate and excellent. Not trolling… just my point of view.

  • Pearse


  • I think there’s a pretty good distinction to be made between ‘infographics’ and ‘infoart’. It’s likely that both start out with the same intention, to communicate a set of information, but at some point their approaches diverge, one taking the route of attracting viewers by its aesthetic, the other taking the route of simplifying the information to make it easy to understand.

    It’s true that either of these approaches will succeed in attracting readers to an article, but I suspect only one approach will actually help truly inform the reader.

  • Ben

    I probably have more time for McCandless than I do for Brody, but I am one of those slightly skeptical about the effectiveness of some infographics. As with any ‘trend’ it will always be done badly by a lot of people who don’t understand the point. Brody does a terrible job in highlighting the negative aspects of infographics and McCandless is almost as ineffective in getting his point across but it was still excellent to see this on TV.

  • munch

    They ALL missed the point in discussions about aesthetically pleasing of information graphics. It’s about adding visual clarity to seemingly complex and confusing stats information. The fact that is beautiful is an added benefit that supports its accessibility to the masses.
    Jason Fields – Head of UX&D @ BBC

  • A

    Saw this on TV in my mums room of all places. I usually don’t mind Brody, but he seemed very pompous, condescending and refusing to debate about the wider infographic issue and the positives (of which I think there a many) that decent infographics bring

  • Gavin

    How are these 2 sets of information in anyway diminished by appearing as graphics rather than writing?

    To me they are objective, clear and actually benefit from being visuals as opposed to words.

    Writing has to do exactly the same job of selecting, editing and shaping data and is just as vulnerable to mis-interpretation when in the hands of a bad writer as graphics are in the hands of bad designers.

  • SR

    I think Nevillie was quite harsh with all his cultural theory stuff – I mean with all the academia out there you can argue almost anything. Poor David didn’t have a chance against that stuff.

    At the end of the day, graphic design is there to enhance understanding through visual means. There are different styles of learning and understanding, some people take really well to hearing information, others to seeing numbers, others to text. There are many people, especially with dyslexia that can aborb information brilliantly from imagery.

    Accessibility – you also have to understand that not everyone is a statistician and understands what all the numbers mean, what David has rightly done is put the information in sizes relating to each other. He used the size of the square in proportion to another square to show the estimated cost of the war compared to the actual cost. Seeing the size is not just beautiful but highly functional too.

    Human nature dictates that we are drawn to beauty. If information is important such as the political types of information they discuss, shouldn’t that be important enough to make attractive so more people access it? Some folks are not well educated, but education or not, we all understand imagery even when we don’t understand political jargon. I think what David is doing is the future.

    I think Neville is being a little old fashioned, I’ve seen him talk before and I just think he seems to be stuck in the 1980’s with his approach to things. Just my opinion anyway. This is nothing against him as a person, I’m no one to judge, just saying about his approach – I don’t agree with it.

  • Dave Lawrence

    I have to be honest here and ask where we have actually come from in terms of augmenting words with pictures. Mr McCandless appeared to have immersed himself in the artform and had little objectivity, whilst Mr. Brody seemed to have no real objective apart from hectoring and belittling a body of work he clearly has little time for. It was also clearly evident that Ms. Wark felt she had better things to do with her time and did little to enliven proceedings.

    As has been observed, a poor piece of journalism, inadequately explored and with ill matched protagonists.

    Were it left up to the simple minded observer like myself, maybe we need to see how we got to this juncture from simplistic infographics such as Venn diagrams and piecharts to the more elaborate designs we are seeing today.

    Whilst we cannot argue for any leniency in debate of an artform that is certainly not immature, even if its proponents and detractors demonstrated that they themselves may be, we live in times where the power of the visual image and what it conveys (or attempts to convey) is at its greatest ever level of public perception. The opportunity exists to build on this mediocre exposure and as ever perhaps the delivery of the whys and wherefores be best left to the PR guys, and lessons be learnt from other industries such as mobile telecoms and IT where the “got that, move on” grasp of concepts is underpinned by the power and the delivery of said concept or decision process which is rarely, if ever, text based.

