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Posts Tagged ‘storytelling’

14 OCTOBER, 2014

The Best Infographics of the Year: Nate Silver on the 3 Keys to Great Information Design and the Line Between Editing and Censorship

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“More isn’t always better: no more in information design than in poetry…”

Once again this year, I was delighted to serve on the “Brain Trust” for an annual project by Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist, New Yorker writer, and Scientific American neuroscience blog editor Gareth Cook, who culls the best, most thoughtful and illuminating infographics published each year, online and off, and invites the bearer of a sharp mind to contextualize both the individual selections and the premise of the project. Alongside the inaugural crop of infographic exemplars was David Byrne’s excellent essay on cultivating the ability to experience the “geeky rapture” of metaphorical thinking and pattern recognition. Now comes the second installment, The Best American Infographics 2014 (public library), with an introduction by master-statistician Nate Silver and fifty-eight examples of stellar information design shedding light on such diverse topics as the history of space exploration, the sleep habits of famous writers, the geography of where gay people stay in the closet, the comparative shapes and sizes of major baseball parks, and the social network of jazz musicians in the 1920s. (“American” is somewhat a misnomer, as many of the contributions come from artists, designers, and writers — myself included — who are not U.S. citizens and/or reside outside the country.)

Silver, the author of The Signal and the Noise, considers the two factors that make an infographic compelling — providing a window into its creator’s mind and telling a story that “couldn’t be told in any other way.” He writes:

Design has traditionally been seen as a field for “right-brained” types: those who think visually and spatially rather than with symbols like words and numbers. But modern information design is equal parts art and science, form and function, architecture and engineering. It combines the best of at least three fields of achievement: aesthetics, technology, and journalism.

By aesthetics, I mean all the usual things, but especially proportionality. For information designers, this quality is not so abstract as it might be in other mediums. Their goal is tangible: to convey as much information as possible given some set of constraints.

Silver points out that at the dawn of information design — as, for instance, in the heyday of the discipline’s little-known godfather, Fritz Kahn — these constraints were largely practical, imposed by factors like the cost of materials and the availability of physical space for printing the infographic. But with the rise of the internet, the chief constraint became the audience’s attention. Pointing to the legacy of anti-“chartjunk” crusader Edward Tufte, Silver writes:

Tufte and others have long spoken to the importance of minimalism in information design. But it proved to be more important as design was translated onto the web, where attention spans are measured in seconds and the next graphic is but a mouse-click or hand-swipe away. More isn’t always better: no more in information design than in poetry, or painting, or product design. A superfluous axis on a chart, an extra dimension of information, can distract from the focal point just as much as an extraneous word in a sonnet or an unnecessary button on a tablet. It can reduce the signal-to-noise ratio and leave the viewer less well informed.

Successful examples of information design can sometimes be highly intricate, but these cases usually involve a layered approach. The most essential elements of the graphic — the most essential parts of the story — jump out immediately.

The opening visualization, reminiscent of designer Toby Ng’s World of 100 project from several years ago, makes Silver’s point perfectly:

Who We Are

'When I was a boy in the '90s, my mother had a printout of a chain email pinned to the wall in our kitchen. It was called 'The World as 100 People,' and it was just a simple list. I never forgot it because it was a simple but clever idea—a child could understand it without knowing the concept of percentages. One day, I didn't have any other work to do and I was sitting in my studio. The idea and the method came to me very quickly. I knew that I wanted to make it round, like the world. I wanted to use colors that might remind people of flags. I made the first draft in the morning and it was on the Internet by the afternoon.' (Jack Hagley, graphic designer, London)

The storytelling aspect of the genre, meanwhile, shines brilliantly in this example from Wendy MacNaughton and Caroline Paul’s immeasurably soul-stretching Lost Cat: A True Story of Love, Desperation, and GPS Technology, one of the best books of 2013:

Lost Cat

'Our cat Tibby disappeared suddenly, and we were devastated. Then, five weeks later he returned, fat and happy. We were overjoyed he was back, but where had he gone? We decided to strap a GPS unit to his collar and find out where he spent his days.' (Caroline Paul, writer, and Wendy MacNaughton, illustrator)

Silver also speaks to the importance of editorial point of view in infographics and outlines the three essential advantages of visual storytelling over the strictly verbal:

Great works of information design are also great works of journalism.

