"A designer is akin to a reporter then, they receive information from a source in a certain format, they digest that information, perhaps translate it into a different format.."

"a traditional story in a newspaper is as much a data visualization as is a website, a word cloud or an interactive map. Taking the war logs as your data set, you could chose to represent certain parts of it with text, graphics, photographs, a video or radio interview, in print, on the Internet, etc.."

Words by Robert Silverton.

Illustrated by Ole Dean.

What is it that makes web design good or bad? Can it be quantified, or is it purely subjective? Well, the majority of web design (or information design generally, for that matter) is functional, in that it exists to send a user a message. When making a value judgement on the design then, it would make sense to first concentrate on what the website is trying to say, then to consider different ways of saying the same thing.


New York Times Senior Software Architect Jacob Harris has something to say on this issue, comparing an interactive map with a word cloud, both of which are based on the Wikileaks Iraq War logs. The message of the map interface is instantly clear: it singles out a deadly day in Baghdad, detailing the number and causes of deaths in a given area. In contrast, the word cloud simply shows us that for instance the word "reports" appears more frequently in the text than any other, leaving us to draw our own conclusions.


The map succeeds where the cloud fails by singling out and presenting a clear story from a large data set. As Jacob points out, in focusing on words alone we lose their context; the word "truck" might for instance be used at the beginning of a sentence, but subsequently the truck may be referred to as "the vehicle". Each instance of "vehicle" in this context is actually a reference to the truck, which arguably should increase the importance of the word (or concept) "truck", though instead the algorithm misses the semantics and increases the importance of "vehicle". The result is a graphic of debatable value.


What is it that separates these two examples? Quite simply, the amount of skill, effort and vision required to produce each piece. Producing the interactive map probably required hours, if not days of reading through the War Logs, picking out salient pieces of information and forming it into a story.


The journalist can scan through the words and discover the semantic links that constitute a story; they can see where one story ends and another begins and prioritize the information that they feel to be of greater interest. However, the word cloud is simply the result of the text being processed by an algorithm, which currently demonstrates no knowledge of semantics. Rather than revealing an idea for a story by absorbing and analyzing the meaning of the information, the word cloud algorithm simply rapidly parses the data, pattern matching and ranking groups of symbols.


The map presents a coherent message with evidential value. The word cloud produces quite the opposite result, no coherent point is being made, and the user is left in a state of confusion regarding the story they are being told. In both cases, the data input or "message" was the same, i.e. the Iraq War Logs. However, the chosen medium (the interactive map or word cloud) has a great effect on the quality of information which is displayed to the user. Jacob states in his piece:


"At The New York Times, we strongly believe that visualization is reporting, with many of the same elements that would make a traditional story effective: a narrative that pares away extraneous information to find a story in the data; context to help the reader understand the basics of the subject; interviewing the data to find its flaws and be sure of our conclusions"


I would like to expand slightly further on this point, by suggesting that a traditional story in a newspaper is as much a data visualization as is a website, a word cloud or an interactive map. Taking the war logs as your data set, you could chose to represent certain parts of it with text, graphics, photographs, a video or radio interview, in print, on the Internet, etc. Each of these mediums has it's own merits and limitations.


A designer is akin to a reporter then, they receive information from a source in a certain format, they digest that information, perhaps translate it into a different format, then send it on to the next receiver to be digested, and so on. As with the NYT reporters, it's the duty of the designer to attempt to make sense of the information they are translating. If they take the time to delve into the message and establish an understanding, they can make a clear point, as the map does. If however they don't put in this effort, they may end up making a reasonably meaningless graphic, like the word cloud.


Trying to understand the information you wish to represent is just as important as understanding the language you're trying to express it in, or the tools of your trade. A great designer seeks to understand the medium and the message.


In the 8 years I've worked in the digital media industry, I've witnessed the rise of the "Creative Technologist". A buzzword you might think. True, but not one without meaning. What this term tries to encompass is the individual who can marry art with science, who doesn't consider these to be entirely unrelated fields. Great design often appears stunningly simple, yet is frequently the result very deep thinking. The London Tube map is an iconic example of this, but so is the iPhone, or the equation E = mc2. To paraphrase the great scientist:


"Everything should be as simple as possible, but no simpler."


The creatives who are seen to be of the highest value are those who are willing to constantly straddle these apparent boundaries, expanding their knowledge in many seemingly disparate directions. They are capable of channelling a complex idea into a design that is so stunningly simple, it may in retrospect seem obvious.


In conclusion, If you currently think of yourself as an 'arty' or a 'sciencey' person, try to forget that delineation; it's too much of an excuse for not demonstrating any interest or ability in the other field. Instead, try to think of it all as simply being information, and think of yourself as a reporter, or an Information Architect. If you're generally good at understanding and communicating information, then you should make a good designer. However, if you're not interested in trying to understand the information you're tasked to convey, your design probably won't be very good. Put simply, always push yourself out of your comfort zone, and strive everyday to increase your understanding, at least in some small way, in any given direction. Doing so will only increase your abilities and value.