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.
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.
Software Has Replaced Hand-Coded Quirk
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.
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.
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.
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