Clarity and Simplicity of Purpose Drive the Best Data Visualizations

by   |   October 21, 2012 11:00 pm   |   0 Comments

Felice Frankel MIT researcher illustration of "quantum corral"

LESS IS MORE. In this before and after illustration from the book Visual Strategies, MIT researcher Felice Frankel points out that removing unnecessary color from the illustration of “quantum corral” improves the visualization allowing viewers to see “striking radial structures” without the distractions of red and blue.

SEATTLE—Make me see—wondrously and carefully.

That was the challenge posed to more than 1,000 professionals and academics at the Oct. 19 concluding session of VisWeek, the annual conference devoted to data visualizations. Communicating information to lay observers such as herself is critical, MIT researcher Felice Frankel told the gathering during her capstone speech.

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“Not only do I ask that you make me see, I add this—make me look with wonder,” Frankel implored her listeners. “And then make me understand. Sounds kind of touchy-feely, I know, but it’s not. When we offer people huge batches of data or difficult concepts—quantum mechanics, say—are we really communicating? Not very well.”

Frankel illustrated her challenge with a number of images she has created in her own work, which includes co-authoring a book on nano-science, No Small Matter, and a book on scientific illustration, Visual Strategies.  For instance, a close-up of a violin stringboard served as her metaphor for electron vibrations. An intriguing photo of what appeared to be small chasms in a black plateau was revealed to be a close-up of grooves on a vinyl LP; a magnified picture of a drop of oil was enhanced by simply placing a yellow Post-it note beneath the slide.

Simplicity Enhances the Viewer’s Focus
Make sure to simplify an illustration to enhance the viewer’s focus, Frankel urged—simplicity boosts clarity. Color can be powerful but also distracting, she added, offering two versions of a famous depiction of a subatomic structure, an “quantum corral.” Reduced to black and white, she argued, it was a more accurate depiction of the subject.

“Distraction is the worst problem in all our work,” Frankel said. Editing is essential.

“Just because it’s actual data doesn’t mean it has to be in there,” Frankel continued. “Remember, when we look at a picture we’re looking at a flatland. The more we have to look at, the less we see.”

Metaphors are highly useful tools, she continued, showing an image that consisted of two separate electronic control boards—one with numerous rheostats and switches, the other with just a single on-off switch. The latter was labeled “Men,” the former “Women,” and the image elicited gales of laughter from both types of audience members.

Finally, Frankel admonished the audience, make sure an illustration is both accurate and right. Her example here was the famous line drawing that illustrates evolution by depicting the progression from ape to man, as each new species stands straighter and taller.

“What’s wrong with this?” she asked. “Two things. First of all, have we all evolved into men? Even more pertinent, have we all evolved into white men?

“Whenever we set out to make an illustration that represents something, whether it’s a bunch of data or a scientific concept, we have to remember that it’s a re-presentation of something. It’s not the something. So please be responsible. Make it right,” she charged her listeners.

Frankel said she is trying to obtain funding for a library of metaphorical images to illustrate science and engineering whose catalog would be open to all. Greater detail about her work, and examples of her illustrations, can be found at

VisWeek is an annual gathering that convenes data professionals from around the world for three corollary conferences—IEEE Scientific Visualization; Information Visualization; and Visual Analytics Science and Technology; as well as symposia on Biological Data Visualization and Large-Scale Data Analysis and Visualization. The founding sponsor of the conference is IEEE, Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.  Organizers plan to hold their next conference, renamed VIS, in Atlanta next year, and hold their first gathering overseas in Paris in 2014.

Eric Lucas is a Seattle-based travel, business and natural history writer. Visit him at


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