Shaking our heads won’t make visualization any better

by Enrico on October 5, 2011

in Thoughts

I wanted to title this post “giving constructive feedback about visualization and its long-lasting effect” but it didn’t sound as good as this one.

The Story

I was about to write my next long post (don’t worry, almost done) when I received an email from a guy working for Hotels.com:

Hope you’re well. I’ve seen you’ve covered infographics in the past and thought you might be interested in a new one from Hotels.com that looks at how people from around the world eat and sleep when staying in hotels. The research was conducted among 3,339 people in 20 countries. You can view, download and embed the infographic at: http://press.hotels.com/en-gb/infographics/

Here is the infographic (click on it to see the details):

Hotels.com Infographics

I gave a quick look to the image, read the findings, and just discarded it as crap. I said to myself: “Here we go again … another email with crappy infographics”, pushed delete, and moved on to the next task. After a while, my sadistic brain could not resist and I wrote a quite cryptic message on twitter trying to see if I could catch some fish:

From hotels.com: “I’ve seen you’ve covered infographics in the past and thought you might be interested in a new one” http://bit.ly/nGiUiC

A few people replied and again I moved on to the next task.

Some other people like Stephen Few would have maybe started a long rant about all the reasons why this was crap, while some others, maybe, would have taken it seriously and tried to analyze it in details. Me, I just shook my head a never replied to the guy.

Here is where the true story begins: after a few minutes I receive an email from Andy Kirk of visualisingdata.com (bold is mine):

“Enrico – I received the same Hotels.com email today and had a good exchange of emails with the guy promoting them.  

To be fair after our conversation he was really appreciative of the advice and said he will do his best to try and affect a change in approach. Really interesting how this particular market has erupted though isn’t it – the fact Hotels.com has a dedicated Infographics section under its PR pages…”

And later on:

“… it is becoming more and more difficult to stay on top of these type of requests but I’m taking the longer view that if I can offer constructive feedback it might in the smallest way have an impact on improving practice

Let me repeat this sentence from Andy:

“If I can offer constructive feedback it might in the smallest way have an impact on improving practice”.

The Lesson

What a lesson have I learned! It was like a diamond in my head. Thanks Andy.

If you have been reading this blog for a while, you might have noticed I tend to be quite pacific, but at the same time when it’s time to say crap, I say crap.

We in the community have learned to have an automatic reflex: we look at some crappy visualization and in the best case we shake our head, in the worst, we write long rants a la Stephen Few.

I must confess I use to shake my head more often than writing long rants, also because otherwise FILWD would only host such type of big-ego content which I don’t like.

After reading Andy’s email I completely changed my mind. It’s way too easy to look at some stuff and think  ”oh yes, the usual crap”. I did it so many times! And it’s even funnier when you share the “crappyness”  with some friends or tweet about it “hey look … how could they be so idiotic to draw this and that in this and that way”. And we fill our mouth with words of wisdom.

Question: Do we make visualization any better by ignoring or, worse, mocking people who design bad visualization?

I know some of you might say that publicly criticizing bad stuff with big words will make people notice and be more cautious about what they publish. True. But will this strategy pay off in the long-term? I am not sure.

What do you think? Is it more beneficial a loud voice or a humble and cheerful suggestion? Especially, when people ask for an opinion. Do we need both? Do we have to treat different people with different strategies? Or should we just ignore everybody and do our work the best we can?

A few months ago I wrote in my post on Visualization Consumerism:

I think we have to acknowledge the problem and do our best to educate people. But wait a moment …. educating people is a dangerous idea! I agree. But let me explain what I mean. When I say educating people I mean doing it bottom-up; by giving the right examples and striving for creating a thriving environment

It looks to me like if these words had been written by someone else! The words are good, my behavior just does not match. We will build this thriving environment only if we learn to shake our head less and learn to help people in every possible way to make great visualization.

Sorry, now I have to go … I have to write a reply to the guy from Hotels.com.

Thoughts?

  • http://infosthetics.com infosthetics

    Good points!

