When judging visualizations, intent matters

Ben Fry on how context and audience shape visualizations.

The field of data visualization all too often is viewed as having the single role of attaching data to an image, regardless of whether it’s for analysis or journalism or entertainment. In a recent interview, Ben Fry, principal at Fathom, said this is a tendency that needs to be overcome. Visualizations have far more nuance, and varied intent, than many people realize:

People evaluate stuff that’s, say, for journalism or for pure entertainment under the same rubric as the way that you look at analytic tools. We need different ways of evaluating things. I hope we’ll develop a better understanding of the different roles [visualizations] can take given different audiences or the different contexts in which they will be used.

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Fry compared visualization to the field of writing, in which the roles of various genres and outcomes — and how they are perceived and consumed — are more clearly defined.

We’re going to start understanding that visualization isn’t this sort of monolithic thing — that it’s not “data plus image equals this.” I like to look at it like writing. You have novels and poetry and haikus — there’s lots of different types of writing and styles of writing and ways that you address things. I think the same thing happens in visualization. Some visualizations are tools for analysis and some are purely entertainment.

For more on creating and democratizing visualizations, and where the field is headed, check out the entire interview in the following video:


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