Data art: the critical shift in your role in data visualization

Recently, my father-in-law asked a question all too familiar to those of us working with data: "So what exactly is it that you do, again?" (I've been married for 7 years, so he's heard it a number of times already). When I told him my title is "Creative Director, Analytics", he replied, "Well, that seems like an oxymoron". 

(Warning: hyperlink overload below - but I encourage you to explore all the articles, videos, and resources. There's a ton of great information in there)

But the world of data visualization has moved beyond the realm of an analyst just building a quick bar chart (or exploding 3D pie chart) in Excel or PowerPoint. That still exists, for sure - but the boundaries of what we do have significantly expanded into spaces typically reserved for more traditional arts like poetry, painting, photography, dance, etc. It's a later paradigm shift in this industry that really excites me, and something I spoke about in my recent talk at Tableau Fringe Festival APAC.

For example, look at the dramatic impact Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec drove with their release of Dear Data (highly recommended), intermingling our Tuftian motivations for accuracy and clarify with the more humanitarian interests of aesthetics and ethics. The book was so popular they released a "visual journal" called Observe, Collect, Draw

Flowing Data has a page dedicated to "data art", with the description "Finding the beauty in numbers." David McCandless presents a similar concept with his website name and book title, Information is Beautiful (with a follow-up Knowledge is Beautiful), and he presented a Ted Talk titled The beauty of data visualization

Speaking of Ted Talks, there's a talk called Art made from data, and Chris Jordan, a photographer that derives his work from art, gave a Ted Talk titled Turning powerful stats into art.

Look at the comments on Ludovic Tavernier's (@ltavernier7)  winning visualization in the first Tableau Iron Viz Feeder of 2018: 


“In a world where most people see data as impersonal and cold, transforming data into personal essays is a winning strategy” 
- Alberto

“The letter strings are beautiful. I also like how the things that are without a label are still intuitive to understand.” 
- Cole

“Never knew the letter e was so interesting! Loved the analysis across languages and how the letter frequency got to steady state at 5000 words” 
- Ellie


“A compelling story using complex analysis and advanced charts, but at no point does it feel hard to follow. This is a masterpiece!” 
- Andy

These comments certainly demonstrate an appreciation for clarity, accuracy, and a logical flow, but they also illustrate the power of aesthetics.

Even in a more practical, less abstract application, CIO describes the critical role of a "data artist" as a sort of translator between the business world and IT.

As a craft, data visualization has grown beyond the realm of statistics and the goals of accuracy of interpretation. Those are still very important, but we're now playing in a world where our work is evaluated in a more aesthetic, emotional paradigm. 

Being good with numbers is no longer good enough for this industry. 


So what does this mean for us?


We need to be artists. 

We need to use aesthetics to engage our users and capture our their attention. We need to think abstractly and laterally, and we need design processes that allow us the freedom for creativity. We need to look at our work as art that is in a conversation, not only with other data visualization designers but also with other arts and other artists. We need to think of our craft as experiential and not just visual, recognizing that our aesthetics aren't just in the colors and the shapes but are also in how users are drawn to interact with our work, how they interact with our work, and their emotions during those interactions. 

So when my father-in-law told me that "Creative Director, Analytics" is an oxymoron, I asked him about the last time he got excited about data analysis. When he replied "well, I don't know that I ever have", I told him: "It's my job to fix that, and that's why Creative is a critical part of my title."






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