As it happens, last September I started teaching Information Design at the School of Visual Arts. The Moon was in the seventh house and Jupiter had aligned with Mars*: I had just received my Green Card, the person who was supposed to teach the class couldn’t do it, John Grimwade thought of me (I’ve talked to his class several times over the years and it’s always such a blast), and I had just come from an energizing vacation right after the Olympic frenzy, so I fell for Richard Wilde and Benita Raphan’s schemes to take on the class.
I had never taught a full-fledged course on Information Design. Sure I have probably practiced it long and successfully enough — by some accounts. Sure I have taught enough workshops. And sure I have written about it, spoken about it and analyzed it enough to have good theoretical base to teach.
But teaching a full course is a different animal and I have a very peculiar vision of the objectives and the process. I wanted them to learn how to tell stories with data and how the visual presentation of data works (as oppose to memorizing which visual device solves a certain dataset). In the end, they would think of information design as a natural language to communicate stories. Just as one speaks or writes, an information designer should be able to doodle visual stories.
There were two recurring themes throughout the course:
— an interesting dataset is what makes the story worth telling,
— and understanding the process that leads to the final product is more important than the final product itself (in the context of the class).
A good story starts with good data
Another way of illustrating theme number one is this: the other day, Sergio Peçanha sent me a link to a collection of otherwise beautifully crafted infographics. In the left column of that page one can read a sentence that summarizes the radical opposite of what I tried to get the class to understand:
How do you get people to notice and absorb data that may in itself be quite mundane — but that it is necessary for them to know, as well as making it beautiful?
(Imagine a really loud brake sound here and Xocas’s bumfuzzled face)
In my book, “mundane” data equals wrong data. It’s trickery, it’s bells and whistles, it’s dishonest — and as a reader, it makes me angry when I fall for it.
Sketching, sketching, sketching
Besides the lectures, there were plenty of group exercises in class: I like to see in real-time how people think and sketch so I can comment as they go, instead of giving them assignments to complete at home; and I believe that collaboration is an often-forgotten, fundamental skill in communication design. They sketched in groups and then presented their ideas to the rest of us. The exercises ranged from crazy ideas to cover election night, to solutions to this story that didn’t include a slopegraph, to stories about the role of arms exports in the balance of power in the Middle East, to a non-linear solution to ‘Connecting Music and Gesture’.
As you can tell, we sketched a lot. I cared much less about the final product than about the process they followed to get to that point. Sketches are not just a good design tool, they guide your research, they help you structure the narrative. They help you see, before any effort in production is put in place, if the story is worth telling, if the narrative is right, if the dataset is complete, if your hypothesis makes sense. Not to mention how good of a practice it is to keep visual track of the evolution of your reporting and editing.
Their final project
As the class’ final project I asked them to produce:
an information graphic about “your block”—as in the usually rectangular space in a city enclosed by streets and occupied by buildings. It can be an story about the business in the block, of its demographics, of your routines, of its evolution in the last 4 years, or in the last 100.
The story is absolutely up to you, as long as it interests you and you think it holds value and interest for someone else. The format is also up to you: it can be a poster, a sculpture, an interactive piece or a booklet.
As long as it is a storytelling piece articulated via visual syntax that explains relations, comparisons, processes . . .
The results ranged from fantastic to fabulous:
Katya Fialkova took the most journalistic approach to the assignment. Her story was about a family of landlords in Washington Heights whose buildings have among the highest rates of building violations in the city. She also redid and finessed most of the other assignments — and learned Illustrator and Quantum GIS in a matter of weeks. It’s a great story, great reporting. Very smart graphic.
Eli Balin built the only data-driven sculpture of the class: the garbage produced by each building in his block — yes, you read it right. Not an easy data collection task. He didn’t seem thrilled by the result, but it’s already a feat that he managed to collect and process the data, and to produce a scale model and annotate it. Plus, this wasn’t an arts and crafts class, and the final product was good. One silver lego equals one garbage can.
Leigh Ryan’s original idea was to put Wilton, Conn. in the context of the state and the country. A mostly white, educated, affluent community in the context of an increasingly diverse country. A week and a half before the deadline she felt like the graphic was a bit like data dumping, so she quickly came up with a very smart story about the changes in the relationship between the Gilbert & Bennett’s wire mill and the towns surrounding over the years. She barely had any time to put the interactive together, so this was a very rough prototype.
Kazue Anan reviewed all the veggie burger joints in her neighborhood, and drew an exploded view of each burger. The structure is quite simple: a picture to your left (she took the pictures, very nice food styling), and the diagram and the review to your right. I have a nicely printed copy of the booklet at home that I intend to use. (We later learned that she shouldn’t have eaten some of the burgers: she is allergic to soy and some had soy-based patties — the things you have to do for an A.)
Shara Freeman discarded all her initial attempts to come up with a story about her block, all of them quite interesting. So she decided to be pragmatic. She took a ginormous dataset related to her work (donor stewardship) and studied it to see if it proved the points of her hypothesis: even though not all donors come back year after year, the donor base keeps growing.
Rie Kawashima twisted what I thought was going to be the sweetest, cutest story about human/cat relationships, into a dark, cautionary tale: a story about a city program to remedy the multiplication of stray cats. The deliberately stark contrast of tones in the content and the presentation, reminded me of this witty animation. I love the dark comedic touch.
Darcy Wang narrowed “the block” to the confines of her apartment and showed the interaction between her and her roommate: two people with very different lifestyles and schedules. A booklet of small multiples on transparent sheets to show when both roommates overlapped, annotated when it mattered.
The first batch visiting the Times on their last day.
* (For the astrology geeks and those eager to catch a lapse: the moon enters the seventh house for two hours every day and Jupiter aligns with Mars several times a year. Nonetheless, for some reason, it sounds like something that should never happen. Rado and Ragni, true poets.)