  • Dave Lawrence, I agree with your view of the programme entirely. I think that David McCandless’s work is far more powerful and illuminating than he is talking about his work. Neither of the designers were very articulate, but then that’s not their forté is it? And Kirsty Wark failed to manage the debate effectively.
    It’s bleedin’ obvious that intelligent, properly researched infographics can clarify statistics and information in a way that complements numbers and words, and so the infographic has a place in good journalism. Conversely the power of the infographic can also be used to misinform, but I don’t think that anyone on the programme conveyed those simple messages.

  • Gary Hoff

    No wonder news programs don’t invite designers on to debate. What a terribly naive position. Information Graphics are not new they are just short hand for the reader to understand multiple points of a story in one image. Like the Guardian’s where does our tax money go chart or the IED map in Afghanistan. It shows the reader the scale and perspective of the situation. Surely Edward R Tufte has said most things on this in his 3 books.

    I think the crowd sourced map for buses in India was a great idea. Showing how information graphics can be useful. John Maeda said Programmers are the new designers and I think he’s right. The question is not if it looks pretty its a question of does it work and is it useful. We are learning to disseminate and question information in many more ways and a whole lot faster tahn ever before. Surely this short hand is the out come of this cultural shift.

  • patrick

    Information graphics is about as interesting as the english football team – expensive, worn out and redundant.

  • I think the debate did little to illuminate anyone with the positive function of info graphics. It was luke warm at best, and both designers failed to come across well. However, I guess NB was brought on to play devil’s advocate. But the slot was weak, and the film clip before the debate was more convincing.

  • patrick

    Information graphics is about as interesting as the english football team – expensive, worn out and redundant.

  • Also liked the bus map in india, undoubtedly a positive aspect of the debate. Embarrassed by Brody’s superficial focused criticism – licence to spout design bollox revoked. It’s a massive debate, especially when government is starting to reign in complacency amongst creative consultant/web suppliers. It’s a shame that Graphic Design was the ulitmate loser in the debate.

  • Information itself depends on the source. Whether it’s written word or images, all information can be misleading, or at worse totally false.
    As individuals we all understand information in different ways, some find it easier to read facts and figures while others find images and pictures easier to comprehend.

    What the viewer has to do is decide whether or not they trust the source.

  • Michael Lemmetti

    While i didn’t care for Brody’s condescending ‘well done’ comment to McCandedless, i felt the whole debate summed up information graphics in its current state. Pure dismissal because of alot of prettification. I admire McCandedless’ passion to produce information that is more reader friendly and educational. Had the host or NB bothered to look beyond the surface (without an explanation) they would have seen that.
    But there lies the problem. if the point of information design is to present facts and stats so they can be absorbed, then having to join the dots in more complex examples of contemporary information design seems like a hassle.

    If the aim of information graphics is to inform and educate then a more restrained approach is needed. Doing away with the graphic cheerleading’ and communicating information in visually clearer terms, informs and educates, giving people the power to act, whether in a local or a global scale.

    Take a lead from BBC newsreaders: they dress and speak blandly. No distractions. News is absorbed. Job done.

  • Thanks for this article – I caught this on BBC iPlayer, but I’m grateful for this discussion.

    Yeah, I wasn’t really impressed by this Newsnight piece – as others have mentioned, Wark seemed unhelpful and uninterested, Brody was irritatingly condescending, and McCandless looked like he wasn’t expecting to have to justify his work, poor bloke!

    There is an issue with “infoart” being produced, just to look pretty or make a statement, but real and representative infographics and data visualizations can be powerful and illuminating.

    My colleagues who work on data visualization in the biosciences, and particularly genomics, have a very strong appreciation of the insights that appropriate data viz can bring – sometimes, data are just so vast and complex that key patterns might not be noticed, or numbers can just take so long to process that visualizations can really help.

    Of course, interesting patterns can be misleading, just as statistics can lie.
    But data viz is a powerful tool. As with any science / statistics, we should start from a skeptical standpoint, and question what we see… but to sweepingly decide that infographics and data viz are pretty but pointless seems naïve and ill-informed to me.