    Unfortunately, the guy who emailed you was not the person who ‘designed’ the infographic. You will have to trust him to forward your comments to the actual author.

  • http://www.visualisingdata.com Andy Kirk

    Thank you for this Enrico, didn’t expect it to strike such a chord with you but delighted if you feel it had a positive impact. It would be wrong for me to sit in the glow of my sainthood without acknowledging that I’ve certainly not always volunteers constructive criticism to people like David – who sent the meail – and, yes, I was responsible for this tabloid-esque post – http://www.visualisingdata.com/index.php/2010/07/worst-graph-design-ever/ which would suggest I also fall foul of the ideal standards occasionaly! I certainly find it instantly more motivating to respond to people when they personalise the emails, addressing me by name rather than “dear webmaster” and acknowledge a response to say “thanks anyway”.

  • http://www.thewhyaxis.info Bryan Connor

    Hey Enrico,

    I definitely don’t think mocking bad visualizations makes the field any better. Maybe ignoring bad visualization can make the field better if we spend our time producing amazing examples instead. Constructive criticism is great and I commend Andy for giving feedback but the sheer volume of these graphics produced means this won’t be sustainable for too long, even if we all pitch in. It’s tough to influence everyone who’s creating visualizations but I think blogging is a great place to start. On The Why Axis I’m trying to take a different approach and give constructive criticism to some of the best examples of visualizations. Curating a collection of great pieces can also give visualizers a good starting point. Great post!

  • http://peltiertech.com/WordPress/ Jon Peltier

    “If I can offer constructive feedback it might in the smallest way have an impact on improving practice”

    When supplying such feedback, I’ve often gotten replies along the lines of “what do YOU know?” or “well, I NEED those 3D exploded pie charts, so I’m not going to stop using them EVER”.

    So I’m tempted to ignore these messages. But sometimes they seem appreciative, and I’m glad I made the effort.

  • http://chartporn.org Dustin Smith

    Hey Enrico,

    Dustin here, from Chartporn. I hear what you are saying. I easily receive 10-15 submissions a day of poorly designed graphics. I do try to respond with feedback to students and designers who ask for suggestions. However, it’s pretty obvious that a lot of the graphics are just link-bait/ads for websites. I’m sure I miss out on getting to know some cool designers better by not engaging in more dialogs – but the truth is I just don’t have enough time. Anyway, as Bryan alluded to, I think my time is better spent digging up obscure examples of great design that everyone can benefit from.

    As a final note – I have to confess that I often feel genuinely bad for designers who clearly try to put as bright a polish as they can on the shit content they are given to work with. Could you imagine working for one of those companies? Yikes!

  • SellaHaAdom

    I have been doing this (giving feedback to infovis artist) for quite some time… It is tiresome and not well paid or received. I think true infovis is creative science and has not much to do with art… That is why you need a different mind set when creating a infovis or when creating an infochart! The second misunderstanding is that dry facts (or even the complete leck of content) will not het better or any interesting by using an artistic package. Infovis is interesting because the results are interesting! Honestly, I would not try to educate artists, it is not the nature of an artist to become more scientific. And regarding the hotel.com example: if a picture is not worth a 1000 words, the hell with it!

  • http://ComplexDiagrams.com Noah Iliinsky

    Funny, I went through this same thought process recently.
    1. mock
    2. consider
    3. attempt to teach

    And I totally agree, every bit of teaching helps. Ever bit of positive outreach has the potential to convert some designer or consumer to a more discriminating view, where they’ll create and demand higher quality.

    To that end, I blogged my suggestions for the poor graphic I saw, in hopes that it would be useful to someone; perhaps the original site, perhaps not. Here’s my writeup:
    http://complexdiagrams.com/2011/09/a-quick-redesign-of-useless-graphs/

    Best, Noah

  • Ragaar

    In college a common practice was to peer review work and to critique each other. One of the big things the professor taught me, hopefully ‘us’, was that no matter the picture or content there will be at least one thing that can be reviewed to say maybe it could have been done differently.

