This book will change your life’ is a promise often made but seldom kept. For David McCandless, however, it holds some truth.
In 2009, Thames & Hudson published Information is Beautiful, McCandless’s highly popular showcase of work in the emerging field of infographics and data visualisation. The success of the book opened various doors, including that of the creative studio he now runs with partners Duncan Swain and Rebecca Conroy.
There are three strands to the Information is Beautiful empire today. McCandless’s personal concern is in the book and accompanying blog which discusses and disseminates best practice in the discipline. The Kantar Information is Beautiful Awards celebrate that work and help set standards. IIB Studio is a separate but related business that creates infographics and data visualisations for paying clients.
McCandless is IIB Studio’s executive creative director, with Swain operating as its creative director and Conroy overseeing the running of the business. All three are partners, with a shared background in journalism, who met when working at BBC Worldwide.
Swain and McCandless go back a little further. “The first time I remember David talking about information design was 18 or 19 years ago when we were both at Dennis Publishing,” says Swain. “He showed me these stretchy maps where the shape of a country changed according to its GDP, so he was obviously thinking about it back then. We were both journalists: as I went through the ranks, I was always using David because he was fantastic at capturing ideas simply and clearly and executing them as features. At the BBC [where Swain helped develop digital products such as the international version of the iPad] I was using him to do things like editorial guidelines for Lonely Planet while he was working on the book. Following its success, he was talking to me about leaving the BBC and that gained momentum as he started to get client work coming off the back of it, and we started to talk to Rebecca too,” Swain explains.
Conroy had been a radio journalist who gravitated to working on the BBC’s website launches in 1997. She later moved onto the business side, managing budgets and teams. “The three of us have journalistic backgrounds so data viz for us has always been about the story, it’s the ethos of all we do,” Conroy says. The emerging methods and tools of data viz, they realised, would allow people to tell stories in a rich, engaging and shareable way.
“Following the book, David was getting inquiries from commercial clients and charities. They were saying, ‘We’ve got this data, we’ve got a story we want to tell. Can you help us?’ We knew there was a market out there, a global market, especially because of the rise of Big Data,” she says. Suddenly, all sorts of organisations had access to unfathomable amounts of information about themselves and their users: they needed people to help them make sense of it.
The IIB Studio reflects the data viz industry in its combination of skills. “I’ve got a team of three designers and a part-time person who looks after user experience,” Swain explains. “I look across the editorial and design side of everything we do in the studio.”
“Then we use freelance researchers who specialise in different subjects,” Conroy adds. “Generally we have two types – those who are very analytical and others who are more journalistic and who come up with creative ideas. Then we have project managers and a developer but we also use small agencies around Shoreditch for some of the technical stuff.”
In all, IIB Studio has a team of around ten full-time staff plus another ten or 15 regular freelancers who come in according to the project.
“The designers we have are a special breed in that they have to have this mix of analytical and data skills alongside very high-end graphic design skills,” Swain says. “We are also encouraging the ability to code among our designers. These are quite odd skills to mix together, and they must have an appreciation of editorial as well, how to pull people through a narrative.”
Most of IIB Studio’s work to date has been in producing so-called ‘statics’ – infographic images for print or online for either media or commercial clients. But interactive visualisations and motion graphics are increasingly part of the portfolio.
The statics fall into two main types: tree maps and bubble maps. “A tree map is a way of being able to put large sets of numbers in context,” Swain says. “A bubble map is typically placed on an x and a y axis. So, for example, we did one on the efficacy of nutritional supplements. At the top were those with most evidence behind them of their effectiveness and at the bottom those with the least, so you can rank things in context.”
“When we give client workshops we talk about exploratory and explanatory graphics,” Conroy adds. “Explanatory graphics tell you a story and lead you to a conclusion while an exploratory is one that you might spend some time with and pick out your own stories.”
Conroy stresses that these are not quick to produce. “Even if you have really good, quick feedback, it still takes about four weeks to create a piece.”
“A lot of education needs to be done by our industry in terms of taking people through the steps that need to be taken to create a piece of work,” Swain adds. “Our industry is about making the complex and opaque simple to understand, but people don’t realise all the processes that go on to make something so simple to understand.”
One area that the studio is looking into is in developing software tools that will allow clients to create their own data visualisations. “We definitely see it as an area for development but a lot of it still comes down to the story,” Conroy says. “You can give people the software but they still need to understand what story they want to tell. That is a really valuable part of what we do.”
Mobile is another challenge. “I’ve yet to see a data viz that has been thought through mobile first,” Swain says. “We have to get there. Even interacting [with data viz] on a laptop is sometimes very unsatisfactory. There must be another way of using these things on mobile but we have to do a lot of work around that.”
While originally most of the studio’s commissions came from media organisations, increasingly they are being asked to work with charities and commercial clients.
“Our job is to understand structures, concepts and theories and play them back,” Swain says.
This needn’t just apply to editorial stories – one company commissioned the studio to map its organisational structure, a process that led the company to realise where it was going wrong and restructure its business.
“The majority of those commissioning us [on the commercial side] are from marketing departments,” Conroy says. Charities, for example, may have a major report or piece of research and use data visualisation techniques to get out the key facts. However, Conroy sees potential in other areas where the presentation of large amounts of data is key – in finance for example.
There are plenty of options – and enormous demand for the services of IIB Studio and its (mostly US) competitors. We have access to more information than at any time in our history: now we just need to make sense of it.
Data Viz – An Education
Duncan Swain, creative partner, Information is Beautiful Studio describes the skills needed to work in data viz
Whether you want to work in a studio that specialises in visualisation, be a data viz gun-for-hire or work independently to develop your own data art, you’ll need a very different mix of skills to traditional design. Beyond the expected visual design prowess, here are some other skills I look for in people who want to work with us at IIB Studio:
Interaction design / user experience
One of the trends in data viz is towards interactive pieces and, to produce these effectively, you need to understand how your audience will want to filter, manipulate and play with data on screen. For us, using our interactive vizzes has to be a joyful experience.
Producing video-based visualisations is a relatively under-explored area and there are lots of opportunities to do adventurous, ambitious work here. Beyond standard production skills such as After Effects, you’ll also need to understand scriptwriting, pacing and soundtrack selection and integration.
This covers both front-end interface coding but also more behind-the-scenes coding too. For instance, our design team has developed scripts for automating the production of rudimentary schematics in Illustrator which help us rapidly experiment with different visualisation patterns.
Storytelling/sense of journalism
It’s something that’s bandied around a lot but being able to provide a clear narrative thread through your explorative visualisations is crucial. Using journalistic techniques to capture attention, provide structure and hierarchy and surprise people is key.
Data wrangling/understanding spreadsheets
We use spreadsheets to brief our designers so an understanding of how
to read and manipulate data within spreadsheets is an important skill, and 2 3 also something that can be counter-intuitive to a typical designer. It’s a left brain/right brain balance.
Visualisation device selection
So you’ve got your data in good shape – but how’s that best displayed? A treemap? A balloon race? A Cartesian grid? It takes time to develop a nose for device selection. You’ll need to read. A lot.
Before you even open Illustrator you should be sketching with paper and pencil. Sketches are super-useful to quickly prototype ideas and check a visual solution is working. This helps immensely with the previous point.
We try to use as few words as possible in our visualisations. Using icons allows us to quickly, wordlessly communicate an idea or concept visually. We employ them a lot but you need to pick the right style for the piece. Is it Silhouette, pictogram, isotype?
See more at iibstudio.com