Is Information Visualization the Next Frontier for Design?

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As design work shifts to infrastructure and problem solving, sexy infographics are part of the new skill set.

You've seen them. Those tag clouds in the right-hand column of Web sites with jumbled type of varying weight and size indicating the relative usage of words. Tag clouds may be the most common example of an emerging field known as "information visualization," an offshoot of graphic design devoted to the clear display of complex information. Executive pay in relation to shareholder returns. Senate voting patterns. The geographic location of cell phones. Similarities among rock albums. Graphic designers are mapping over the known world and posting their graphic interpretations on sites like Visual Complexity.

Visualization got a big boost during the political season from newspapers and networks. On March 24, CNN aired what it claimed was the largest ever tag cloud composed from President Obama's press conference that day.


If we're going to live in a world driven by data, the thinking goes, we need a simple means of digesting it all. We are increasingly a visual society, and our understanding of the world is increasingly made possible by this new visual language.

nyt flu map

Visualization has been used prominently, and to dazzling effect, at The New York Time s , where a collaboration of art directors and programmers turns masses of data into intuitive displays, like the interactive map of the swine virus shown above.

webtrend map

Another example: the Tokyo firm Information Architects created this Web Trend Map which presents the most popular Internet sites in the intelligible graphic language of a subway system.


Designers have historically excelled at finding insightful ways of looking at complex problems. Visualization will likely play a prominent role as design evolves beyond the consumer economy (selling $2,000 poufs and other high-end furnishings) and helps create efficient new forms of buildings, food distribution and transportation.

For example, it's likely that New York and other major U.S. cities will experiment with systems that monitor traffic patterns in real time and manage the use of lanes and access accordingly. A project like that would hinge on our ability to map patterns as they happen, along with the alternatives and consequences. It's a big undertaking, but the benefits are considerable: In Stockholm a system that tracks the movement of every car has reduced carbon emissions by 25%.


Visualization may play a big role in wising up consumers. In the future, we're told, sensors will pick up tiny bits of info on every aspect of our lives and they will be played back to us as graphics. The smart grid, for example, will read the energy use in your home and send back understandable displays suggesting how you might save money by, say, waiting an hour to turn on your air conditioner or reducing your thermostat by two degrees. It will be up to architects to imbed this feature in the home in a way that allows us to interact more efficiently with our surroundings.

power point

You might think of visualization as the antithesis of Power Point, which sometimes seems to make us dumber. Six years ago, Edward Tufte, a Big Thinker in the field of information graphics, issued a 28-page pamphlet that dumped on Power Point as "a faux analysis" that "turns everything into a sales pitch.'' Visualization does the opposite: it reflects the complexity of the world in simple terms. It is a window onto the world, in all its digital complexity. Though of course data can be skewed in deceitful and insidious ways.

Picture 4

Visualization isn't just for RISD graduates. You can create your own word clouds at a new site called Wordle. Paste in a piece of text or enter a URL and Wordle creates a cloud of the most frequently occurring words.

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  • Tom Patterson

    We don’t have to speculate or wait for tomorrow. Information visualization is the current design frontier. It’s happening right now. Moreover, innovations are taking place in industries that some might find surprising. For instance, there are some innovative interfaces on the horizon for many home appliances, such as thermostats, microwaves, air purifiers, washing machines, etc. For the past 20 years, other industries have been borrowing Internet innovations. The pendulum is about to swing.

  • Milad Moussavi

    Yeah I agree with Gary, I don't think you could consider this an emerging field. But of course, users and consumers visualization or perspective about everything has altered drastically.

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  • Milad Moussavi

    Attention to an emerging field? You were not aware that us humans create our future using visualization. It has been proven for centuries.

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    Mike shamwow

    Information visualization is so appealing to the eye and in my opinion, very important tool in getting the message across. Even though its been around for a while, all we have to do is just improve our creativity.


