I’m up to my ears in student loan data at the moment—not my own this time, thank God—and trying my hand at the peculiar alchemy of data visualization. A group of loans becomes a list of numbers, becomes an aggregation, becomes an angle or a color or a position in space. Encoding turns a thousand bills at a thousand kitchen tables into a digestible summary.
This week, I’ve also been thinking about how we encode attention: trading in space and time to communicate when an audience should stop and think. Take this graphic, part of a New York Times feature on the survivors of the Las Vegas massacre:
Here, space breaks one number down to its components: not to transform them in some way, or to compare between them, but to convey that there are individuals within an aggregation. The print version of the story traded inches of column space for individual figures of each victim:
The graphic doesn’t communicate any information beyond the labels: 456 injured, 413 shot, 58 killed. Instead it creates a space for reflection on the individuals within those numbers. The graphic isn’t space-efficient, because efficiency isn’t the point.
The digital version of the story offers a similar experience through a different medium. Halfway down the page, the article gives way to individual sentences on a white background:
Readers have to scroll through counts of victims in order to continue reading the story. It’s an enforced meditation on violence, in a medium where the limiting factor is not space but time and attention.
Tamara Munzner writes about designing data visualizations for tasks: consuming or producing information through discovery, presentation, comparison, summary, and so on. Perhaps reflection belongs on that list as well. If the task of a visualization is conveying a human toll, maybe the right method of encoding is making space to think. Sometimes the mic drop of a story isn’t found at the end of a long analysis, but what the audience knew without knowing.
Richard Johnson took this idea to a massive scale with a depiction of lives lost in the Syrian civil war. This image of a tattered but flying Syrian flag is made up of 220,000 individual dots, one for each civilian death in the war.
Hue is often to communicate categories. In this visualization, though, it creates a unified image to communicate shared identity and loss.
The full version of the graphic on the Washington Post’s website has a scroll-over feature, which zooms in on the dots in different parts of the graphic. The zoom is an arresting feature: I know exactly what I’m going to see when I zoom in, but I look anyways. It’s a digital piece—no one painted 220,000 individual dots—but there is a sense that the effort would have been worthwhile.
Sometimes space isn’t used to communicate one piece of information or to break up a unified figure, but to communicate an absence. The New York Times published two examples recently. The first was part of a special segment on the 10th anniversary of the 2008 recession:
After the Parkland shooting, the New York Times created a calendar view of the days since Sandy Hook, with annotations about the mass shootings in between. A legend at the top of the page indicates that new gun control legislation will be marked in red. There is a single red square in March 2018, where the visualization notes, “As part of omnibus spending package, Trump signs a bill to improve record reporting for the existing background check system.” It’s a bleak record of inaction communicated in a sea of gray.
A lot of information could have been conveyed on that page, or in place of those empty calendar months. But a blank graphic isn’t empty: it’s a refusal to let nothingness be neutral. It’s a pointed question about why and how an absence came to be, and a demand that the audience grapple with what could have been.
Visualization design is obsessed with efficiency, perpetually asking how to communicate more with less. These visualizations deliberately eschew efficiency. Instead, they spend their ink in consideration of individuals and absence. They invite (and sometimes demand) that we absorb instead of analyze. Position, area, angle, and saturation can encode numerical values. Time and space encode values of a different kind.