Having not enough of not good enough to get high enough so that nothing matters enough to stop…
Having not enough of not good enough to get high enough so that nothing matters enough to stop caring enough to sleep enough
Having not enough of not good enough to get high enough so that nothing matters enough to stop caring enough to sleep enough
A decision tree so complicated it numbs the need to decide
Reading the label on the bottle of anti-anxiety medication by the light of the moon after midnight because the thought of turning on the light is too much to bear
So, so, so, so nervous about this.
Here’s how it works: while you’re alive, do whatever pleases you, and try to be pleased by doing worthwhile things.
For example, when another person needs help, you should help them if you can, but you don’t have to feel guilty if you can’t. In fact, you never have to feel obligated to anyone or…
Love love love.
I have asked and have been asked this question numerous times over my career. I have very good friends who disagree with me completely on my opinion, and I’m on the cusp of teaching a web design class to unsuspecting, pliable minds and I need to decide – soon – what exactly I’m going to teach them and how. This blog post is my way of working it out for myself. I hope you find it helpful.
When I was in school, I held a digital printing job. This means that it wasn’t traditional offset printing, but more like your typical Kinko’s, quick-print type place. I learned a lot about what you could and couldn’t do to get the highest quality print for your client. You can’t design to the edges. You have to leave enough room around the fold. You have to take into account color shifts. You have to embed your fonts correctly. When I lost this job and found myself without work for a few months between Halloween 1998 and January of 1999 (when I got my first web design job), I did something that felt natural to me, and it turned out to be something I would do every time I found myself without work: I learned something new. Something technical. I taught myself HTML (ok, GoLive CyberStudio helped).
Graphic design has always contained a technical component. There have always been tools that designers use to put their ideas together. For the old timers, these tools included Letraset, Rapidographs, offset printing, choosing the right kind of paper, worrying about dot gain (and many other things I’m unqualified to even list out). For print designers today, these tools have moved to the computer, but knowledge of the output is always required when creating something. Is it a magazine ad? A stand-alone print piece? A newspaper ad? All of these media have different constraints and strengths. Knowing these strengths and constraints isn’t a luxury, it’s not an extra thing, it’s a requirement. You can’t do your job without knowing them.
As a young student who was interested in web design, the language of the web was a natural progression for me to learn. If I wanted to design for the web, it just simply made sense for me to learn HTML. I never wanted to be a web developer, I wanted to be a web designer. Maybe I was just a misguided student, but learning HTML didn’t seem like an extra thing, or a luxury, it felt like a requirement.
I think I still feel like it is today.
Your first instinctual reaction (as mine would be), is of course going to be that learning HTML is not learning web design. And of course – of course – that’s true. Just because you know Flash or HTML does not mean you’re a designer. I would never be brain-dead enough to suggest such a thing. The visual and strategic aspects of design are always more important than the technical ones – it’s just that the technical skills should exist alongside all of that to effectively uphold your decisions. This has been true of design as a discipline for decades.
But if you’re a web designer, think about it. Think about who you admire most. Dan Cederholm? Neven Mrgan? Jason Santa Maria? Jason Fried? Shaun Inman? Jeffrey Zeldman? These people all know code, even if they don’t do it on a daily basis. They all understand the importance of designers understanding what it is that makes their designs real. I’ve never been comfortable with what I create being dependent on someone else to become fully-realized. I’ve never been comfortable spending my time dreaming in design-land where my ideas are the only important thing, and making them work in the real world is the least of my worries. That feels irresponsible and arrogant to me.
My friends who disagree with me say at this point that if they’re spending time worrying about the implementation, then they’re not spending time worrying about solving the problem. Which again, I just don’t understand. You can spend all the time in the world on wireframing to get the right flow down. You can spend a million hours pushing pixels in Photoshop to get the client happy and to get sign off. But when that’s where design work ends and where development begins, I have always found that the end-result is unimpressive and not exactly what I had in mind. Just because a Photoshop file exists somewhere in the ether of your hard drive doesn’t mean that the real thing – the thing your users are going to use – is just as perfect. If you leave that translation up to someone else, almost 100% of the time, it’s not going to be nearly as perfect as your precious PSD. And then your work has been for what?
