Know the rules! (so you can break them)

There was a common teaching theme in all my creative writing and photography workshops: "Know the rules, so you can break them". The idea is that there are rules (we might call them best practices in our work), things like grammar and syntax in writing, and exposure and contrast in photography. Every art has their rules, and these rules help ensure good work.

But the great work breaks these rules.

For example, take e.e. cummings, a poet that appeared to have a broken shift or caps lock key, and his punctuation looks like typos - but he uses these things to create a rhythm, a cadence, and a voice. Or the photographer Weegee, whose works are often a blend of too-dark backgrounds and overexposed foregrounds - but his photographs accomplish a very creepy and powerful feel.

Note that it isn't that these artists didn't follow the rules; that's too passive. They knew the rules, and broke them intentionally. The broken rules are what makes their art great. They are what draw out attention and emphasize their voice and their subjects.

In defense of a specific pie chart

I recently went to the A Measure of Humanity exhibit in the Columbus Museum of Art with this collection of data viz eccentrics: 

What a dream team. Pictured, clockwise from front left: Kevin Flerlage, Madia Essiet, Ben Hayes, Eric Rowland, Zak Geis, myself, Rob Janezic, Bridget Cogley, Ken Flerlage. Yes, that's right. Both Flerlages at one table. Not pictured, but in attendance: Erik Rettman

In the museum is a giant pie chart, about 6 feet in diameter. This pie chart, by Tim Rietenbach, is made from oil and spray paint on canvas, and depicts proportions of global defense spending by country. The giant white slice on the left is the US' contribution, and all of the other slices are various other countries. 

Note that photography was encouraged at this exhibit. All rights belong to the original creator, Tim Rietenbach.


Now, this is breaking a ton of rules. First off, it's a pie chart. Edward Tufte said "...the only worse design than a pie chart is several of them."  A modernized, Excel-referencing version of this quote came from Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic in a blog titled Death to Pie Charts: "...the only thing I hate more than a pie chart is a 3D, exploding pie chart..." We've heard over and over again from absolutely brilliant minds that humans are better at comparing length and size than angles and arc sectors. 

But, among all of us at the museum that day, there seemed to be a consensus: we all felt like it worked. In fact, I commented to Bridget, 

"What selfish a**hole ate half the pizza?"

All of us were able to look at that pie chart and immediately recognize the absurdity (As a quick aside, I think the data story is a bit misleading given the metrics aren't normalized by any sort of national GDPs or populations). But, given that the artist wanted to show how much of the global defense spending belonged to the US, I don't know that a bunch of bar charts or a tree map would've worked as well. In fact, it was interesting to watch other museum visitors react - they all got the point (and I didn't hear any of them jump into a discussion on the existential value of pie charts like we did). Add the human obsession with circles to this wonderfully hand-crafted visualization, and you start to see why it was hanging in a museum. 

This chart broke the rules, and it worked. We didn't need to evaluate all the slices, we just needed to see how all the other slices had to fight for the remaining half that one nation took (or rather, contributed). 

So go break rules...but learn them first


I'm not suggesting that the visualization best practices taught by the experts aren't valuable - those best practices are based off solid cognitive, social, and neurological theories, and are from people more experienced and knowledgeable than myself. I'm actually arguing the opposite; these "rules" are absolutely critical. They certainly have their place where they should [almost] always be followed - I wouldn't recommend imitating e.e. cummings voice in your next email to a senior executive. 

But when it comes to art, we can draw attention to certain things by breaking rules. If we understand those rules, and we understand why they are rules, we know what will happen when we break them - and we can use that to our advantage to help get a message across. 




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