[…]

At the core of journalism is the mission of making sense of our complex world to a broad audience. Newsrooms … place emphasis on gathering information. But they’re also in the business of organizing that information into forms like stories. Visual approaches to organizing information also tell stories, but have a number of potential advantages against purely verbal ones:

  • Approachability. Human beings have strong visual acuity. Furthermore, our visual language is often more universal than our words. Data presented in the form of an infographic can transcend barriers of class and culture. This is just as important for experts as for laypersons: a 2012 study of academic economists found that they made much more accurate statistical inferences from a graphic presentation of data than when the same information was in tabular form.
  • Transparency. The community of information designers has an ethos toward sharing their data and their code — both with one another and with readers. Well-executed examples of information design show the viewer something rather than telling her something. They can peel away the onion, build trust, and let the reader see how the conclusions are drawn.
  • Efficiency. I will not attempt to tell you how many words a picture is worth. But surely visualization is the superior medium in some cases. In trying to figure out how to get from King’s Cross to Heathrow Airport on the London Tube, would you rather listen to a fifteen-minute soliloquy from the bloke at the pub — or take a fifteen-second glance at Beck’s map?

But alongside the tremendous power of information design in making sense of the world is also a dark side of potentially equal magnitude, which Silver captures elegantly:

That information design is part and parcel of journalism also means that it inherits journalism’s burdens. If it’s sometimes easier to reveal information by means of data visualization, that can make it easier to deceive… What one journalist thinks of as organizing information, the next one might call censorship.

But it’s long past time to give information designers their place at the journalistic table. The ones you’ll see in this book are pointing the way forward and helping the rest of us see the world a little more clearly.

To my great delight, included in the volume as a large fold-out spread is also my homegrown collaboration with Italian information design team Accurat and San Francisco-based artist extraordinaire Wendy MacNaughton, visualizing the relationship between famous writers’ sleep habits and their literary productivity — a labor of love project years in the brewing and months in the making:

Writers, Sleep, and Productivity

An exploration of whether authors' sleep habits might affect their creative output, based on my highlights from a decade's worth of reading the diaries, letters, and autobiographies of celebrated writers. (Concept and direction by Maria Popova. Design by Accurat: Giorgia Lupi, Simone Quadri, and Gabriele Rossi with Davide Ciufi, Federica Fragapane, and Francesco Majno. Illustrations by Wendy MacNaughton.)

In fact, Accurat is the only team with multiple entries in the volume — deservingly so. Also included is their visualization of the 100 “geniuses” of language and literature, based on Harold Bloom’s book Genius and originally published in English right here on Brain Pickings:

The Varieties of Genius

Great minds from Harold Bloom's 'Genius,' visualized according to Jewish esoteric thought. (Davide Ciufi, Federica Fragapane, and Francesco Majno, Giorgia Lupi, Simone Quadri, Gabriele Rossi)

As both a lover of unusual twists on Harry Beck’s classic London Tube map and someone infinitely fascinated by synesthesia, I was particularly taken with this synesthetic taste map of London:

Underground Taste Map

A synesthesia tour of London: 'This map is a graphic representation of each of the tastes and textures I experience as I travel around deep beneath the streets of London. I have synesthesia, a neurological trait that blends or mixes my sense of sound and sight with my sense of taste. Every time I stop at or pass through a Tube station on the London Underground subway system, I experience an involuntary taste and texture, a real mouthfeel, specific to that particular station name. Over five decades I visited every station on the network and made a note of the tastes and textures specific to each station name. The journey began in January 1964 at Dollis Hill, and reached the end of the line at Woolwich Arsenal in August 2013.' (James Wannerton, president of the UK Synesthesia Association)

One piece calls to mind, rather viscerally, C.S. Lewis’s prescient assertion that “it is essential of the happy life that a man would have almost no mail.”