The next step in the conversation usually requires me to say this: No, you shouldn’t have to code everything all the time. Maybe you don’t need to learn PHP or Objective-C or Ruby on Rails or SQL or anything that runs on a server or gets compiled. Although I can tell you that I do know these things, and even when I don’t write them for what I’m working on, I always make use of that knowledge when designing to make use of them. Overlapping skills on a team is obviously a positive thing. You don’t have to write all of the code for your web project to be able to leverage that knowledge to your advantage. How can more knowledge about your field be a bad thing?
How can you know that fancy interaction design you’ve storyboarded in Illustrator is the right one and feels right to use unless you create an interactive prototype to test it out? Why wait for someone else to do it for you? Why not just learn how to do it yourself? Because it’s hard? Because it doesn’t feel like doing design? Because you just don’t feel like learning how?
As has been pointed out frequently lately, there’s a strong groundswell of designers taking it upon themselves to create data visualizations that at first blush appear to be legitimate but upon further review simply reveal nothing more than the designer’s desire to impress you with their ability to create splashy graphics that include data in some way.
Graphic Design vs. Information Design
I recently spoke up on a lengthy Flickr comment thread on an image posted by another designer who is fed up with the noise being produced in the name of infographics, and it’s on this thread that I posited the term “infauxgraphics” to describe the latest spate of work that purports to display data in a meaningful way but eschews the key points of data visualization.
In this thread, a popular opinion by another commenter was expressed that it’s the mingling and conflation of graphic design and information design that’s to blame here. I took offense to this idea that graphic designers are to blame and spent much too long on writing a Flickr comment to explain that frustration. My full comment is excerpted here:
[I’d argue] that it’s a confused generation of designers who believe that graphic design is just the pursuit of beauty that’s the problem. One of art’s pursuits is beauty, but design in any form should always be primarily about solving a communication problem. If the communication method is beautiful, then all the better.
Designers who think all they need to do is make something easy to look at are designers who miss the mark in understanding that design is about making something understandable, and this translates to graphic design, user interface design and information design.
Anyone, designer or otherwise, who wades into information design without knowing the ground rules and when to break them is embarking on a failed expedition, to mix my metaphors a bit.
Graphic design has never been, and never will be about “making things beautiful.” If you believe that, then you have much to learn. The person who made the iPad graphic suffered from a misguided mindset that they can copy the look of something, and recreate its impact.
The popularity of so many useless infographics – the ones lampooned in this Flickr post – is indicative of just how many people feel design is simply the art of making something beautiful.
This is some basic, first-semester design school stuff. The key difference in my mind between graphic design and information design is simply the existence of a data-set that needs to be represented. All of the other tenets of graphic design apply equally to information design. The use of negative space, the use of visual hierarchy, the necessity of choosing the correct color combinations and not least of all, selecting which items to leave out – these are all just as important in information design as they are in graphic design. Visualizing data effectively requires a superset of design skills to be sure, and the best visualizations out there probably also included an entirely separate person acting as a statistician, but that isn’t to say that just because you’re a graphic or interaction designer, you can’t learn information design. Of course you can, you just need to pay attention to what information design really requires of you and not forget the skills you already know. Recognize that just making it pretty isn’t doing your job as a designer to dig deeper into the meaning of the data.
Fetishizing Data Visualization
One of the first problems with designers creating infographics is that a lot of us have started to fetishize data visualization on the whole. We read blogs dedicated to the subject and our pulses increase whenever we see something that contains a lot of criss-crossing lines and circles and (even better) large numbers next to small labels. There’s a visceral reaction here and it is extremely difficult to spend time critiquing something that affects us this way. But critique we must, because there’s a good chance the person who drew this wonderful-looking visualization either willfully ignored – or was blissfully ignorant of – some really solid ground rules when they embarked on their journey of creating the graphic you’re sitting there salivating over.
