The simple genius of a good graphic | Tommy McCall


I love infographics. As an information designer, I’ve worked with all sorts of data
over the past 25 years. I have a few insights to share,
but first: a little history. Communication is the encoding,
transmission and decoding of information. Breakthroughs in communication mark
turning points in human culture. Oracy, literacy and numeracy
were great developments in communication. They allow us to encode ideas into words and quantities into numbers. Without communication, we’d still
be stuck in the Stone Ages. Although humans have been around
for a quarter million years, it was only 8,000 years ago
that proto-writings began to surface. Nearly 3,000 years later, the first
proper writing systems took shape. Maps have been around for millennia
and diagrams for hundreds of years, but representing quantities
through graphics is a relatively new development. It wasn’t until 1786 that William Playfair
invented the first bar chart, giving birth to visual display
of quantitative information. Fifteen years later, he introduced
the first pie and area charts. His inventions are still the most
commonly used chart forms today. Florence Nightingale invented
the coxcomb in 1857 for a presentation to Queen Victoria
on troop mortality. Highlighted in blue, she showed how most troops’ deaths
could have been prevented. Shortly after, Charles Minard charted
Napoleon’s march on Moscow, illustrating how an army of 422,000
dwindled to just 10,000 as battles, geography and freezing
temperatures took their toll. He combined a Sankey diagram
with cartography and a line chart for temperature. I get excited when I get
lots of data to play with, especially when it yields
an interesting chart form. Here, Nightingale’s coxcomb
was the inspiration to organize data on thousands
of federal energy subsidies, scrutinizing the lack of investment
in renewables over fossil fuels. This Sankey diagram illustrates
the flow of energy through the US economy, emphasizing how nearly half
of the energy used is lost as waste heat. I love it when data can be sculpted
into beautiful shapes. Here, the personal and professional
connections of the women of Silicon Valley can be woven into arcs, same as the collaboration of inventors
birthing patents across the globe can be mapped. I’ve even made charts for me. I’m a numbers person,
so I rarely win at Scrabble. I made this diagram to remember
all the two- and three-letter words in the official Scrabble dictionary. (Laughter) Knowing these 1,168 words
certainly is a game changer. (Laughter) Sometimes I produce code
to quickly generate graphics from thousands of data points. Coding also enables me
to produce interactive graphics. Now we can navigate information
on our own terms. Exotic chart forms certainly look cool, but something as simple
as a little dot may be all you need to solve a particular thinking task. In 2006, the “New York Times”
redesigned their “Markets” section, cutting it down from eight pages
of stock listings to just one and a half pages
of essential market data. We listed performance metrics
for the most common stocks, but I wanted to help investors
see how the stocks are doing. So I added a simple little dot to show the current price
relative to its one-year range. At a glance, value investors can pick out
stocks trading near their lows by looking for dots to the left. Momentum investors can find stocks
on an upward trajectory via dots to the right. Shortly after, the “Wall Street Journal”
copied the design. Simplicity is often the goal
for most graphics, but sometimes we need
to embrace complexity and show large data sets
in their full glory. Alec Gallup, the former chairman
of the Gallup Organization, once handed me a very thick book. It was his family’s legacy: hundreds of pages covering six decades
of presidential approval data. I told him the entire book
could be graphed on a single page. “Impossible,” he said. And here it is: 25,000 data points on a single page. At a glance, one sees that most presidents
start with a high approval rating, but few keep it. Events like wars initially boost approval; scandals trigger declines. These major events were annotated
in the graphic but not in the book. The point is, graphics can transmit data
with incredible efficiency. Graphicacy — the ability to read and write graphics — is still in its infancy. New chart forms will emerge
and specialized dialects will evolve. Graphics that help us think faster or see a book’s worth
of information on a single page are the key to unlocking new discoveries. Our visual cortex was built
to decode complex information and is a master at pattern recognition. Graphicacy enables us
to harness our built-in GPU to process mountains of data and find the veins of gold hiding within. Thank you. (Applause and cheers)

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