    I’d like to have seen Tufte versus Brody…

  • I’ve grown weary over the ceaseless arguments coming from certain designers who postulate that beauty and information are antagonistic to each other. It’s also not a little bit ironic considering what we designers do for a living – when was the last time you heard someone complain about the beauty of a typeface and how it’s function is impaired because it is a thing of beauty? I think the flawed perception amongst some designers comes from a lack of understanding of why we do what we do. There are branches of psychology and other scientific fields that are entirely devoted to the study of aesthetics – where effort is spent in understanding the functional nature of beauty. And beauty is functional – it’s not simply a facet of will or personal fancy. Even a cursory Google search of “aesthetics” will direct one to a Wikipedia entry that discusses in some detail past and currently accepted theories of the functional nature of aesthetics – but in particular, the functional nature of beauty.

    Of course there a certain infographics that are obtuse but beautiful. But that is not a function of their beauty, but simply a misguided sense of emphasis on the designer’s part. To then argue that beauty is the culprit, is simply missing the point. Similarly, it is utterly illogical to discount the educational value of a graph if it happens to be beautiful.

    I think it’s remarkable that so many designers are fascinated by the visual presentation of data – and in no way do I see this fascination as trivial. The popularity of information visualisation amongst graphic designers underlies what I think is the nascent seed of a potential revolution in the self-realization of applied aesthetics in our field. Here is an opportunity for graphic designers to contribute to testable theories of choice of aesthetics – and ultimately how these choices dictate attraction to graphics but also whether they are correlated with a workable component of the design. You’d be hard pressed to find another practitioner more qualified for this type of work than the graphic designer.

    Shouldn’t this be exciting for our community? – as opposed to something to be viewed with derision?

  • Joel Wells

    Aesthetic and beauty are useful tools when communicating information. capturing the viewer/readers attention and imagination.

    There is a danger of the ‘beauty/aesthetic’ in visual communication or any other language outweighing the function or purpose, which in the case of info graphics is to inform the reader and relay information but this is inherent in many forms of communication including written or oral and is ultimately just the difference between good, balanced communication and that which isn’t.

    Neville Brody and the presenter were both guilty of bad communication in my opinion, bullying and belittling McCandless and not really engaging with the key issues of the debate but pushing other personal agendas lead by ego.

    I thought the conversation was unbalanced, aggressive and patronizing towards McCandles.
    Sadly this kind of extremist reporting and interviewing is more and more common on these types of program and infact do in this medium what the Brody and the interviewer were arguing McCandless’ design does, which is create arresting and exciting broadcasting but miss the point!

    At times it felt like the presenter and Brody were ganging up on McCandless. Brody seemed to be trying to pull favour with the presenter by mentioning cultural references such as ‘Thatcher’ that would appeal ot the presenter because the two were closer in age and life experience and didn’t really have anything to do with information Graphics.

    Another thing worth pointing out was the fact there was no visual example given by Brody or anyone else, illustrating a ‘better’ alternative?

  • This is a cool stuff if it serves the requirement … If not it would just be a nice view without solving the problem of getting the information out of the graphics… I hope it would serve the purpose or at least for now would lay a good basement for later development on this…

  • Brody’s reveals a media determined performance in Digital Arts interview:

    DA: The infamous Newsnight debate with David Mcandless pulled an incredible audience for graphic design on primetime television. Did you still find TV interviews nerve racking, and are you pleased with the way it turned out?

    NB: “Newsnight was terrifying of course, but the point of it was I could have taken either side on [the debate]. I was asked to come along and play Devil’s Advocate, and from that point of view it was just pure theatre. I’m probably going to end up working with David at some point. [TV]’s about entertainment, and I wasn’t going to go and say, ‘David, you’re so right.’”

    DA: It would have been pretty dull had you done that. It instigated a lot of debate and interest.

    NB: “I told him beforehand, ‘David I’m going to attack everything you’re doing’ and he said ‘great’ so we went out there and I did.”