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Hard truths about data visualization

Fast Company’s recent article “What killed the Infographic?” (confusing infographics with data visualization) essentially says that you see fewer data visualizations on the internet now, but that’s only because “data visualization, as a medium, has finally grown up and gotten a job”. Data visualization has gone in-house, as companies arm their people with software like Tableau.

Regarding Tableau, Fast Company says:
“The charts have been algorithmically shaped and color-coded to conform to Edward Tufte-approved academic research—in other words, with no training at all, everyday employees can know their work is more or less in line with that of the most influential information designer of the 20th century. As CEO Christian Chabot boasts, the sort of visualization you can build in minutes with Tableau’s free demo software would have cost you $100,000 10 years ago, paid to a company like Stamen.”

Stephen Few, probably the leader in business intelligence and information design, said in reply to the article:
“This statement is marketing nonsense that is far from true. I suspect that Edward Tufte would bristle with anger in reading this statement. Tableau in many ways does not conform to the the data visualization principles that Tufte promotes and many of the “algorithmically” enforced practices that are embedded in Tableau are in conflict with Tufte’s principles.”

That’s right. And buying a software product isn’t the same as knowing how to present data. This is a big bug in my salad, because it seems like this, somehow, is simply not understood. It’s just like how people think they know how to present because they have a copy of PowerPoint. Grrrrrr.

As a result, people who are otherwise perfectly competent in their work are now saying they are using “data visualization” and making stuff like this with Tableau. They don’t know what they don’t know.horrible pie chart number 2

Yes, I know it’s their prerogative, and yes I know how grumpy I sound. But, jeez, if you had spent time and effort and money at learning how to, say, paint a fine composition, and someone said “oh, anybody can do that if they have some paint and a brush”, well, you know how you’d feel.

Presenting data well has to do with understanding the basics of how we perceive quantitative information through shapes and colors. Learning how to present data well, regardless of your software choices, is one of the most valuable things anyone who regularly works with data can do. That is, of course, if you really want your audience to understand what you are saying.