Brain Pickings

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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Why Haters Hate: Kierkegaard Explains the Psychology of Bullying and Online Trolling in 1847

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“Showing that they don’t care about me, or caring that I should know they don’t care about me, still denotes dependence.”

Celebrated as the first true existentialist philosopher, Danish writer and thinker Søren Kierkegaard (May 5, 1813–November 11, 1855) may have only lived a short life, but it was a deep one and its impact radiated widely outward, far across the centuries and disciplines and schools of thought. He was also among the multitude of famous writers who benefited from keeping a diary and nowhere does his paradoxical blend of melancholy and idealism, of despair about the human condition and optimism about the purpose of life, shine more brilliantly than in The Diary of Søren Kierkegaard (public library | IndieBound) — a compendium of Kierkegaard’s frequently intense, always astoundingly thoughtful reflections on everything from happiness and melancholy to writing and literature to self-doubt and public opinion.

In an immeasurably insightful entry from 1847, 34-year-old Kierkegaard observes a pervasive pathology of our fallible humanity, explaining the same basic psychology that lurks behind contemporary phenomena like bullying, trolling, and the general assaults of the web’s self-appointed critics, colloquially and rather appropriately known as haters.

Kierkegaard writes:

There is a form of envy of which I frequently have seen examples, in which an individual tries to obtain something by bullying. If, for instance, I enter a place where many are gathered, it often happens that one or another right away takes up arms against me by beginning to laugh; presumably he feels that he is being a tool of public opinion. But lo and behold, if I then make a casual remark to him, that same person becomes infinitely pliable and obliging. Essentially it shows that he regards me as something great, maybe even greater than I am: but if he can’t be admitted as a participant in my greatness, at least he will laugh at me. But as soon as he becomes a participant, as it were, he brags about my greatness.

That is what comes of living in a petty community.

It is unlikely that Kierkegaard was aware of what would become known as the Benjamin Franklin Effect — the Founding Father formulated his famous reverse-psychology trick for handling haters — and yet he goes on to relay an anecdote that embodies it perfectly. He recounts coming upon three young men outside his gate who, upon seeing him, “began to grin and altogether initiated the whole gamut of insolence.” As he approached them, Kierkegaard noticed that they were smoking cigars and turned to one of them, asking for a light. Suddenly, the men’s attitude took a dramatic U-turn — the seemingly simple exchange had provided precisely that invitation for participation in greatness:

Instantly, all three doffed their hats and it would seem I had done them a service by asking for a light. Ergo: the same people would be happy to cry bravo for me if I merely addressed a friendly, let alone, flattering word to them; as it is, they cry pereat [he shall perish!] and are defiant… All it amounts to is play-acting. But how invaluably interesting to have one’s knowledge of human psychology enriched in this way.

Seven years later, shortly before his untimely death, he revisits the subject in a sentiment that explains with enduring insight the psychology of haters:

Showing that they don’t care about me, or caring that I should know they don’t care about me, still denotes dependence… They show me respect precisely by showing me that they don’t respect me.

The Diary of Søren Kierkegaard may be short in both pages and lifetime covered, but it is a treasure trove of equally penetrating insights into the human experience. Complement it with Kierkegaard on our greatest source of unhappiness, then revisit Anne Lamott’s brilliant modern manifesto for handling haters.

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A Book Is a Heart That Only Beats in the Chest of Another: Rebecca Solnit on the Solitary Intimacy of Reading and Writing

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“The object we call a book is not the real book, but its potential, like a musical score or seed.”

“Learning how to be a good reader is what makes you a writer,” the magnificent Zadie Smith told the audience at the 15th annual New Yorker Festival on a late Friday night, echoing Susan Sontag’s assertion that fruitful writing is born out of fruitful reading, out of a “book-drunken life.” This osmotic relationship between reading and writing has been extolled in forms as piercingly poetic as Kafka’s letter on the purpose of books and as scientifically grounded as the work of Harvard psycholinguist Steven Pinker, but hardly anyone has expressed it more lyrically and with more shimmering aliveness than another of our era’s greatest essayists, Rebecca Solnit, in The Faraway Nearby (public library) — the equally, if differently, rewarding follow-up to her spectacular essay collection A Field Guide to Getting Lost.