    Combining something such as Flickr and StackOverflow; but, with more control perhaps. Thereby, giving those with experience or a good perspective a way to provide constructive feedback in a centralized and polarizing way to educate those interested in this field. Perhaps a gallery could be added to your webpage where reviews are written by seasoned individuals?

  • Enrico

    Thanks guys for your comments. Very inspiring as usual.

    @Andrew: Sure you never know where your advice will land. Put keeping a positive stance might generate an effect in the long term.

    @Andy: I can imagine and understand that it’s not always like that. But your advice did in fact struck a chord. Thanks again!

    @Bryan: I was indeed thinking about your blog when I wrote the post as the perfect example of what we need. A well documented and peaceful place with deep and constructive critique. If only we could have more!!! :-)

    @Jon: I think it’s not a matter of whether we convince people or not. What I argue here is that one single gentle paragraph as a reply cannot hurt.

    @Dustin: My post is in fact inspired by what you mention. I too receive a lot of ads like requests and I am annoyed by them. But I noticed I am so annoyed that I sometimes risk to trash stuff too easily (I do the same with emails). It’s not a totally bad habit overall but we might miss some opportunities.

    @SellaHaAdom: I don’t think artists are really interested in our opinion. But a big company like Hotels.com might be interested to know that their latest shiny chart is just crap and it could be detrimental to show it around as it is. It takes an email of one paragraph to say so. I totally agree with your comment on the lack of content. I don’t know why people think visualization is about the picture. Visualization is first of all about the data.

    @Noah: Very glad to hear you went through it as well. And yes, posting well-reasoned and gentle critiques might have an impact.

    @Ragaar: Good idea! I think visually or visualizing.org could afford this kind of process but I don’t see them going into this direction. Do you want to set up one yourself? I’d be glad to advertise it! :-)

  • http://ComplexDiagrams.com Noah Iliinsky

    @Ragaar,

    I think this would be an extremely popular site. I’d be happy to contribute.

    Best, Noah

  • http://driven-by-data.net Gregor

    Hi Enrico,

    A few months ago I tweeted the following sentence: “Creating awesome stuff is the best way to criticise poor stuff. Maybe its the only way that works at all..”

    This was the outcome of a longer process I ran through, very similar to what you described in this post. After seeing a crappy visualization, I initially wanted to write a rant on it, but did not. Instead I wanted to write a tutorial-style post of how to do it better but then I realized that it would take me way too much time to do this. Knowing how to do something right and knowing how to teach people doing something right are different things, in fact there are worlds between both. In the end I choose to do nothing but tweeting my humble realization.

    Creating awesome stuff is the best way to criticise poor stuff. Maybe its the only way that works at all..

    I think it makes perfect sense if you think about it this way: when someone creates an awesome visualization in response to a crappy one – then obviously other people see that there are other and maybe better ways of visualizing the same subject. The inevitable next thing that happens is that some people get motivated for learning how to do it better. And this motivation will lead them to either study creating visualizations or to ask someone how to do it better. Without this intrinsic motivation all rants or self-promoting-tutorials are wasted time.

    • Enrico

      Dear Gregor, thanks for sharing your ideas. I fully understand what you mean and i do believe creating great stuff and showing it off to the whole world must be the corner stone of data visualization. Nonetheless, I propose that we use a more benevolent approach because some people might come to a turning point just by one single sentence or advice from our side. Maybe it’s only my problem but I noticed I get nervous when I see yet another stupid infographic. It never came into my mind that people might genuinely come up with stuff that is sub-optimal. I work every single day with students who have a great potential but necessarily do sub-optimal stuff because they just need the right guidance and they need to grow. And when I see them growing … when I see them becoming better than me, it’s the biggest gift I can get. And the gift it’s not only for me but for a whole community of people!

  • http://peltiertech.com/WordPress/ Jon Peltier

    “Creating awesome stuff is the best way to criticise poor stuff. Maybe its the only way that works at all.”

    I like this approach. Very much.

    The only problem is whether our awesome effective graphics can compete with all that awesome shiny 3D translucent glop which is so popular.