Email: Not Dead, Evolving

Accompanying a Harvard Business Review article, this infographic visualizes survey data indicating that three-quarters of all email is junk, and that we're wasting a great deal of time answering minutia. (Bonnie Scranton, artist, James de Vries, creative director, Scott Berinato, senior editor, and Christina Bortz, articles editor, at the Harvard Business Review)

Another favorite comes from Taschen’s altogether excellent book Jazz: New York in the Roaring Twenties:

Social Network of Jazz in 1920s New York City

For each of these 24 leading jazz musicians working in New York during the Roaring Twenties, the size of the silhouette depicts the number of recording sessions by that musician during his or her lifetime. The connecting lines show joint recording sessions — a sort of sociogram of Gotham's jazz scene. (Idea, research, illustration and design by Robert Nippoldt; additional design by Christine Goppel and Tobias Glasmacher; research by the Bavarian Jazz Institute's Sylke Mehrbold.)

One of the most quietly piercing visualizations in the volume juxtaposes its soft, elegant imagery with its hard, ghastly subject. London-based multidisciplinary artist and author Valentina D’Efilippo explores the casualties of twentieth-century via poppies — a flower used to commemorate soldiers who perished at war — in a breath-stopping piece titled Fields of Commemoration, part of her book The Infographic History of the World:

Fields of Commemoration

Each poppy depicts a war in the 20th century, growing from the year the war started and blooming above the year it ended. The size of the blossom reflects the number of deaths—95 million in total over the course of the century. (Valentina D'Efilippo)

Among the most fiercely original contributions is designer Kelli Anderson’s ingenious Existential Calculator:

Existential Calculator

'A hand-held interactive infographic decision-making tool that helps the reader decide whether or not to take a job. It organizes the spectrum of possible work outcomes—from pleasurable to spiritually degrading, from well-paying to debt-enhancing, from exciting to 'meh'—and shows where the reader is likely to land, based on what they tell it about the potential job.' (Kelli Anderson)

Many more masterworks of information design, as well as a broader lens of what makes them so, can be found in The Best American Infographics 2014. Complement it with David Byrne on how to be an educated consumer of infographics, then take a trip back to 1930s Germany, where it all began.

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20 MARCH, 2014

Neil Gaiman on Why Scary Stories Appeal to Us, the Art of Fear in Children’s Books, and the Most Terrifying Ghosts Haunting Society

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“Fear is a wonderful thing, in small doses.”

Neil Gaiman — prolific author, champion of the creative life, disciplined writer, sage of literature — is one of the greatest storytellers of our time. At TED 2014 in Vancouver, he hosted a semi-secret late-night event where he read a ghost story and a brilliant short essay titled “Ghost in the Machine,” contemplating the psychology of why scary stories speak to us so powerfully, followed by a brief Q&A. With Gaiman’s permission, here is his beautiful reading of a beautiful thought-piece. Special thanks to two friends: WNYC producer extraordinaire Alex Goldmark, who kindly helped edit the audio I recorded, and Gaiman’s better half, the amazing Amanda Palmer (yes, her). Please enjoy — transcribed highlights below.

Why tell ghost stories? Why read them or listen to them? Why take such pleasure in tales that have no purpose but, comfortably, to scare?

I don’t know. Not really. It goes way back. We have ghost stories from ancient Egypt, after all, ghost stories in the Bible, classical ghost stories from Rome (along with werewolves, cases of demonic possession and, of course, over and over, witches). We have been telling each other tales of otherness, of life beyond the grave, for a long time; stories that prickle the flesh and make the shadows deeper and, most important, remind us that we live, and that there is something special, something unique and remarkable about the state of being alive.

