Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘Wendy MacNaughton’

08 OCTOBER, 2013

How to Be an Educated Consumer of Infographics: David Byrne on the Art-Science of Visual Storytelling


Cultivating the ability to experience the “geeky rapture” of metaphorical thinking and pattern recognition.

As an appreciator of the art of visual storytelling by way of good information graphics — an art especially endangered in this golden age of bad infographics served as linkbait — I was thrilled and honored to be on the advisory “Brain Trust” for a project by Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist, New Yorker writer, and Scientific American neuroscience blog editor Gareth Cook, who has set out to highlight the very best infographics produced each year, online and off. (Disclaimer for the naturally cynical: No money changed hands.) The Best American Infographics 2013 (public library) is now out, featuring the finest examples from the past year — spanning everything from happiness to sports to space to gender politics, and including a contribution by friend-of-Brain Pickings Wendy MacNaughton — with an introduction by none other than David Byrne. Accompanying each image is an artist statement that explores the data, the choice of visual representation, and why it works.

Byrne, who knows a thing or two about creativity and has himself produced some delightfully existential infographics, writes:

The very best [infographics] engender and facilitate an insight by visual means — allow us to grasp some relationship quickly and easily that otherwise would take many pages and illustrations and tables to convey. Insight seems to happen most often when data sets are crossed in the design of the piece — when we can quickly see the effects on something over time, for example, or view how factors like income, race, geography, or diet might affect other data. When that happens, there’s an instant “Aha!”…

Byrne addresses the healthy skepticism many of us harbor towards the universal potency of infographics, reminding us that the medium is not the message — the message is the message:

A good infographic … is — again — elegant, efficient, and accurate. But do they matter? Are infographics just things to liven up a dull page of type or the front page of USA Today? Well, yes, they do matter. We know that charts and figures can be used to support almost any argument. . . . Bad infographics are deadly!

One would hope that we could educate ourselves to be able to spot the evil infographics that are being used to manipulate us, or that are being used to hide important patterns and information. Ideally, an educated consumer of infographics might develop some sort of infographic bullshit detector that would beep when told how the trickle-down economic effect justifies fracking, for example. It’s not easy, as one can be seduced relatively easily by colors, diagrams and funny writing.

And, indeed, at the heart of the aspiration to cultivate a kind of visual literacy so critical for modern communication. Here are a few favorite pieces from the book that embody that ideal of intelligent elegance and beautiful revelation of truth:

America's Most Popular Birthdays

The days of the year, ranked by the number of babies born on each day in the United States (Matt Stiles, NPR data journalist)

Byrne — who believes the best use of infographics allows us to “experience a kind of geeky rapture as our senses are amplified and expanded through charts and illustrations” — is especially fond of one sub-genre:

Flowcharts [are] a form of poetry. And poetry is its own reward.

Indeed, flowcharts have a singular way of living at the intersection of the pragmatic and the existential:

Email: Help for Addicts

A handy flowchart to help you decide if you should check your email. (Wendy MacNaughton, independent illustrator, for Forbes)

How to Be Happy

Just ask yourself one question. (Gustavo Vieira Dias, creative director of DDB Tribal Vienna)

Some are visually elaborate:

The Breaking Bad Body Count

All of the deaths in the first fifty-four episodes of AMC's ‘Breaking Bad,’ with each deceased character represented by a faux chemical formula indicating when he or she died, how they died, and who killed them. (John D. LaRue)

The Four Kinds of Dog

Analyzing the DNA of 85 dog breeds, scientists found that genetic similarities clustered them into four broad categories. The groupings reveal how breeders have recombined ancestral stock to create new breeds; a few still carry many wolflike genes. Researchers named the groups for a distinguishing trait in the breeds dominating the clusters, though not every dog necessarily shows that trait. The length of the colored bars in a breed’s genetic profile shows how much of the dog’s DNA falls into each category. (John Tomanio, senior graphics editor, National Geographic)

Others appear more visually abstract yet derive from precise and concrete data sets:

