|Four Stages of Data Visualization, by Tobias Sturt at the Guardian|
To create a great data visualization you need four skills. You don't have all of them. That was the message of Tobias Sturt and Adam Frost of the Guardian at a recent masterclass on data-vis held in London. The pair both work for the newspaper's "Digital Agency", a for-hire data visualization consultancy company run by the paper. Frost's role is to work with the data and find the story. Sturt determines the most appropriate chart style and the design that will help the reader interpret and engage with that data. That doesn't mean Frost knows nothing about the strengths and weaknesses of certain types of charts, or that Sturt runs away shrieking when he sees a spreadsheet. It does mean they each bring strengths to the table which allow them to create engaging visualizations that are true to the underlying data. That's what good collaborations achieve and anyone that's seen the outputs of the Guardian's team knows they're an incredibly talented group.
Where do historians fit in? I'd say most of us are like Frost. We can handle our data, be it numbers or words, or images, or material culture. We interpret what we see. And we find the story that adds the context to that data. According to Frost and Sturt, these two steps bring the integrity and meaning to the audience. But when it comes to data, words aren't always the best way to present them, and raw data in tabular form (as we've all seen so many times in journal articles) is what Frost refers to as "clarity without persuasion".
That means we need to find and work with the Tobias Sturts of the world. We need to collaborate with those with an eye for colour and form, who can take numbers and turn them into understanding. Without people like Sturt, the above visualization would be nothing more than it's raw data:
But we get so much more from his visual representation of those four ideas, and few of us have the skills to compete with the creative power of designers. They know things we don't. They know how colours make us feel or what they imply. They know you're more likely to believe a statement written in Baskerville than Comic Sans font. They understand how your eye scans a page, what it's looking for, and how the location of certain elements on the page or the size of those elements change the way we interpret them. They know what we don't.
The question is: where are these people and do they want to work with us?
I'm afraid I'll have to disappoint you and admit: I don't know. Sturt is likely out of the price range for most academic historians. His clients tend to be corporations looking to develop their brands, or large non-profits trying to reach huge audiences. But we all know there are artists out there looking for work. It seems to me the issue may be that we havn't yet realized we need each other, so we havn't yet had to build those relationships. We could say those artists have failed to market themselves to us, but unless we let them know we're interested, we can hardly blame them for ignoring us.
So maybe the best way is to ask. Artists: how do we find you? What should we be looking for in an artist? And what would you look for in us?