A few years ago, the Internet was awash in groundbreaking data visualizations. There was Aaron Koblin’s deeply influential map of flight patterns around the U.S. Periscopic’s exhaustive, haunting portrait of gun violence in the United States. Jer Thorp and John Underkoffler’s Minority Report-like interface for exploring the galaxy.
Today, you’d be lucky to find a cheap knockoff in a world dominated by crappy promotional infographics churned out for viral attention. Nicholas Felton, the data viz guru who once designed Facebook’s Timeline, now builds apps. Jer Thorp is as interested in reverse-engineering algorithms and data art as he is in producing pure data visualization. Even the infographics on the portfolio-sharing site Behance are on the downswing. “Infographic posting generally rose steadily from 2007 to 2012, where it peaked, and has begun to decline since then,” Sarah Rapp, Head of Behance Community Data & Insights, Adobe, writes in an email.
Infographics, it seems, are a dying breed. Except that in talking to a dozen data visualization experts across the world’s top studios, I learned that the story is far more nuanced. Once a playground for independent designers, data visualization has evolved into something more mature, corporate, and honest about its failings. The quirky, experimental infographics that once peppered the Internet may be disappearing. But that’s only because data visualization, as a medium, has finally grown up and gotten a job.
Data Viz Has Gone Corporate
Years ago, the hardest part of a data visualization designer’s job was explaining what he did and why it was worthwhile. Today, organizations ranging from the presidential campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama to the World Bank seek out data visualization specialists. Business is good. Most design studios I talked to had recently turned down work. A few years ago, they said, companies engaged in complex financial negotiations to get a visualization done; now it’s a standard, budgeted line item. GE counts among the companies that have made major investments in data visualization.
The upshot is that some of the best data visualization work is going unseen, as Fortune 500 companies hire data visualization designers for NDA work or snatch them up for full-time work. Before we spoke, the Portland-based firm Periscopic had just met with Nike to help the company assemble an internal data visualization team, while Jer Thorp–whose work has been featured everywhere from the New York Times to New York’s Museum of Modern Art–lamented to me that one of his interns had recently left for Apple. “We’re never going to see anything he makes, and he’s one of my most talented students over the last decade,” Thorp says. “It’s interesting to think, maybe he’s making crazy, revolutionary things, but we don’t see them.”
Just how many designers and companies are working on covert visualization projects is impossible to quantify. But most data viz specialists I spoke to had either engaged, or know of someone who had engaged, in corporate work under non-disclosure agreements. That includes Stamen, a San Francisco-based design firm whose beautiful, painterly maps counted among the Internet’s early viral visualizations. “To me, it’s about upping our game,” explains CEO Eric Rodenbeck, “[and] less about making the next new thing that gets on BuzzFeed.” To date, Stamen has made graphics for everyone from Twitter, to MSNBC, to BMW, to MTV.
Software Has Replaced Hand-Coded Quirk
Beyond D3, there are several visualization tools available to the untrained masses. Tableau is the crown jewel. Founded in 2003, it’s a piece of visualization software costing companies $1,000 per user, and it’s taken off in the past year as more companies take their visualizations in-house. Tableau collected $412 million (or about half its lifetime revenue) in 2014, and the software is now used by more than 26,000 companies around the globe.
Tableau is a bit like Excel. It has a drag-and-drop user interface that lets users import spreadsheets and instantly turn them into all sorts of simple charts. The charts have been algorithmically shaped and color-coded to conform to Edward Tufte-approved academic research–in other words, with no training at all, everyday employees can know their work is more or less in line with that of the most influential information designer of the 20th century. As CEO Christian Chabot boasts, the sort of visualization you can build in minutes with Tableau’s free demo software would have cost you $100,000 10 years ago, paid to a company like Stamen.
Now, it might not be the world’s most creative data visualization. But that’s one of the tradeoffs. “There’s a new geek in town. The new geek is the data geek. Believe it or not, they’re everywhere,” Chabot says. “Five years from today, I think it will be very common for people in all professions to use data in all parts of their jobs … [and] it will be commonplace that you have tools, as common as Word, that help you interrogate data and explore your curiosities.”
Mobile Is Replacing The Desktop
Five years ago, data visualizations were designed largely to be viewed on desktop computers. Today, smartphones and tablets represent roughly 50% of the web’s traffic. That’s a huge chunk of Internet mindshare that a sprawling, ambitious data visualization would be wasted on. So now, simple bar graphs, such as the ones you see on the business news site Quartz, often make more sense to publish than deep interactive content.
“Our work is expected to work on mobile now, which just constrains the kinds of ideas one has (and has energy to do),” Amanda Cox, graphics editor at the New York Times‘ The Upshot writes in an email. “Sometimes the simpler (will work everywhere) version is better, sometimes it’s not.”
Publications–like the Times, Bloomberg, and FiveThirtyEight–are among the biggest players in mainstream data visualization today, but they must balance limited resources on a daily basis. Media companies that are strapped for cash run skeleton crews that are under constant pressure to drive traffic to their stories, because eyeballs correlate to advertising revenue. As a result, you have some of the world’s most talented visual designers churning out simpler content that everyone can access on a phone, rather than rich, complex interactives that will have an inherently smaller readership.
Insight Is Replacing Infographics
A dirty little secret about data visualization is that it doesn’t always provide as much insight into large datasets as you might hope. “To me, I use the human genome project as a mental model here. The idea was once we mapped the genome, we’d unlock the doors to all of these things, we’d cure diseases, find new medicines,” the data artist Jer Thorp says. “It was going to change things. But mapping the genome taught us how little we know. I think what we need to understand with big data is that the same thing can happen. Big data doesn’t only lead to answers it also leads to questions.” In other words, the very medium of data-rich infographics might not be right for general consumers.
Even Nicholas Felton, who gained cult status in the data visualization world for mapping every minute detail of his life, questions the usefulness of many visualizations. “Don’t get me wrong, I love the viz! But I’m trying to predict where I see product and culture going,” he says. “I think, maybe data viz is always going to be this sort of the nerd’s game. I don’t know if it will be more than additive in a lot of cases.” He points to companies like Apple, which is embracing Healthkit, a platform to turn health metrics into snazzy graphics. “HealthKit is an example where it’s like, I don’t need to see this stuff,” Felton says. “I don’t know why you’re showing me bar graphs and allowing me to access a database to show me every step I’ve taken for the last six months. It’s not necessary. Do something useful with it.”
So Where Is This All Going?
Instead of data visualization, Felton imagines a future built upon pure insight. No one needs to see a weather radar, he contends, when all you really want to know is whether or not you need an umbrella. That suggestion can be condensed into a single, text-based push notification–another convenience of a mobile-first world.
But that’s just one future. Periscopic’s Kim Rees suggested that visualization could become a coding language. Imagine if you could code in graphics and images instead of the esoteric languages you have today. App design and debugging could be made easier. Stamen’s Eric Rodenbeck imagines very specialized visualizations working their way into the hands of the small business owner–like an Uber driver managing her personal fleet. And almost every studio I talked to pointed to a coming trend, in which data visualization designers take part in the data curation step, collecting their own data from a world full of sensors that we’ve barely begun to consider, to make their own work more relevant.
Indie infographics aren’t dead. They’ve just grown up.
This story has been updated with a more specific attribution regarding Behance research, and clarified that D3 visual frameworks aren’t precoded by nature.