Want to understand the proposed tax reform? Or how climate change made Hurricane Harvey worse? Or how global trade deals really work? The national conversation is increasingly hinging on numbers-driven topics, and for most of us that means relying on visualizations, graphics, and maps. Data literacy has never been more crucial.
At the same time, the tools of data viz are evolving, and some within the field are rethinking how they communicate. Take the New York Times, a bellwether for great data graphics, which recently described how readers only interact with 10% to 15% of its interactive graphics. “Big data doesn’t only lead to answers, it also leads to questions,” data artist Jer Thorp told Co.Design‘s Mark Wilson in a story about the death of the infographic. Putting all of the data in front of a person and letting them explore doesn’t always communicate insights about data. For that, designers need to tell a story with data.
There’s one medium that’s been telling stories graphically for decades: comics. And according to a group of researchers including Benjamin Bach, a lecturer in design informatics and visualization at the University of Edinburgh, Microsoft Research researcher Nathalie Henry Riche, Calgary University Professor Sheelagh Carpendale, and Harvard University Professor Hanspeter Pfister, data designers could learn a lot from them. “Although comics are familiar to everyone, they are vastly under-explored for data-driven storytelling,” they explain in a recent paper. “In storytelling, it is important that people understand the presented content easily, especially when data and visualizations are complex. Yet comics offer a fascinating and simple way: one message per panel.”
The group describes data comics as an “emerging genre,” and they collect examples of the medium on a stand-alone website. In a recent issue of the journal IEEE Computer Graphics and Applications, they describe the new genre with–you guessed it–a comic. (You can see it in the slide show above.)
As they explain, a great data comic is made up of four parts: visualization, flow (the way a story is directed by the designer), narration (“data never comes alone, data always has a context. Context creates story, which wants to be narrated”), and words and pictures (or how verbal or textual the narrator is).
Data comics aren’t so different from interactive visualizations, Bach explains. An interactive viz asks the viewer to explore by panning, zooming, and using UI elements like sliders. A data comic is interactive in its own way: Readers can skim through the pages, pick certain panes, and jump around in the story. “In other words, a comic book shows the entire data (overview) but in a way lets the observer quickly chose the parts they are interested in (leafing through the pages) and start/continue reading at any point,” he tells Co.Design. “[W]hile this is similar to any book or story, comics seem to be much more accessible and parseable than plain text (everyone having lost their bookmarks knows what I mean).”
Bach imagines data comics could tell stories about numbers not just in the media, but in museum exhibitions, scientific journals, and even on food packaging. For now, the group is planning further research into how they could be used, and is encouraging people to make more. They’re also collecting examples on their website–along with inspirational comics in general. It’s well worth a scroll.