  • alan kissane

    Two of the examples featured in the article ought to be taught as examples of what NOT to do in visualizing information. The swine flu map would have you believe that virtually all of Mexico is infected, while the internet 'subway' map adds nothing to one's understanding of the relationship between 'stops' except that the author thought they were related in some vague sequential fashion. Both use a visual gimmick that not only does not enlighten but actively misleads the viewer.
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  • alan kissane

    Nothing new about the subject of data visualization + information visualization, but it certainly is a science and art. We studied it for a while at school and I'm constantly amazed by the way some people have the ability to create these mechanisms for manipulating information in a visual way.

    ( brochure design | label design | custom logos )

  • Luis Antezana

    As a former database manager who has seen gigs of rich data not used for much and hardly made sense of, I've longed for the tools to create such visualizations to be within reach of designers who possess the vision to transform this information into something practical and accessible, the smarts to make it happen, and the systems to deliver it.

    I'm glad the article pushes beyond at-hand and historical analysis to hypothetical/situational possibilities, too. It's also interesting to see convergence in this space with traditional business intelligence tools.

    I imagine a future implementation as a kind of responsive, artificial intelligence-powered, crystal ball-style interface, with a kind of advanced tamagotchi-esque functionality for business indicators. It's a little goofy-sounding in this anecdotal forum, I realize, but it's cool as I see it :)

  • Bob Jacobson

    The Info-D News is the visualization field's website of record.

    It's edited by Peter J. Bogaards in The Netherlands:


    Peter does a great job of announcing events, spotlighting individuals, and critiquing visualization projects at many levels.

    Another longstanding intellectual beacon is designer John Thackara's Doors of Perception. Thackara travels the world to advise and participate in public- and community-service visualization projects. Interestingly, he's also based in The Netherlands:


  • Michael Deutch

    While tag clouds and such may be one way to visualize information, mind mapping has been a vehicle that has put the power of information visualization into the hands of the average user for 15 years! Software like Mindjet MindManager lets you visualize, organize and work with your information to paint a picture of your strategy, project and/or communications!

  • Doug Steiger

    Michael - Any recommendations for experts who might be able to explain information visualization to co-workers in a briefing? Edward Tufte seems obvious but are there any others you'd suggest?

  • Jason Liszkiewicz

    And I agree with Meena Kadri's comment on the idea of developing & using such tools for de-mystifying. Or, a term I use more often, de-fragmenting.

  • Jason Liszkiewicz

    I regularly collect data viz resources/links and post them to a monthly link table for the Earth Intelligence Network non-profit group.

    Mobile txt messaging + online mapping is developing further as well. A 6-page links table on mobile + mapping with a focus on crisis-response can be found here

    Other links for info-viz, and "knowledge-mapping": (from

    Mobile Democracy proposal

    Forming Communities of Communications & Foreknowledge

    Information Operations and Open source Intelligence Conference

    Media Ecology Association

    Published writing

    EIN Twitter feed

  • Pat Allen

    This is a great article on a trend we see as increasingly important for effective communications.

    You and your readers might also be interested in a few related resources:
    *Using Data Visualization as a Reporting Tool Can Reveal Story's Shape is a PoynterOnline article about how reporters create visualizations as a basis for drawing insights from data—these visualizations may or not be intended for publication
    *Data Visualization Is Reinventing Online Storytelling from Advertising Age. The comments, in particular, include lots of development resources.
    *In my niche (consulting on digital strategy for financial services), we’ve been calling for marketers to turn to visualizations as a means of more effectively communicating during the financial crisis. My post on financial market visualizations is at We also discuss visualizations in our eBook on social media for investment product marketers

  • Wayne Smallman

    "We are increasingly a visual society,..."

    We've always been a visual society. Indeed, we're a visual species.

  • Fytros George

    check out relevant projects:

    Artist and computer scientist Jonathan Harris makes online art that captures the world's expression -- and gives us a glimpse of the soul of the Internet -- --

    ---- - Medical animator David Bolinsky presents 3 minutes of stunning animation that show the bustling life inside a cell.