Paths through New York City

‘Flow map’ of travel in New York City derived from the locations of tweets tagged with the locations of their senders. The starting and ending points of each trip come from a pair of geotagged tweets by the same person, and the path in between is an estimate, routed along the densest corridor of other people's geotagged tweets. (Eric Fischer, artist in residence at the Exploratorium in San Francisco)

Planets Everywhere

All of the planets discovered outside the Solar System. (Jan Willem Tulp, freelance information designer, for Scientific American)

Then there’s the mandatory love of pie charts and its derivatives:

Ten Artists, Ten Years

A revolution in color over ten extraordinary years in art history. Each pie chart represents an individual painting, with the five most prominent colors shown proportionally. (Arthur Buxton)

Seasonal Produce Calendars

The availability of produce in the northern hemisphere by month and season. (Russell van Kraayenburg)

The greatest power of infographics, however, lies in two things: Their ability to weave visual metaphors that enhance our understanding, something particularly potent given how essential metaphorical thinking is to the way we communicate and learn, and their role in igniting the very pattern recognition that fuels our creative comprehension. Byrne writes:

We have an inbuilt ability to manipulate visual metaphors in ways we cannot do with the things and concepts they stand for — to use them as malleable, conceptual Tetris blocks or modeling clay that we can more easily squeeze, stack, and reorder. And then — whammo! — a pattern emerges, and we’ve arrived someplace we would never have gotten by any other means.

Complement The Best American Infographics 2013 with Nathan Yau’s indispensable guide to telling stories with data and Taschen’s scrumptious showcase of the best information graphics from around the world.

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26 SEPTEMBER, 2013

The Four Types of Jaywalkers: An Illustrated Morphology of Bad Pedestrians circa 1924


“The Confusion of Our Sidewalkers: And the Traffic Problem of the Future in the Erratic Pedestrian.”

Walkability might be the key to what makes a great city, but it comes with an inevitable double edge: More walkers means more bad walkers. But while the advent of smartphones has certainly exacerbated the epidemic, the history of pedestrian nuisances is a long and colorful one. The very term “jaywalker” — after jay, a silly person — was coined on August 3, 1924, in a New York Times editorial about the proliferation of pedestrian menaces — something I learned from a passing mention that Alexandra Horowitz, who knows a thing or two about the art-science of urban walking, makes in her unspeakably fantastic meditation on learning to see the familiar city with new eyes. Alexandra was kind enough to help me track down the original archival article, and I was immediately taken with the marvelous morphology of bad walkers that it paints. So I teamed up with my friend Wendy MacNaughton — brilliant visual storyteller and frequent Brain Pickings contributor — and asked her to do for the taxonomy of pedestrian perils what she did for Gay Talese’s taxonomy of street cats, illustrating the archetypes of walkers described in the New York Times article. Please enjoy.

Titled “The Confusion of Our Sidewalkers: And the Traffic Problem of the Future in the Erratic Pedestrian,” the original 1924 article by M. B. Levick presages the urban density of our present and examines it through the eyes of an imagined Uncle Jay Walker, a sort of patron saint of sidewalk orderliness and pedestrian manners. Levick writes:

The speeding and erratic pedestrian is a problem of the present but nothing is but thinking makes it so and the town has not come to realize it yet. Envisage the Manhattan of distant aeons — say 1926, after the fashion of popular prophecy — and the picture shows motors by the million, of bizarre design, closely packed but orderly and docile to semaphores on roadways, sunken, raised, suspended or maintained by radio. In this picture the pedestrians file as orderly as a column of troops along Utopian footways. But what of reality then — and now? The question is not of the jaywalker, but of the master anarchist in all his varieties (and hers), who is creating new and ineluctable hazards in the process of getting from place to place. Here is a problem that has been only touched upon by the “Keep Moving” signs along Fifth Avenue.

Does the world offer worse sidewalk manners than those of Manhattan? Savages in distant isles stroll more urbanely through nine-mile streets like the jungle trail of Typee and never elbow their way with a war club. Medieval streets two feet wide, with the rooftops over hanging, give the Old World traffic cop nothing to do save to help the occasional plump pedestrian who sticks between the walls. Look at the Bund and you see benighted Chipamen trailing single file, and if for them the right side is the wrong side, as for the Englishman, at any rate, the sides are recognized. But New York, orientation smitten from it, rushes in where angels fear, and if there is anything in the transmission of acquired characteristics it bodes ill for the future.