In the fourth of the book’s thirteen extraordinary essays, titled “Flight,” Solnit writes:

Like many others who turned into writers, I disappeared into books when I was very young, disappeared into them like someone running into the woods. What surprised and still surprises me is that there was another side to the forest of stories and the solitude, that I came out that other side and met people there. Writers are solitaries by vocation and necessity. I sometimes think the test is not so much talent, which is not as rare as people think, but purpose or vocation, which manifests in part as the ability to endure a lot of solitude and keep working. Before writers are writers they are readers, living in books, through books, in the lives of others that are also the heads of others, in that act that is so intimate and yet so alone.

Solnit recounts how, as a child, she “took up imaginative residence for many years” in C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia — one of the most beloved children’s books of all time, the enduring appeal of which is, perhaps paradoxically, a testament to Lewis’s own assertion that there is actually no such thing as writing “for children.” Indeed, Solnit affirms Lewis’s point obliquely, elegantly, by seeing in his classic, as in children’s books in general, a sandbox for precisely the solitary intimacy that all reading requires:

These vanishing acts are a staple of children’s books, which often tell of adventures that are magical because they travel between levels and kinds of reality, and the crossing over is often an initiation into power and into responsibility. They are in a sense allegories first for the act of reading, of entering an imaginary world, and then of the way that the world we actually inhabit is made up of stories, images, collective beliefs, all the immaterial appurtences we call ideology and culture, the pictures we wander in and out of all the time.

It seems almost vulgar to strip Solnit’s writing of its lyrical specificity, to excerpt only the resounding wisdom of her universals, at which she arrives through the intricate observation of particulars — palpable childhood memories, meticulously chosen vignettes from history, allegorical anecdotes. So with the caveat that one ought to read her complete essay, the entire anthology even, to fully devour the fruits of her exceptional mind, I return nonetheless to Solnit’s masterful articulation of the universal:

The object we call a book is not the real book, but its potential, like a musical score or seed. It exists fully only in the act of being read; and its real home is inside the head of the reader, where the symphony resounds, the seed germinates. A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another. The child I once was read constantly and hardly spoke, because she was ambivalent about the merits of communication, about the risks of being mocked or punished or exposed. The idea of being understood and encouraged, of recognizing herself in another, of affirmation, had hardly occurred to her and neither had the idea that she had something to give others. So she read, taking in words in huge quantities, a children’s and then an adult’s novel a day for many years, seven books a week or so, gorging on books, fasting on speech, carrying piles of books home from the library.

In a poetic counterpoint to Susan Sontag, who famously read for eight to ten hours a day for the majority of her life and who once observed that “one can never be alone enough to write,” Solnit considers a different aspect of the relationship between writing and the silence of solitude:

Writing is saying to no one and to everyone the things it is not possible to say to someone. Or rather writing is saying to the no one who may eventually be the reader those things one has no someone to whom to say them. Matters that are so subtle, so personal, so obscure that I ordinarily can’t imagine saying them to the people to whom I’m closest. Every once in a while I try to say them aloud and find that what turns to mush in my mouth or falls short of their ears can be written down for total strangers. Said to total strangers in the silence of writing that is recuperated and heard in the solitude of reading. Is it the shared solitude of writing, is it that separately we all reside in a place deeper than society, even the society of two? Is it that the tongue fails where the fingers succeed, in telling truths so lengthy and nuanced that they are almost impossible aloud?

I had started out in silence, written as quietly as I had read, and then eventually people read some of what I had written, and some of the readers entered my world or drew me into theirs. I started out in silence and traveled until I arrived at a voice that was heard far away — first the silent voice that can only be read, and then I was asked to speak aloud and to read aloud. When I began to read aloud another voice, once I hardly recognized, emerged from my mouth. Maybe it was more relaxed, because writing is speaking to no one, and even when you’re reading to a crowd, you’re still in that conversation with the absent, the faraway, the not-yet-born, the unknown and the long-gone for whom writers write, the crowd of the absent who hover all around the desk.

The Faraway Nearby is an infinitely rewarding — unsummarizably so. Complement it with this wonderful animated essay on what books do for the soul, then revisit Solnit on how we find ourselves and the color of distance and desire.

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