DEEP SIMPLICITY: A PERSONAL GRAPHICS MANIFESTO (Part 2)

In journalism, visual or not, the decission of what to leave out is more important than the decission of what to let in. It all comes down to editing: what do your readers need to see if they are to understand the story? This has been said and written so many times that has become a no-brainer. Therefore, I won't stop here in the second part of this personal manifesto, in which I also make a parenthesis to explain some parallelisms between information graphics, literature, and philosophy.

 

THE PARENTHESIS BEGINS: WHAT LITERATURE CAN TEACH YOU ABOUT GRAPHICS

(Read part 1 of this personal manifesto)

Here's the first paragraph of Downward to the Earth (1970), by Robert Silverberg, one of my favorite novels:

"He had come back to Holman's World after all. He was not sure why. Call it irresistible attraction; call it sentimentality; call it foolishness. Gundersen had never planned to revisit this place. Yet here he was, waiting for the landing, and there it was in the vision screen, close enough to grasp and squeeze in one hand, a world slightly larger than Earth, a world that had claimed the prime decade of his life, a world where he had learned things about himself that he had not really wanted to know. Now the signal light in the lounge was flashing red. The ship would shortly land. Despite everything, he was coming back."

And this comes from another of his many great works, Nightwings (1969):

"Roum is a city built on seven hills. They say it was a capital of man in one of the earlier cycles. I did not know of that, for my guild was Watching, not Remembering; but yet as I had my first glimpse of Roum, coming upon it from the south at twilight, I could see that in former days it must have been of great significance. Even now it was a mighty city of many thousands of souls."

Robert Silverberg, one of Science Fiction finest writers (perhaps only J.G. Ballard and Stanislaw Lem played in the same league), came to my mind while reading South African Nobel price winner J.M. Coetzee's Dusklands (1974). Those who have enjoyed Coetzee's haunting novels know that they can hurt you really bad without using dirty tricks. His prose is precise and economical. Here's the first paragraph of Disgrace (1999), a book that left me devastated years ago:

"For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well. On Thursday afternoons he drives to Green Point. Punctually at two p.m. he presses the buzzer at the entrance to Windsor Mansions, speaks his name, and enters. Waiting for him at the door of No. 113 is Soraya. He goes straight through the bedroom, which is pleasant-smelling and softly lit, and undresses. Soraya emerges from the bathroom, drops her robe, slides into bed beside him. 'Have you missed me?' she asks. 'I miss you all the time', he replies. He strokes her honey-brown body, unmarked by the sun; he stretches her out, kisses her breasts; they make love."

That's the beginning of the best portrait of solitude and emptiness I've ever read.

 

THE JOYS OF AUSTERITY

What do Silverberg and Coetzee have in common that moves me after so many years? Why do I still feel attracted to them even in these times of disillusionment with fiction (as I confessed in a recent blog post, I have given up literature for a while)?

I have come to think that they appeal to me for the same reasons my graphics style has grown a bit more minimalist with time. It has not been a conscious process, but (I guess) an unintended consequence of the kind of storytelling I enjoy. For instance, I love movies that tell engaging stories in a direct way. Forget indie existentialist centro-european stuff; give me The Godfather and The Wire. Artificial complexity, a common pattern in self-defined "alternative" films, makes me nod off.

If you can successfully evoke a feeling in your reader's brain with 100 words, why would you use 200? Translated to graphics: why would you choose a confusing circular plot when a humble bar chart may be equally beautiful and more efficient? You may impress me with those many nice-looking lines and scales and colors, with your masterly use of technology and forms borrowed from obscure computer science papers —the same way a mediocre writer can impress me for a few seconds with tons of uncommon adjectives. But, after the initial impact, I will grow frustrated because I won't get what you mean. And you'll be in financial trouble.

Austerity is not absence of style, but a style in itself.

 

WHAT DOES FRENCH POSTMODERN PHILOSOPHY HAS TO DO WITH GRAPHICS?

The difference between a nice-looking but a bit gratuitous visualization like this (what am I supposed to see here? That the writers of the New Testament referred a lot to the Old Testament? That's a pretty trivial message) and a simple but straight-to-the point one is equivalent to the gap between french media critic Jean Baudrillard (I am taking him as an example of postmodern European social studies) and american scholar Henry Jenkins.

