Chapter One: On Beauty, by Noah Iliinsky
This chapter is an examination of what we mean by beauty in the context of visualization, why it’s a worthy goal to pursue, and how to get there. We’ll start with a discussion of the elements of beauty, look at some examples and counterexamples, and then focus on the critical steps to realize a beautiful visualization.
[I use the words visualization and visual interchangeably in this chapter, to refer to all types of structured representation of information. This encompasses graphs, charts, diagrams, maps, storyboards, and less formally structured illustrations.]
What is Beauty?
What do we mean when we say a visual is beautiful? Is it an aesthetic judgment, in the traditional sense of the word? It can be, but when we’re discussing visuals in this context, beauty can be considered to have four key elements, of which aesthetic judgment is only one. For a visual to qualify as beautiful, it must be aesthetically pleasing, yes, but it must also be novel, informative, and efficient.
For a visual to truly be beautiful, it must go beyond merely being a conduit for information and offer some novelty: a fresh look at the data or a format that gives readers a spark of excitement and results in a new level of understanding. Well-understood formats (e.g., scatterplots) may be accessible and effective, but for the most part they no longer have the ability to surprise or delight us. Most often, designs that delight us do so not because they were designed to be novel, but because they were designed to be effective; their novelty is a byproduct of effectively revealing some new insight about the world.
The key to the success of any visual, beautiful or not, is providing access to information so that the user may gain knowledge. A visual that does not achieve this goal has failed. Because it is the most important factor in determining overall success, the ability to convey information must be the primary driver of the design of a visual.
There are dozens of contextual, perceptive, and cognitive considerations that come into play in making an effective visual. Though many of these are largely outside the scope of this chapter, we can focus on two particulars: the intended message and the context of use. Keen attention to these two factors, in addition to the data itself, will go far toward making a data visualization effective, successful, and beautiful; we will look at them more closely a little later.
A beautiful visualization has a clear goal, a message, or a particular perspective on the information that it is designed to convey. Access to this information should be as straightforward as possible, without sacrificing any necessary, relevant complexity.
A visual must not include too much off-topic content or information. Putting more information on the page may (or may not) result in conveying more information to the reader. However, presenting more information necessarily means that it will take the reader longer to find any desired subset of that information. Irrelevant data is the same thing as noise. If it’s not helping, it’s probably getting in the way.
The graphical construction—consisting of axes and layout, shape, colors, lines, and typography—is a necessary, but not solely sufficient, ingredient in achieving beauty. Appropriate usage of these elements is essential for guiding the reader, communicating meaning, revealing relationships, and highlighting conclusions, as well as for visual appeal.
The graphical aspects of design must primarily serve the goal of presenting information. Any facet of the graphical treatment that does not aid in the presentation of information is a potential obstacle: it may reduce the efficiency and inhibit the success of a visualization. As with the data presented, less is usually more in the graphics department. If it’s not helping, it’s probably getting in the way.
Often, novel visual treatments are presented as innovative solutions. However, when the goal of a unique design is simply to be different, and the novelty can’t be specifically linked to the goal of making the data more accessible, the resulting visual is almost certain to be more difficult to use. In the worst cases, novel design is nothing more than the product of ego and the desire to create something visually impressive, regardless of the intended audience, use, or function. Such designs aren’t useful to anyone.