Information Visualizations: Changing the Way We Look at Data


Isabel Meirelles gave a presentation at Sheridan College’s lecture hall about why we need information visualizations. She is an information designer, author and associate professor of graphic design at Northeastern University in Boston. Her presentation looked at information visualization from a research and historical perspective. She gave us an overview of how information visualization was used in earlier centuries by scribes, doctors and more to convey complex information in a simpler form. What I found most interesting was how web design and interaction design play a huge role in making information visualizations more compelling and easier to understand.



Isabel said that what gives her joy is finding new ways of representing information. (Photo by Juhye Lee).

Isabel covered five points about why we need information visualizations, but the one I found most interesting was that solving a problem requires finding the right representation. She showed us many examples of data represented in a variety of forms, some taking on unique shapes, while others looked downright artistic.


If you told me these four visualizations were modern art pieces, I would’ve believed you. They’re stunning to look at. But decoding the data might require a steep learning curve.  (Photo by Juhye Lee).

I was interested in the role web design and interaction play in enhancing information visualizations. I will focus on two of the most compelling examples that caught my eye because of their simplicity and effectiveness as information visualizations.


Isabel showed us screenshots of the wind map that displayed wind flowing over the U.S. But what made it come alive was when we saw it in action on a web browser. Seeing the wind in motion is not only beautiful, it displays the information instantaneously, with little to no learning curve.


Interactive visualizations allow us to answer more questions, and dig deeper into the data (you can zoom in or out of the wind map.) Pretty neat!


The Facebook map that visualized the social network’s friendships around the world was also compelling in its simplicity and execution. Using only colour and light, it captured its message instantaneously without the use of text (aside from its title).


The Facebook friendship map shows connections made in 2010. I wonder what it looks like in 2014. I’m guessing Canada would be more luminous since we do have the highest average internet usage rate than anywhere else in the world.

In this visualization, what is not shown is actually more interesting than what is shown. This could lead to more research about why certain countries are more connected on Facebook than others.


I found that most of the modern visualization examples that were shown required a steep learning curve in order for the audience to decode the data. While these types of visualizations might earn high esteem from other information designers and professors, the average person might not have enough time or patience to understand how to read the data. Isabel made a final critical point that visualizations are powerful, but they’re not the only answer to our problems. They have constraints and restrictions, and are subject to misinterpretation. There is no one right answer regarding how to display the data. But the fact that there are many ways to approach a question is why data visualization is an exciting new career of the future. With the explosion and abundance of digital data, employers are looking for talented individuals who can translate data into compact, visual and interactive forms. There is a wealth of opportunity for people who want to pursue information design as a career. The demand currently outpaces the supply of talent, and — according to an article by EMC — will continue to do so for the next five years.

Stay Connected! Follow Isabel on twitter @ IsabelMeirelles.



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