Fear is a wonderful thing, in small doses. You ride the ghost train into the darkness, knowing that eventually the doors will open and you will step out into the daylight once again. It’s always reassuring to know that you’re still here, still safe. That nothing strange has happened, not really. It’s good to be a child again, for a little while, and to fear — not governments, not regulations, not infidelities or accountants or distant wars, but ghosts and such things that don’t exist, and even if they do, can do nothing to hurt us.

And this time of year is best for a haunting, as even the most prosaic things cast the most disquieting shadows.

The things that haunt us can be tiny things: a Web page; a voicemail message; an article in a newspaper, perhaps, by an English writer, remembering Halloweens long gone and skeletal trees and winding lanes and darkness. An article containing fragments of ghost stories, and which, nonsensical although the idea has to be, nobody ever remembers reading but you, and which simply isn’t there the next time you go and look for it.

One of the things that makes Gaiman’s sensibility so singular is that he is among the few contemporary writers unafraid to explore darker psychoemotional themes in “children’s books” — I put this in quotations with the intended caveat that Tolkien so memorably articulated in asserting that there is no such thing as writing “for children”, which Maurice Sendak also expressed and which Gaiman himself has echoed. After the reading, I asked Gaiman how he relates to that adult construct of “children-appropriate” literature, in culture and in his own work:

In order for stories to work — for kids and for adults — they should scare. And you should triumph. There’s no point in triumphing over evil if the evil isn’t scary.

Gaiman’s retelling of Hansel and Gretel, illustrated by the great Lorenzo Mattotti — the artist behind Lou Reed’s adaptation of The Raven — will be released in October and is now available for pre-order.

In responding to the final question, Gaiman considers the things that terrify him, today. His answer couldn’t have been any more poignant:

The ghosts of today that terrify me mostly are actually ideas that are uninspected and continue to haunt us. It’s like the feeling, sometimes, that you’d start talking to people and you’re going, “I don’t know if what you’re saying is true. It may have been true once, a long time ago. But it died. And you don’t know. And you’re walking around being haunted by dead ideas… Look around and see where you are today.” I think those are the ghosts that haunt me the most.

Complement with Gaiman on where ideas come from and his sage advice on the creative life.

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20 DECEMBER, 2013

Hans Christian Andersen’s Little-Known Sketches: The Beloved Storyteller’s Illustrated Travelogue of Europe

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What made Andersen particularly enchanting was his singular gift for noticing and depicting not only the whimsical, but also the wistful.

Hans Christian Andersen forever changed storytelling with his timeless fairy tales, but he was also among those rare famous creators with multiple talents: After he received a small travel grant from the King of Denmark in his late twenties, Andersen, a prolific diarist, set out to tour Europe and populated the pages of his journals with beautiful passages about the places he visited during his travels, accompanied by his own sketches of the sights and scenes that spoke to him. Found in The Diaries of Hans Christian Andersen (public library), these little-known and lovely sketches, both literary and visual, bespeak the celebrated writer’s capacity for not only witnessing life with extraordinary presence of heart and mind, but also for capturing its vibrancy in minute, expressive detail — the kind that the ordinary person dismisses as mundane but the great storyteller transmogrifies into magical material for world-building.

Andersen drew his very first sketch in 1821, when he was sixteen — he was already enamored with the theater as a youth, dreaming of escaping from his small hometown of Odense to become an actor in Copenhagen, so it is of little surprise that he chose to depict a theater stage in that seminal drawing:

Stage of the Royal Theater in Copenhagen, 1821, the earliest drawing by Andersen.

But over the next decade, Andersen devoted himself to poetry and other literary pursuits. By 1831, he had established himself as a promising young writer, but as any rising talent, he wasn’t immune to attacks. After one that particularly hurt him — Henrik Hertz’s anonymously published 1830 critique Letters of a Ghost — Andersen decided to escape on a six-month trip across the Herz Mountains to Leipzig and Dresden, eventually returning to Copenhagen via Berlin and Hamburg. In the mountains, he visited the highest peak, Brocken, the legends of which were famously extolled in Goethe’s Faust.