Here's Baudrillard, in a glorious example of bombastic nonsense that looks very deep, but says very little. I challenge you to dig into this mess, taken from his masterpiece (so to speak...) Simulacra and Simulation (1981). He is writing on television and media in general:

"It is this gap (Alberto's note: he refers to the "meaning" gap, between cause and effect; don't ask me about it) that vanishes in the process of genetic coding, in which indeterminacy is not so much a question of molecular randomness as of the abolition, pure and simple, of the relation. In the process of molecular control, which "goes" from the DNA nucleus to the "substance" that it "informs," there is no longer the traversal of an effect, of an energy, of a determination, of a message. "Order, signal, impulse, message": all of these attempt to render the thing intelligible to us, but by analogy, retranscribing in terms of inscription, of a vector, of decoding, a dimension of which we know nothing - it is no longer even a "dimension," or perhaps it is the fourth (which is denned, however, in Einsteinian relativity by the absorption of the distinct poles of space and time). In fact, this whole process can only be understood in its negative form: nothing separates one pole from another anymore, the beginning from the end; there is a kind of contraction of one over the other, a fantastic telescoping, a collapse of the two traditional poles into each other: implosion - an absorption of the radiating mode of causality, of the differential mode of determination, with its positive and negative charge - an implosion of meaning. That is where simulation begins."

And here's Jenkins's Convergence Culture (2006). Go compare.

Baudrillard's rethoric is funny and empty as hell but he is considered a valid reference when it comes to analize the impact of new media on society. Why? I guess it is because no one, not even other postmodern philosophers that are, like him, in great need of a professional copy-editor, can explain what he meant. I believe Baudrillard is still thought of as a luminary simply because he looks so scholarly. If you are in the social sciences and you claim to understand Baudrillard, your peers will be highly impressed. You would be lying, of course.

On the other hand, Jenkins is transparent and, even if you don't share his ideas, you'll have to admit that at least you are able to discuss them precisely because they are cristal-clear. A productive and rational discussion on Baudrillard's mumbo-jumbo is beyond anyone's skills.

(By the way, I get more entertaining stuff than Baudrillard's every time I visit The Posmodernism Generator, a website that randomly produces crazy philosophy papers).

In the introduction to the delightful A Devil's Chaplain, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins explained a too-human trend: "Dawkin's Law of the Conservation of Difficulty states that obscurantism in an academic subject expands to fill the vacuum of its intrinsic simplicity. Physics is a genuinely difficult and profound subject, so physicists need to —and do— work hard to make their language as simple as possible (...). Other academics —some would point the finger at continental schools of literary criticism and social science— suffer rom what Peter Medawar called Physics Envy. They want to be thought profound, but their subject is actually rather easy and shallow, so they have to language it up to redress the balance".

As a news infographics journalist, you might feel the need to spice yout work up to make it look more complex (complexity is the new cool) and sophisticated than it really is, the same way some European postmodern philosophers do. Why would you use a honest and simple bar chart when you have barely readable Theme-Rivers available? I'll reword: you might feel compelled to choose a self-important style just to prove you are at the same intelectual level as your colleagues in the newsroom. Avoid that urge. Ive seen that trend in media companies: journalists-of-the-word look down on designers and graphics people, so the latter develop a tendency to over-emphasize the relevance of visual work using inadecquate means. Classic charts won't do the job because designers (and editors---) wrongly believe that anyone with a fair understanding of Excel can create a well structured statistical display.

Consequence: some of the complex visualizations we see today in news are not just playful data ilustrations. They are vacuous and deriberately convoluted constructs intended to conceal their shallowness.

 

GETTING TO THE END OF THE PARENTHESIS

If I had to propose a recent example of visualization that confuses even smart readers it would be this one.

 

wsj

 

I guess that many see it (I tested it in an informal survey) and, when they come out of it with almost nothing useful, they think that they are not smart enough. But the problem, as Donald Norman wrote in The Design of Everyday Things, is not on the user, but on how the designer presents the information.

Let me put it clear again: news infographics are not art (not even data art), the same way that news stories are not literature. They both are tools to make stuff accesible. Good reporters learn to write short. They know that attention spans are limited, and they want to convey as much as they can with as few words as possible. The world is confusing by nature. It is our role to create simplified (not simplistic) and efficient models of it. So tryto make sense of reality before reaching out to readers; guide your clients—to a certain degree— on a clear path to enlightenment. Don't throw tons of data at audiences expecting that they'll have the time and patience to explore and figure everything out on their own.

See the (very interesting, anyway) Washington Post's Top Secret America special coverage:

 

topsecret

It's amazing that a team of reporters, editors and multimedia people put so much effort in such an endeavor, and a pity that so few readers will be able to get the key messages due to the lack of enough breadcrums. Is it really necessary to show all the data? Maybe. But on a second or third level. First of all, show, explain, and guide. After that, allow readers to explore.

When I taught infographics at UNC-Chapel Hill, some students used to show concern about their class projects, particularly thematic maps and statistical charts. They thought them to be "too simple", not fashionable or not smart-looking enough for sophisticated readers. But sophisticated readers, whoever they are, don't use newspapers and magazines to be entertained by eye-candy. They demand from us tools to deal with their lives, communities, and jobs, to fight the outer chaos. So my recommendation to them, remembering both Robert Silverberg and J.M. Coetzee, and plagiarizing many good old professors, was: "it's never too simple; go edit down until you cannot edit down anymore."

End of the parenthesis.

(To be continued)