As trailblazers in functional data visualizations, we wanted to share what we’ve been hearing from the #dataviz community on trends, new ideas, and favorite visualizations. This week, we spoke with fellow data visualization enthusiasts, keeping our ear to the ground on what the top viz trends are. We heard about what designers think is working, and what’s out.
We spoke with Emily Fuhrman, a data visualization and product designer at Two Sigma Analytics, Tiffany France, a freelance UX/UI developer, and John Richter, a developer at VizEarth.
What are the biggest trends in data visualization that you’ve seen more designers implementing?
“Circle visualizations are having a big moment in data visualizations right now,” says Tiffany France. “They can be as simple as a multi-dimensional scatter plots [check out this viz of every satellite orbiting Earth from Quartz] and as complex as circle packing or sunburst charts. I see designers pushing the bounds of what insights circles can portray.”
France also says that the use of “steam graphs” are on the rise. This is similar to a stacked area graph, but instead of plotting values against a fixed straight axis, a Steam Graph has values displaced around a varying central baseline. “The difficulty with this,” says France, “is knowing how to use this chart appropriately.”
Furhman, on the other hand, shares that the “bar chart race” viz is popular, which includes an animated horizontal bar chart that updates through time. A couple examples include the New York Times’ viz of how much time each Democratic candidate spoke during last week’s primary debates, and another of the Avenger’s Endgame record-breaking box office sales, published by the Financial Times.
Of the trends, you’re seeing, which is your favorite? Why?
For Emily Furhman, her favorite trend – “and this is going to sound like a strange one,” she admits- “is the use of text to directly represent data dimensions.”
“Typically, visualization is a process of translating data into visual forms like circles, rectangles, and lines,” she explains. “Lately, designers seem to be experimenting more with representing data in an unmediated way, using the original source of data as a visual form in itself. Examples of this include The Wall Street Journal’s visualization of redacted portions of the Mueller Report, the NYT Women’s World Cup survey, as well as The Pudding’s “People Map of the US” and name misspellings experiment.”
John Richter favors more generally the usage of 3d visualization libraries, like three.js. “This can lead to amazing results,” he says, but with the drawback that it “ requires higher level of skill to pull off.”
In addition to specific visualizatoins, Tiffany France favors a new trend in the development of vizzes themselves: a rise in data visualization challenges.
“Challenges give the participant a dataset to investigate and build around,” explains France. Challenges pop up at places like National Geographic, which invited participants to compete in visualization the ocean’s plastic levels; others include platforms with multiple challenges, such as the subreddit r/dataisbeautiful, the Data Visualization Society, and Storytelling with Data.
“Challenges are a great way to learn to analyze and represent data, pick up new tech, experiment with implementations, and gather feedback from other industry practitioners,” explains France.
Which is your least favorite trend? Why?
In terms of least-favorite trends in the data vizzes themselves, Furhman shares her disdain for “data humanism,” a practice pioneered by designer Giorgina Lupi. In a profile on Lupi, The New Yorker defines it as “a reaction against the computer-generated, harsh-toned bar graphs, pie charts, and rows of tiny humans that leapt from corporate reports into mainstream media in the nineties.” This could mean “data that is visualized as carefully drawn flowers, asterisks, and whorls, created in a more tenable way that traditional vizzes.”
However, this trend, Furhman believes, is premised as an antidote to brash infographics that purport to simplify complexity.”
“Neither rejecting concision nor enshrining the trace of authorship alters the humanity of the diverse visual artifacts our culture produces to make sense of information,” she critiques.
“Data humanism encourages audiences to build trust in methods that are just as abstract as the methods they try to supplant. We should look more closely at the impulse to harness and organize data, as well as what, exactly, we expect data to do for us, and why.
That said, John Richter, laments on the economics of the data viz development business that he believes keeps vizzes from truly innovating even further, perhaps in ways like Lupi’s data humanism.
“Like anyone, I believe that while high specialized visualizations like those you see in features in the NYT are way more immersive, interesting, and profound than a standard line, bar, or pie chart,” says Richter. “But being able to pull off the highly specialized ones rarely work out from a financial perspective, says Richter, because businesses want an ROI on time/resources input, and so standardized libraries will cover 99% of use cases.”
What is your favorite data visualization on the Internet?
“I have so many favorites!” shares Tiffany France, “but if I have to choose only one I would choose “The David Bowie Song That Fans Are Listening to Most: ‘Heroes’”, produced by the NYT’s The Upshot.
“The death of a music legend is so epically hard for the world, and this visualization captured exactly what we needed,” she says. She explains that it hit all the marks of a “master-class data visualization: it was “timely, representative, simple, well-labeled, and leveraged strong data sets.”
One of Richter’s favorites veers across industries to another story in modern popular culture (and politics/economics): climate change.
Produced for UX agency Viz Earth, this graphic visualizes a carbon fee and dividend model, displaying how all revenue from a carbon tax could be returned to citizens as a yearly check. In the interactive visualization, the user can alter the price on carbon to see how that will both reduce carbon pollution over time and determine how much money the user could individually earn back in taxes.
Lastly, Emily Fuhrman’s favorite visualizations are the NASA Blue Marble series of composite images of the earth.
While each one appears to be a flat image of the earth, NASA’s site states that each image is actually “a collection of satellite-based observations.” In order to produce this, “scientists and visualizers brought together months of observations of the land surface, oceans, sea ice, and clouds into a seamless, true-color mosaic of every square kilometer (.386 square mile) of our planet.”
“I love them because they exemplify the ‘view from nowhere’ that all visualizations embody,” says Fuhrman. “While the earth looks like a complete whole in each image, each one is the stitched-together result of different observations at different times.”
With the innovation that crops up every day in this space, we’re excited stay at the forefront of new trends in creative storytelling with data. To learn more about the visualizations we offer clients, schedule a demo with us.
About our interviewees:
Prior to Two Sigma, Emily worked at Booz Allen Hamilton and then at Huge Agency in their data viz and product design departments, until going back to school to earn her Master’s degree at Columbia University. In 2016 she began her role at Two Sigma, while also balancing an adjunct professorship in data visualization and design at Columbia.
We also spoke with Tiffany France, a freelance UX/UI developer who specializes in data visualization. After graduating from University, Tiffany trail blazed her own freelance career in visualization development, building up a client roster that includes names like Google, Indeed.com, Capital One, and unicorn startup Parse.ly.
And lastly, we spoke with John Richter, a UX/UI developer who’s worked with data in a multitude of industries. He’s visualized everything from financial data for global investment firms like Millenium Management to an environmental data for National Geographic, the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, and Our Climate.