The artist's eye: seeing the world a bit differently [with data]

**Quick update: I'll be giving a short, 20 minute talk at the digital Tableau Fringe Festival conference on "The Art of Data". The conference is listed in Australian Eastern Standard Time - so for those of you in the US, I'll be presenting at 8:30 PM on August 16th (so technically the day before the conference, which is weird...). Register or find more details here.**

I've been getting a lot of eye-rolls lately, with co-workers, friends, and my wife saying "You would". You see, we're going to Iceland, and when people ask what I hope to do there, I show them this (the online version is interactive): 


That's right, to prepare for my trip to Iceland, I made a dashboard. Or rather, I might say, I explored Iceland through data. The dashboard above is meant to guide my day trips while I'm there, because I really want to see a [slightly] active volcano - but, this only represents a little bit of the data I've played with; I've visually explored demographic, socioeconomic, economic, geographic, geologic, and health data for Iceland. 

While my wife has been digging through travel blogs, I've been digging through raw data. As a result, I feel like I've already done some exploring, and I'm already starting to see Iceland a bit differently. 

Playing with all this data has been an interesting experience that's already enhancing my travel experience - all because it's opening my eyes. 

The artist's eye

Every creative writing workshop I've taken and every creative writing book I've read discuss how artists see the world. They pointed out that we typically go about our day failing to notice the small details. In the rush to let my dog out, I fail to notice the appearance of tiny little bell peppers, no bigger than the tip of my finger, appearing on the pepper plants. I fail to catch the scent of chocolate mint lingering in the air from my herb garden. On my drive to work, I miss the murals on 3rd street that I've "seen" a hundred times, but never actually seen. Again, a quote from my first blog post

"Poetry isn’t what we think of as the ordinary, but what we feel and sense is underneath the ordinary, or inside it, or passing through it…a poem is about both the ordinary and the extraordinary at the same time."

The extraordinary surrounds us, but it lives and breathes within the ordinary - and we fail to see it. Most artists aren't traveling the world searching for some amazing site for inspiration; they find that inspiration in the everyday world around them. Another quote, this time from Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh

"...Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes..."

Artists see the world a bit differently. It's the same, "mundane", "trivial" world with ordinary details. But artists work to find the extraordinary within the ordinary. And in all those creative writing classes and books, we're encouraged to practice our artist's eye: take time to stop and search. Notice the common - but intimate - details. 

We'll see the same world, but we'll see it a bit differently.

Visual analysis as the artist's eye

A thorough visual analysis is the data visualization version of the artist's eye.  I find analyzing data to be an intimate process. The process is akin to the process of pausing our rushed life to look for beauty in the mundane details around us. Often the data we're analyzing seem mundane or trivial, but when we take the time to open our eyes with a bit of analysis, we find power and beauty. 

And I'm not talking about simple analysis. I'm not talking about a simple sum or average - I mean taking the time to really play with the data. Shaping it into lines and dots and bars, constantly scrapping worksheets to try something new, and searching for all the different patterns, looking for interesting or beautiful geometry - it's the artistic process of searching the ordinary for the extraordinary.

Any of the more experienced visualization designers and developers out there will tell you that to make a good visualization, you need to spend time with the data. Don't expect to make powerful art by tossing together a few hastily visualized aggregations. We need to take the time to open our eyes, and then we will have seen the world differently enough to make interesting art. 


The Iceland volcano data was a focused view of a Makeover Monday data set on volcanoes. My original visualization of that data





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