Levick then outlines the types of bad walkers:

There are the veerers who come up sharply in the wind and give no signal. The runners who dash to a goal and then dash back again without even tagging another “it.” The retroactive, moving crabwise. Those who flee and turn swiftly to victory, making a commonplace of the ruse that gave Joe Choynski his fame in the ring. Left-ends and butters, the people who never met the Marquis of Queensberry and to whom Greco-Roman is more foreign than jiu-jitsu.

As mad as the satellite particles of an atom and amid each group, like a nucleus, a static type. The plodder, trudging through Times Square as o’er the lee and knowing neither near side nor off side. The inferiority complexes whose only sense of power is to make the world walk around them. Children of the cigar store Indians standing stock still, so that a couple passing must say “Bread and butter!” Others who are to movement what the color blind are to light and the swaggerers who in an earlier age would take the wall, but in this present confusion must take wall and gutter and all between to assert their precedence.

Conceding that punishment is not enough, Levick — who laments that New York can’t afford the Southern disposition that “the woman pedestrian is a concern of gallantry and not of self-defense” — proposes some solutions:

Control is Uncle Jay Walker’s real work. Perhaps he should devise a speed law and a minimum speed law. Or traffic lights on every house front. If you believe that Western delegate, New Yorkers never knew the rules of the road. Is it too late now? They could be taught in school in rhymes like the doggerel which helps sailors on pathed waters:

From three short blasts ‘tis yours to learn
That she is going full-speed astern.

The verse has a hint; remember it when a determined stout woman comes at you like a skittish battleship. Horns and sirens, to be supplemented with side lights and range lights and a masthead light “at a height above the hull not less than the breadth of the vessel.” All this would have a practical value, and think, too, of the aesthetic appeal. The sober, hurrying crowd would become as gay as a convention of fireflies: the dandy could spend on matching the lights of lapel and coat tail what time he now give to his tie, and mankind, like taxicabs decorated in the latest manner, would burgeon like a Christmas tree, red, green, yellow and blue.

What would be the effect on the traffic accident rate if pedestrians bore false arms for warning, like the grotesque red hands that truck drivers work with strings? It would be a training whose results would be apparent in the roadways no less than on the sidewalks. He who has learned to jaywalk on the sidewalk would be less apt to jaywalk in the street and Special Deputy Policy Commissioner Baron Collier could doubtless point to an even greater saving of life that the street fatality ration between the first half of last year and the same period in 1924. Last year’s rate for the six months was fifteen persons killed to each 10,000 registered vehicles, while the rate to July 1 of the present year was twelve. Of this year’s deaths 82 occurred at crossings and 130 away from crossing, from which Commissioner Collier draws a moral for the jaywalker, at the same time wishing for a law that would give the police regulation over pedestrians as well as vehicles.

And yet, Horowitz tells us in On Looking, though jaywalking may be a civic traffic violation, it could actually be safer because it relies on shared attention rather than mindlessly following traffic signals, which means you’re making judgments based on eye contact rather than autopilot — which, of course, is no reason to plod or veer across city streets.

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08 MAY, 2013

Nellie Was a Lady: 1945 Radio Dramatization of Pioneering Female Journalist Nellie Bly’s Life


“The life, loves, and laughter of one of America’s most fascinating women.”

In 1889, pioneering Victorian journalist Nellie Bly, who paved the way for women in media, set out to circumnavigate the globe in 80 days, inspired by Jules Verne. As if the true story weren’t riveting enough, a 1945 radio segment by Turner Bullock, titled Nellie Was a Lady, dramatized Bly’s life and her unprecedented adventure.

Though the program — in a precursor to current debates about sponsored content — was sponsored by chemical company DuPont, it’s half an hour of unabated educational entertainment, the kind that makes one lament the disappearance of radio dramatizations:

In related exciting news: After a number of requests, Wendy MacNaughton’s glorious illustration of how to pack like Nellie Bly is now available as a print, with proceeds benefiting the Women’s Media Center in honor of Bly — enjoy:

Thanks, Bob

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:

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Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.