Beauty is Not Skin Deep
The main dig against the latest round of infauxgraphics is that they make heavy use of big numbers with tiny labels below them. I blame Nick Felton for the proliferation of this (well, ok, not him personally, but people copying his style). I have to admit, I love this treatment and I’ve used it in a lot of places to great effect. But when you’re putting together an all-encompassing piece, make damn sure your giant type treatments aren’t just doing the work of a simple data table while masquerading as more. This is not information design, this is typesetting.
Custom Visualization or Standard Chart?
After having worked in financial information design, I can say first-hand how attractive the idea of creating a completely custom data visualization is over using a “standard,” tried and true chart. The reality however is that standard charts come with a set of well-worn rules and best practices that can help install the constraints you need to create a truly captivating and useful infographic. Diving deeply into each of them is beyond the scope of this meager blog post, but an incomplete list includes bar charts, line charts, histograms, scatterplots (oh man, I love me some scatterplots), box plots, pie charts (ONLY for comparing parts of a whole, and generally a waste of space… we’ll talk about pie charts in a minute). I’m sure I’ve forgotten some, but you get the point.
The main idea here is to study these and their best practices, chances are you can use one right off the bat, or can modify one to meet your needs fairly easily. Unless you have data that requires a completely new way of thinking about things (or you’re Ben Fry or Golan Levin), you’re gonna be able to find a visualization that’s reaaally close to fitting your data set.
Look at the silly pie chart to the right. This made the rounds a few days ago, primarily because it’s the first set of iPad and iPad app data to become available, and it was visualized in a way that on the surface didn’t look half bad. But the designer took extreme liberty with this pie chart, because you are intended to view the entire circle as the median iPad app purchase price ($4.99) and compare the median iPhone app purchase price ($1.99) to the whole circle. Comparing the size of two values is a bar chart’s job, not a pie chart’s, and these two values in no way, shape or form add up to a whole or 100% of something.
Seriously, stay the fuck away from pie charts. And for the love of god, if you have to use one, use only one. I’m guilty of this very transgression and I’m in the process of switching all my pie charts to something else because pie charts are really, really, really useless, almost all of the time. The main things people like about pie charts are:
I’m not really sure how to conclude this other than to recap that just because you’re a graphic or interaction designer doesn’t mean you can’t also be an information designer, it’s just that you shouldn’t fetishize the data visualization. Learn the ropes first, because the good things about good visualization can’t be copied at a superficial level just because you think they look neat, there needs to be a purpose behind every decision you make, just like when you’re doing your other design work. Don’t throw out your graphic design expertise either though, as it’s important to create something people want to actually look at. Just make sure you’re not making something with the primary goal of making people impressed with your skills. Those things fail when put under the microscope of having to understand what the data is trying to say.
On March 18, 2010, this blog will be 10 years old. I haven’t been the best blogger, and I haven’t written this site alone, but over the years, it’s always been a place I wouldn’t feel right about not having on the web. This graphic is a testament to all the work I’ve put in with various people to keep things going. Here’s to 10 more years.
Some images weren’t available in the Wayback Machine, so that’s why there are a few broken images in there. View full size on Flickr.
Please welcome Koen Richard Conboy into the world! “And check out his very own blog”:http://koen.alternate.org
Yeah, so I don’t post much. Really, at all, any more. It’s sad.
So I’ve decided this afternoon, to kill the last few minutes at my fabulous new job by posting random shit I’ve found of interest lately.
The new Tristeza album coming out in November is really, really good. I can’t tell you where I got it but damn if it isn’t pretty hot, even if James LaValle isn’t in the band anymore. There is enough room in this world for both Tristeza and the Album Leaf. Add to that my favorite new band, Rogue Wave and you’re in indie rock heaven. Even if Rogue Wave did have a song on the Napoloeon Dynamite soundtrack.
I’m hoping really hard that my next project at work can find inspiration from something at Visual Complexity, quite possibly the coolest interface resource I’ve found in a long time.
This is a neat ad for Playboy, utilizing rain as way of shifting the message. Slightly.