Infographics designers love to snark about the bastardization of their discipline. When any schmuck can throw together a few lines and circles, slap in some Helvetica captions, and call it data visualization, doesn’t that degrade design literacy? Probably, but giving average people the means to experiment is the only way design literacy gets better, too. Example: Jose Duarte’s “Handmade Visualization Toolkit,” which throws perfect mathematical accuracy aside in favor of encouraging MacGyver-like physical hacks.
Let’s face it: Statistics aren’t something you can touch, which is probably why so many of them seem flimsy and fake. Turning them into abstract visual shapes can help. But using a small balloon and a ping-pong ball to compare and contrast the relative growth of Internet users over the past decade? That’s the kind of physical, (literally) graspable process that easily translates into actual understanding — or at the very least, better questions.
The first question I’d ask while holding those two spheres, for example, is this: If I stuffed that balloon full of small ping-pong balls, would the math work out? 1.9 billion divided by 361 million is about five and half. So, if the little ping-pong ball represents 361 million, five (ish) of them should fill up that balloon to bursting. But look at it: You could fit way more little balls inside that larger three-dimensional sphere. So what does that say about these stats, and how you can accurately visualize them? What if I treated the shapes not as 3-D spheres, but as flat circles in the photograph itself — would that make it accurate? Blammo — instant design-literacy lesson!
The world is awash in lies, damn lies, and statistics. Duarte’s visualization kit isn’t about pumping out pristine graphics worthy of the New York Times, it’s about encouraging something much more important: critical thought. As soon as my first kid is old enough for the “Homemade Visualization Kit” not to be a choking hazard, I’m getting one.