Sketch of the trip from Lüneburg to Braunschweig, from a diary entry dated May 22, 1831.

The valley of the Plauenscher Grund near Dresden, from a diary entry dated June 4, 1831.

In 1833, Andersen traveled to Paris, then the Jura Mountains and the Brig district of Switzerland. Only twenty-eight, he had already begun to experience his first brush with international celebrity.

In the Jura Mountains

The gateway at Brig, from a diary entry dated September 18, 1833.

In a diary entry from September 18, 1833, he describes an encounter that struck him:

Went for a short walk in a black jacket, vest and trousers. The farmers probably took me for a cleric, because they stood still and tipped their hats. All of a sudden an old fellow came toward me and fell on his knees; then I got really scared and turned back. — This is the first time anyone has knelt in front of me.

The Simplon Road across the Alps.

This was the period when Andersen first began honing the literary talent that would later manifest in his travelogues, describing with exquisite emotionality the natural landscapes and architectural landmarks he was encountering on his travels. In an entry from September 19, 1833, he relays being overwhelmed by awe while traveling through the Alps:

The huge masses of stone gripped me; on one side a mighty waterfall plunged far down. — Everything was granite — it was like driving through the earth’s backbone.

Two days later, he adds with equal parts awe and pride:

Everything smelled fragrant; everything was so peaceful. . . . The Alps looked like the glass mountains of the fairy tale, and now I had crossed them.

Genoa, October 2, 1833

Andersen arrived in Milan a day later, then traveled to Genoa and Florence. On October 2, 1933, he wrote in the diary:

If France is the country of reason, then Italy is the country of the imagination. (Germany and Denmark, of the heart.) — Here is all you could wish for in a landscape — the oranges hanging so yellow between the lush greenery; big, grass-green lemons greeted us with their fragrance. — Everything was like a painting…

Egeria's Grotto outside Rome.

View of the dome of St. Peter's from Monte Mario, from a diary entry dated July 26, 1834.

Villa Borghese

Grave of Ascanius.

One of the most beautiful passages comes from a diary entry for October 26, which reads like a fairy tale:

On the big, silent Campagna the lonely ruins of the huge aqueduct stood. (Near Albano, the grave of Ascanius.) — In the little valley in Campagna lay some ground fog. We went through it. It was as if an elfin maid had wrapped her cloak around me; it was a dank shroud. I pressed my lips together to avoid the kiss.

By the summer of the following year, Andersen is still traveling across Italy. In an entry from July 25, 1835, he marvels:

We heard the sound of surf and then saw the endless blue sea off Sorrento; the moon was shining on the foam. Cape Mysenium, Procida and Ischia lay large as life before me. I was in paradise! It was masterful!

Beethoven's grave in the cemetery at Währing near Vienna, from a diary entry dated June 30, 1834.

Piazza del Trinità with Michelangelo's house, from a diary entry dated April 11, 1834.

Between 1835 and 1846, Andersen entered his most prolific creative period, during which he penned three novels, six collections of fairy tales, and six musical dramas. It was also then that his diaries got to their most expressive, suggesting that for Andersen, fairy tales were not a fancy but a record of his inner world and lived experience as he perceived it. For instance, he writes in a journal entry from November 3 of 1840, while traveling through Germany:

Yesterday we passed a forest; with its brown foliage it looked exactly like a copper forest. There was something so utterly magical about it that the big steers we encountered on the muddy road appeared to me to be enchanted people, for the one, of course, had to correspond to the other.

A street in Athens.

In 1841, he visits Athens, which he finds foreign and disorienting, but still revels in the whimsy of the new experience:

Imagine for yourself a town built in a hurry, as if for a big market, and that the market is in full swing — and there you have the new Athens. … The tall, solitary palm trees and cypresses nearby, the picturesque costumes! — I don’t understand it myself; I still don’t have any idea about it all, but I’m happy. I can’t really believe that I am in Greece, in Athens! The city is growing as I walk here!

