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Visualization #3 – Tobias Sturt’s “HOW TO create an infographic”

INTERVIEW. There's a place where web design, typography, journalism and cartography meet to produce surprising stories. This place is called Data visualization. Tobias Sturt, the Design Manager at the Guardian Digital Agency, explains us what it is (and why he hates Times New Roman).

Data archives have always existed. How the web-design changed the way we use and read data?

I think Web design has had a profound effect on our relationship with data. The most obvious way is that the web has given us a way to share data with everyone and anyone (after all, that's what it was created for), but more importantly its also given us the design language to communicate that data well and, crucially, the interface tools that allow the audience to explore, interact with and manipulate that data – by developing consistent user experiences and interfaces we have allowed people to become increasingly comfortable with and confident about visualisations and visual languages.

Moreover the development of web services has meant that people are more used to be surrounded by data and, because it's often their data and data bout them and their activities – their browsing history, say, or purchasing records – they're a lot more engaged with it and motivated to understand it and get involved in exploring it. They're getting happier about visualisations and happier about data, in other words, which works out well for data visualisation.

Do you think that the success of data visualization is related to the fact that modern readers are lazier and have problems of concentration?

No, not lazier, quite the opposite. Modern readers have much greater access to a much larger range of sources of information than they have previously had – data visualisation can help them comprehend that data more easily, making it useful to them, and making it something they in turn can communicate and share with others.

The key point is that we no longer have to concentrate quite so much on the things we used to have to concentrate on – our methods of research and discovery have changed unimaginably – this means our energies can be focussed on analysis, synthesis, on using that data to create and discover – we can do more, not less – far from lazy, then.

Do you prefer to guide the user through a clear path or give him/her the tools to access and visualize all the data without any editorial intervention?

Well, for a start,  it depends entirely on the data and the story you're trying to tell with it. But I'm not sure I believe it's possible to present any data without editorial intervention – after all, the very act of 'presenting' data is an editorial act, you're making a decision that a certain dataset is interesting and are trying to get other people interested.

Even if you then just present that data in a spreadsheet, rather than trying to 'design' it, you're making a further conscious decision about how you think your audience should be reading that data and digesting it. Trying not to intervene is, in itself, an editorial intervention.

But the ideal is to do both – to present all the data in such a way that clear, interesting and exciting story draws the audience in to explore the entirety of the data for themselves – its not always possible, but its the ideal. It's something we have in common with all other storytelling methods – you illustrate a wider, complex world with a vital, representative image that draws your audience in – for a journalist it might be a politician's quote that encapsulates a news story, for a historian, the act of a King that sums up a period of history, in a novel, the adventures of a fictional character that make us see all human life anew. Editorial intervention isn't a bad thing – after all, without it, people wouldn't be seeing the data at all.

What is data visualization in 140 signs?

Communicating complex data and intricate ideas through clear and beautiful visual storytelling.

The basic for a good design is…

A clear idea of what you're communicating, a clear idea of who you're communicating with and then a single genuinely brilliant visual idea. Weirdly the last bit is often the easiest – sometimes in the seminars we run I reference a dictionary definition: "Design: Decide upon the look and functioning of (a building, garment, or other object), typically by making a detailed drawing of it" – the functioning (the audience and what they need) is as important as the form and sometimes a great idea can swap the utility of something – to me, that's bad design.

But its still important to note that single word: 'Decide' – this is the creative act of an individual – you, the designer, makes a decision, no one else – no one said it was going to be democratic.

Who are your favorite graphic designers?

My knee jerk reaction is Otto Neurath and Gerd Arntz – to me, the work of the Isotype movement is a great inspiration – not just for their pioneering work on visual communication and data visualisation, but for the fact that they thought about it at all – the goal of trying to communicate, educate and enthuse the general public through the use of a universally comprehensible visual language is an inspiration in itself.

The font you cannot even think about.

Well, Papyrus is hideous, but I really hate Times New Roman – not necessarily for the font itself (although I'm not that fond of it) but more for what it represents: the default option, the sense that absolutely no thought has gone into choosing a font, exactly the kind of carelessness that makes Comic Sans such a running joke, or, indeed, something like Papyrus itself (I mean, honestly, James Cameron, what were you thinking?)

What about your favorite font?

Gill Sans. Eric Gill: extremely odd, probably unpleasant man, but possessed of some kind of genius. It's also the font of the BBC, so it's got a pretty powerful nostalgic kick.

The perfect gift for Christmas ?

Well, if its my Christmas present we're talking about, I'd have to say Chris Ware's Building Stories. That means I haven't read it yet, but he's a master of visual storytelling and I'm a particular fan of his ability to use the comic medium to both tell his story and investigate the way the story can be told (and read). As fas as music goes I'm going to recommend John Cale's Paris 1919 because:

a) it's brilliant and not enough people know John Cale's solo work,

b) it's got his very seasonal setting of Dylan Thomas' poem 'A Child's Christmas in Wales' and

c) It's brilliant. On the other hand, its not Christmas without Bing Crosby, so, there's that, too.

If I spend a week-end in London in August I should….

Well, for a start, Disney are wrong, the Happiest Place on Earth is the British Museum, which is a place of magic, inspiration and wonder, but if you have a weekend in London you should be spending at least a day of it walking – London is a perfect city for walking through, not least because there are so many great pubs and the only way to find the good ones is to stumble across them by accident. I would advise following the line of Oxford Street / New Oxford Street / Clerkenwell Road, but through the back streets, through Soho or FitzroviaBloomsbury or Covent Garden then on to Clerkenwell, Smithfield and Shoreditch.

That way you get a walk through the history of London, from medieval Lawyer's Inns to the twenty-first century City and get to take such places as Gosh Comics, or the Cartoon Museum, the John Soane Museum, a detour to the Wellcome Collection, Magma design stores, all the way to Brick Lane, Columbia Road, amazing Vietnamese food and my local haunt, Broadway Market. If that hasn't tired you out, then a walk back along the south bank of the Thames (past the Tate Modern to the South Bank Centre) should do it.

Now I've made myself want to go for a walk. See you later.


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