  • Enrico

    Jon, there is more than that IMO. I don’t think we have to strive to convince people who don’t want to hear. That would be a total waste of time and energy. But, we have to be more careful to whom we deny our attention. Again, my feeling is that we are so annoyed by those glossy 3D charts guys that we might end up denying our help to people who deserve it. That is, the noise is so high that we miss some good whispers. But maybe it’s only my problem?

    • http://peltiertech.com/WordPress/ Jon Peltier

      Enrico -

      I think I’ve been a bit negative because of a recent experience. In the past two days, though, I’ve had a couple positive experiences, and I’m more optimistic. Two out of three ain’t bad, as the philosopher Meatloaf once sang.

      I guess we should continue to make the effort.

      • Enrico

        Well said Jon. I am glad to see some new optimism!

  • http://www.edmatics.org Kevin

    Enrico,

    Just to chime in, I think it is very important to educate those (especially those more on the artistic side)! Without proper education/feedback, the field will eventually be saturated with crap. Two things will come from this saturation… 1) There will be more of a division between the good, the bad, and the ugly (but who will know except for the select few?). 2) Like other fields which have in the past been saturated with crap, the necessity for data viz experts will go on the decline. I’m sure there are many other possibilities for this saturation, but those are the main two that pop off my mind.

    Ironically, I am in the process of evaluating data visualizations at edmatics.org. Right now, I’m trying to stay more on the scientific side of the evaluation process. But… I think there is a benefit to a “rant” about crap visualizations. In fact, ranting and carrying on about what makes something a piece of crap is a type of feedback in and of itself :) Good post, good thoughts. Keep it coming!

  • Enrico

    Hi Kevin,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us. Frankly, I disagree with you on almost everything. I don’t think I have to educate anyone. The idea of educating people as a general mission is very dangerous IMO and somewhat pretentious. I just want to be ready to give good advice to people who ask for it.

    I’m also not convinced about your idea on crap. If a market is saturated with crap it should be easier and not harder to shine with good work isn’t it? Or am I missing some pieces of the puzzle?

    Finally, rants are very alluring. I know quite well how to write a rant. I could do it every day if I wanted. But a rant starts where it ends. It’s more for you than for your readers.

    Try to give a look to http://thewhyaxis.info/ and read a couple of Stephen Few’s rants. What is more informative. The Why Axis produces constructive and professional criticism with a calm an peaceful stance. If you really want to learn vis you learn more from it, not from the rants.

    I’ll tell you one last thing: rants are very easy to write. They do not require you to study or look deeper into things. I know from my experience that when I have to write a blog post that really teaches something it requires ten time the time it takes for other kinds of posts.

  • http://2toria.com Matt

    I’ve found that, as I’ve become more interested in the field of communicating effectively using graphics I’ve picked up a lot about what does and doesn’t work. An occasional by-product of this learning has put me in a situation where I see something and instantly feel the need to go on a bit of a rant about it. There are two reasons for this:-

    1) I want to share my feelings about the ‘crap’ with others and,
    2) I want to test out what I’ve learned so far by spotting the ‘bad’/'good’ and receiving feedback.

    Neither of these things fixes the problem, however. They merely fulfill a desire to boost my own ego I guess, and that’s not completely useful, is it?

    So, recently I’ve found that I have become somewhat bored with the ranting. I’m no graphic designer or data viz expert and so, whilst I’m becoming more able to spot the ‘bad’ (I think), I’m realising that I’m probably not really able to do much better. As a result, instead of ranting as much I’ve been spending more time trying to learn about how to do better for myself rather than criticising others’ work. Ranting is great, but I definitely feel that if I was able to offer more constructive critique and (maybe) some examples of how things could be displayed in a clearer fashion my words might carry more weight.

    I do love a rant though… I think sometimes we all see something and find it hard to fight the urge to get on our soapbox about it, even if it’s not completely helpful. Good thought-provoking post!!!

    • Enrico

      Spot on Matt! And I know quite well how alluring a good rant is :-)

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