DEEP SIMPLICITY (1)

raivaP

Last week I was working on a science infographic for Época with the help of my colleague Gerson Mora (3D guru) when I went back to the idea I've been thinking about for the past few months, and that you can see outlined in the previous article: is it possible to create graphics that are simple and deep at the same time? If it is, they probably are the ones that news magazine readers appreciate the most.

This is the graphic we worked on for a couple of days. Simple, isn't it? Just four white 3D Poser-like heads that display different levels of anger. The story this graphic was published with deals with the outbursts of rage that many soccer players are showing during the South Africa World Cup. We wanted to explain what happens in your brain when that negative emotion overrules your conscious mecanisms, making you lose control. And why it happens.

raivaG

When certain stimuli reach your inner brain (the limbic system) an authomatic response in the form of hormones and neural discharges is released. At the same time, your pre-frontal cortex (the "executive brain"), activates to rationalize the emotion, and to control it. If for some reason your control tools don't work properly, or if the anger generated by the inner brain is too strong, control is lost. That is the story, explained in plain language. And that's what is shown, with much more detail and a bit more of jargon, in the graphic.

This piece illustrates a fancy concept Ive been thinking about for future articles and books: deep simplicity. There's a book under the same name by John Gribbin, but it has nothing to do with graphics (it's about chaos theory and complexity). There's also a little masterpiece by John Maeda that promotes something similar to what I propose, but applied to design in general, and in a more abstract level. I confess that some of Maeda's ideas permeate my own reflections heavily. In this sense, as Isaac Newton wrote to Robert Hooke, if I can see farther it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants (pompous mode off, from now on, I promise).

What does deep simplicity mean, anyway?

I am not being very original here. In March, I advanced what is troubling me lately in a chapter of the 17 Malofiej Book titled "The limits of innovation in news infographics" (see it in Spanish here, and a presentation I made about it in English, here). I am worried of the rising dominance of complex visualizations in news publications, with wacky interfaces and very little context. They are graphics that are thrown to readers, and readers are left by themselves to figure them out. You know what I am talking about. It's the kind of graphic you see every day at Information Aesthetics and Visual Complexity.

They are cool, sure. They are also useless. Unless you belong to the small community of specialists they are aimed at.  Because that's the problem: the more complex the graphic form you choose to show your data...

1. ...the more readers you will leave out (unless you include a "how-to-read-this-thing" key, but that's not the solution in every case).

2. ...the more previous knowledge it requires to be deciphered. Have you ever tried to understand the charts in a scientific publication such as Science or Nature? I have. And I can do it, but it's hard work. Why? Because I am not a scientist, therefore I don't have the conceptual tools to decode the information and see trends and patterns. I am a clueless generic reader. I do need some guidance from you, visual journalist.

A while ago I was —as many of you probably are— thrilled by the influence scientific visualization and ideas coming out of computer science departments were having in news infographics. But little by little I am growing puzzled by things like this. Yes, it is innovative, and I praise the people who designed it for that reason. Yes, it looks beautiful and intriguing. But, right after the initial shock, it bores me to death. It's too much. It is not very intuitive (and, despite it is a very interesting piece, it has serious navigation flaws). It makes me work to get information that, at the end, is pretty trivial. It is not worth the effort.

More and more, I see graphics that are deliberately hard to understand, because the people who designed them prioritize visual attractiveness, and not communicative efficiency. I see them in Wired magazine. Sometimes I see them in The New York Times, the paper whose graphics department I so keenly admire. I see them everywhere. They are not information graphics, but data illustrations. Their primary goal is not to enlighten, but to appeal to your aesthetic sense. That's noble stuff, but it's not the reason I became a visual journalist. I don't want to feed my readers' senses. I want to increase their awareness of issues my communicator/educator mind tells me are of public relevance.

As I get older, my patience shrinks. So I've decided to develop a set of principles that summarize what I have always thought news information graphics are about. It all begins with a key point: Deep simplicity means that deep understanding of issues and facts can arise from very simple representations, if they are designed to aid cognition, if they are adapted to the capacities and limits of the human brain (I refer you to a draft on the relationship between graphics and visual perception I published a while ago), if they are organized to match the average understanding level of the population they are intended to inform.

In other words, it all begins with going back to the basics of this business.

(To be continued)