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Interview with Dava Viz Star Pedro Monteiro

Why data viz must have a prominent seat at the newsroom table, or how the Internet is increasing the need for aesthetics.

Today, we’re picking the brains of Portuguese data viz maestro Pedro Monteiro, whose work on Whatype and Visualisation Magazine makes him one of the most exciting champions of today’s emerging data visualization culture.


Hey Pedro, good to have you. Tell us a bit about yourself, your background and your brand of curiosity.

Thanks for having me.

I’m a graphic designer from Portugal. I work on VISÃO, a weekly newsmagazine, as a designer and a “consultant” for visual information. I’m also a consultant for INNOVATION International Media Consulting Group. I’m self-taught in design, having studied mathematics in college. What fascinates me in design is the communication with people and the different storytelling techniques you can use to craft the best “tone.”


When and how did you first get into information visualization?

I was studying typographic grids to use in VISÃO and I discovered the work of [iconic Swiss designer] Karl Gerstner. It was amazing! I went on to understand the making of his Complex Grid (still the most popular post on Whatype) and bought his book, Designing Programmes.

I guess it was my math side, but the idea of approaching a design problem by making a list of all the complexities and then find solutions for each — all done in theory before starting the design — really appealed to me.

This kind of thinking made much sense to me and I started playing with it. Eventually, I applied this in a series I was working on for Whatype about the Kyoto Protocol.

I went on a web search and started finding a great deal of incredible work. Not only was it beautiful, but most importantly, it told stories, all by data and numbers. In a way, I could say that information visualization built the bridge between my education and my practice.


Sustainability seems to be a running undercurrent in a lot of your work. How do you see designers and visual artists becoming change agents in the issues they care about?

I believe that good design is good communication, finding the best way to communicate an idea or a concept. This allows designers to take a huge part in making change happen in the world.

Just see what IDEO is doing with their design thinking approach. The work that Stefanie Posavec did with Kerouac’s On The Road, it changes the world and the way people look at it. Look at Hans Rosling’s TED talks, they are changing much of what people used to believe and think.

That’s some of the appeal that data visualization has for me — being able to show something, to tell a story that is hidden in raw data.


How did the idea for Visualisation Magazine first come up? What is the project ultimately trying to achieve, besides offering a wonderful selection of visual candy?

The original idea is not mine. Chris Watson created the magazine for his site, Visual Think Map. When I joined his site, I offered my services to redesign the original magazine.

I wanted to make something that was “transparent” enough not to “cover” the incredible works that the magazine was presenting. In a way, this was a very Swiss approach. Chris was kind enough to let me on board and we’ve collaborated to produce the present product.

Truth be told, most of the hard work on Visualisation Magazine is upon Chris’s shoulders and he is doing a great job.

The project aims to introduce a broader audience to the world of visualization. And, hopefully, inspire and invite even more people to join this area of expertise. The magazine is also trying to create an archive of great work, cataloging it by visualization type. Each volume is about a specific technique or way of displaying information, making it a good reference book for designers.


We’re very big on the concept of curated content here — we’ve noticed that each issue of the magazine is curated by a different beacon of visualization. And in a way, every data viz artist is a curator when choosing which information to use, culling the relevant data from the noise. What role do you see curators playing in bringing data visualization to the masses and helping us make sense of the increasing amount of information out there?

I agree with the notion that a data viz artist is a curator when working on the data and choosing the best graphic way to reveal the story within. In that sense, this curatory role is of great importance.

Data visualization is going to play an incredibly important role in our lives — like you said, there is an amount of data surrounding us today that is incomprehensible without the proper techniques to “look” inside it.

There is so much to be learned and our world, our lives need this knowledge. Some great projects — like Tracing the Visitor’s Eye — have demonstrated this.

For me, working in journalism, there is also a lot that can be taken from data visualization. Journalists have always been curators, diving into the metaphorical sea to find the stories that would be important and of interest to the public. Today, with the Internet and the easy access to information by the public, journalists’ role must again be that of curators, but the “sea” has changed.

What we need today are richer explanations of the news — we need a 360º view of the major events that are happening. Having knowledge of data viz inside a newsroom can provide news with more profound information. There are great stories inside all the data available today.

For Visualisation Magazine, the curators are very important in offering a different view of data viz, different views from Chris’s or mine. A curator also gives the project a special quality stamp, achieving an openness to the community. It’s a magazine about the data viz community, by the community and to the community and beyond.


Thanks for letting us pick your brains, Pedro. Any last thoughts left unpicked?

I’d like to just say that with data visualization becoming more open to the general public comes a bigger challenge of getting the community to look at each other’s work, find the value in it and discuss its shortcommings in a constructive way.

I agree with Robert Kosara when he says that we need to built a sense of data viz criticism. We must be able to criticize the works made public, but without making the mistaken assumption that most of the data viz knowledge is already cemented and that there are no new ways of having different approaches.

Manuel Lima’s Information Visualization Manifesto — even if I don’t agree with every little part of it — is a great effort in achieving this.

My guess is that one must be as concerned about the data being shown as with the intention of telling its story. Sometimes, it takes a certain degree of aesthetics in order to draw the audience into your story. Other times, you need to keep away from aesthetic approaches for the best result.

We must be able to be open-minded about data viz techniques and experiences in order to keep this field growing quickly as it must, making it a field that welcomes newcomers with new and fresh voices and views.

Published December 8, 2009




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