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Legends Of Data Visualization

Lessons For Today's Researchers

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According to legend, some of the first data visualizations were created by a guy named William Playfair in the late 1700s. He is often considered to be the father of the chart types we know and love, like line charts, bar charts, pie charts, and timelines. He argued that charts could communicate data better than tables, and he was right.

Its no coincidence that charting took off during the industrial revolution, since visualization reduces complexity, and the industrial revolution brought a ridiculous amount of complexity for humans. The example below is one he created to show the trade balance for England with Denmark and Norway. It's great because it is clean and has a single message … that after 1755, England’s trade balance was increasingly favorable as exports grew dramatically.

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From this we learn that great visualizations are often simple and have a singular focus and message.


Next up is a gal you may be familiar with, Florence Nightingale. In 1858, she created her famous Coxcomb Diagram to show the causes of death in the Crimean War. The pie wedges show the causes of death (blue = preventable; red/black = unpreventable) using the area of the circle segments and distance from the center of the circle.

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While not as simple as Playfair, her message — that more soldiers died from preventable infections than from wounds — is clear and spurred people to acknowledge sanitation problems and actively work to improve sanitation conditions in hospitals. From this

we learn that great visualization can have real world impact when we use data to

highlight a distinct problem.


One of our current favorites is David McCandless. He has a great site called Information Is Beautiful, and is author and designer of some fantastic data visualization books and resources. He has a great visualization called Crash Cause. This is real next

generation type stuff!

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There is a time series plot that appears in the upper left, showing the dropping rate of airline crashes. The main portion below presents information about the causes of commercial air crashes from 1993–2013. In addition to the cause of the crash, McCandless shows the "phase of flight" (take-off, en route, landing) during which the disaster occurred.

What we love here is that McCandless, in a single visual, is showing the connections and relationships between the various elements. It digs a little deeper and tells us about the causes of accidents, and the time they tend to happen. And, the basic style is modern, clear… with just a little hint of complexity that deep work often reveals.

From this we lean that great visualization has the right amount of depth and context, but can still be visually appealing and not overwhelming.

Even if you are not using more advanced design software, mastering some of these fundamentals is a great way to boost the viz cred of your reports.