Turkish graves near Constantinople, from a diary entry dated April 28, 1841.

From there, he visits Turkey — a brush with an even more unfamiliar culture. In a diary entry from April 29, 1841, he describes visiting a Turkish cemetery:

We went to the cemetery, which was very extensive. The graves of dervishes have dervish turbans; there are green turbans on the graves of those who themselves, or one of whose forefathers, have been to the Prophet’s grave. We walked so far that we could see the town Chalcedon and the Sea of Marmara. (In Scrutari we saw Ali Pasha’s grave, which had something like a wire birdcage over it and fountains.) Carved in the burial stones by the graves there is one big hole or two small ones for water, so that dogs can quench their thirst — this is a blessing for the dead.

But as a native Bulgarian who has frequently witnessed foreigners’ perplexity by traditional Balkan music, I was especially amused by Andersen’s description of the Turks’ singing and dancing:

A strange song with shifting rhythms was sung by a few of [the dervishes] and then by them all. It was something with scales and runs, as if a musically gifted savage had heard an Italian singer for the first time and now in his own way was trying to imitate him.

He describes a dancing dervish with the same bemused colonialist’s judgment:

His body moved to the one side, then into obscene positions; finally all his limbs were moving as if they were driven by a steam engine. All the dancers were groaning and drawing in deep breaths. The sweat was dripping from their pale faces; at last they sank to the ground. I felt really discomforted.

Whirling dervishes at Pera

In a diary entry from the following day, April 30, he visits a monastery in Pera and observes another traditional dance, this time with more admiration than judgment. Incidentally, that particular dance embodied Carl Sagan’s assertion about ancient religions celebrating cosmology — the dervishes were dancing about astronomy:

The dervishes took off their tunics and now stood in their brimless, high-crowned white hats, in open green jackets and long green skirts that were extremely wide, looking like funnels on them when they whirled themselves around on the same spot with their arms stretched out and half raised. There were two in the middle; the others were turning around them and around themselves. A priest walked very quietly among the ones in the middle and those on the outside. Their faces were extremely pale. There was the sound of music and the singing. They stopped suddenly and stood still for a moment; then they began to dance the same dance again. They looked just like lifeless dolls; they were portraying the course of the planets.

The next day, May 1, another magical passage depicting nature as a fairy tale:

The nightingales were jugging, and the turtledoves were cooing in the high cypresses. The Sea of Marmara was like glass; the mountains in Asia seemed ethereal; in the clear air beyond lay a chain of snow-covered mountains. Ships with all their sails were lying at anchor like swans mirroring themselves in the water; the small boats were gliding like back snakes across the current.

A Wallachian girl.

But what made Andersen a particularly enchanting storyteller was that he was able to notice and convey not only the whimsical, but also the wistful. On May 6, upon arriving on the desolate and barren coast of Constanta, Romania, he writes:

A dead stork was lying by the sea; it had a melancholy effect on me — it had just reached the sea and then sunk down dead. … A wet, cold fog; the entire sea hidden from sight. Close to the dead stork there was a dead dog; I didn’t make a note of it — the stork appealed to my imagination; the dog had perhaps been noble and faithful, and now went unnoticed.

The irony, of course, is that he did make a note of it, and therein lies Andersen’s greatest, most timeless talent — his singular ability to notice what goes unnoticed by most, and to imbue it with a story that speaks to our deepest fears and our highest aspirations: In the dead dog, he saw the human virtues of honor and loyalty, as well as the tragedy of dying without having mattered, and what could be more resonant with the human condition than that?

Monument on a grave.

The Diaries of Hans Christian Andersen is an enchanting read in its entirety, revealing the inner world of this legendary world-builder with unprecedented intimacy. Complement it with other famous creators’ little-known art, including Flannery O’Connor’s cartoons, William Faulkner’s Jazz-Age drawings, Richard Feynman’s sketches, Marilyn Monroe’s poetry, and Sylvia Plath’s drawings.

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