Making visible the invisible

By Pau Garcia & Axel Gasulla

“As a rule, men worry more about what they can’t see than about what they can”.

Julius Caesar

With each passing day, the word “data” is being used with increasing frequency. Today, going without it means cancelling your 4G plan and, consequently, disconnecting from the world we have got so used to having in our pockets. It is no secret that many of our interactions on social media are monitored on platforms like Facebook, Google or Amazon. This, added to an increase in the tools used to study and register social and economic phenomena, has meant that over the last three years more data have been produced than in the entire history of humanity. Using digital media to handle this data is justifiable, since this is the only way to assimilate the speed with which the data is updated.

The staggering amount of data we gather gives a wider picture of the world, but its interpretation is complicated and often deceptive. The Swedish physician Hans Rosling gave a very good example of the false and simplified vision that statistical averages can project. The average number of legs of all the inhabitants on the planet is 1,9999999999, this is because there is a percentage of people with just one leg or none, but nobody has three. From this we can deduce that the vast majority of the world’s inhabitants have more legs than the average; a headline which may sound absurd but is of the kind we often see in the media.

Our relationship with data is mainly determined by who regulates and controls access to information; we are dependent on editors and producers of different media, as well as decision-makers who have access to restrictions on certain content, both in the public and private sector.

For the traditional media, the boom in social media and constant access to first-hand information has palpable consequences. In journalism there is now an increasingly pressing need to be the first to provide information, whether or not this information is truthful sometimes being overlooked. As Mark Twain put it, “if you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uninformed, if you do read it,you’re misinformed”. On our Facebook wall the same importance is given to a game about cats as the number of bomb attacks in Mosul, and the only possible reactions to this is a like or scroll down. Often these actions lead us to make a superficial interpretation, or none at all, of the events behind the headline.

Our brains are used to intuitively analyzing information and our surroundings. Intuition has, undoubtedly, been one of the keys in human evolution up to the explosion of rational thought, but we should remember that rational thought is both intellectually and energetically wearing on the human body. We might, therefore, go as far as to say that over 90% of information is consumed intuitively for the sake of saving energy. So, the main challenge is to provide information in a way that is intuitive and easy to understand. To do this we can use all human senses to explain complex ideas. Just as when humans in the past would come to a forest they had to enter, a river they had to cross or a battle they had to win and take decisions intuitively, now we need to be able to transform what is rational and empirical in a way that can be understood intuitively, accepting the risk that the information we want to give might be distorted. We need to bear in mind that in the world of communication, intuition is the same as air is to flight: it can slow it down and make it difficult, but it would be impossible without it. That’s why, if designers understand how intuition models work when it comes to understanding information, they can use the power of intuition to get that information across to the maximum number of people.

In reality, our biggest challenge is no longer collecting data, but rather
processing it. Here, design plays an important role, and one similar to that of
a translator. In the process of making information understandable (or visible), designers invent a symbol that represents a fiction, a lie, something unreal, which is capable of getting closer to what is being communicated than any data, figure or database. Data is the greatest exponent of exactitude, but it often doesn’t allow us to understand a given reality with the depth we would like. The designer, therefore, must take responsibility for developing a space in which information, which may be complex or abstract, is interpreted and eventually defined in a message or an idea that can then reach the masses.

Design has the great opportunity to define the new forms of data representation and, with that, the ways we have of interpreting and perceiving the world we live in, in the most transcendent and truthful way possible. This responsibility does not necessarily have to fall to judges, politicians, doctors or economists; designers need to shift design towards the understanding of data and information, just as the different fields generating this data are doing. So we see how design becomes a tool to access other disciplines, and the profession of the in- formation designer as something which is inescapably multidisciplinary, different forms of knowledge combining so that the information can be transmitted.

Let’s take a football league as an example. If you ask a football fan how a match went, he’s sure to surprise you with his analysis of the data. At the end of the day, what matters in a match are two numbers; the number of times the ball went into the away team’s goal and the number of times

it went in the home team’s goal. Behind these two numbers the fans have experienced a whole series of emotions that transcend the score, to the point that the fan might feel proud about how their team played, even though they lost. This is basically because what humans are capable of representing with data is not the reality in its entirety; data does not understand nuances, but we can transmit emotions through the way we represent them, and this helps to represent the nuances of the data itself.

One piece of data by itself has no value, it is the capacity we have of making data resonate that enables it to take effect. In his book Information Anxiety, the man who coined the term information architecture Richard Saul Wurman gives the example of a hospital in Overland Park (Kansas) that wanted to draw attention to its obstetrics unit. The hospital’s communications director had an idea: each time a baby was born in the hospital, the song Brahms Lullaby would be played in the waiting rooms. The experiment was a great success, and had people inquiring about the music. After a while, the song not only brought recognition to the pioneering qualities of the obstetrics unit, but also produced a sense of joy in all the patients who heard it. For a few minutes, several times a day, an entire hospital smiled.

In this example we can see how something as ordinary as a song can take on the meaning of something as transcendental as a birth. This is due to the capacity we have as humans to associate concepts through their sequential and temporal concurrence. We know there are things that have an innate attraction to humans, like literature, music or sport. The interest humans have in these knowledge areas is not so much rational as emotional; it’s to do with the subjectivity of each person. Using these elements allows us to build a bridge between the rationality of data and the emotionality of intuitive thought. That is why information designers must consider all the areas that data can get to from an increasingly psychological perspective.

Data has multiple origins, but only when we are capable of understanding how it is processed emotionally, alongside how it is handled mathematically or statistically, can we guarantee that it transcends its initial impact.

Tim Brown makes an interesting reference in Change by Design, in which he explains how during the early days of the technological startups in Silicon Valley, the work of most designers was focused on the hardware, on the housing and form of the objects they were working on. The software was relegated to the developers, leaving the user experience of these products to the mercy of a much more technical mindset. It wasn’t until the design team at Apple began to mix the interior and exterior design of their computers that a new discipline emerged: interaction design. At last, someone had thought of experience as a whole, as a way of understanding technology without separating what the mouse was from what you saw on the screen. Since designers have so far been responsible for the most superficial layer of information, they can now pave a new path towards the design of information experience, connecting not only the form, but also the meaning of this information, making us wiser, not only through data, but also through emotions.

This article was part of the exhibition and Book Design Does: For Better and for worse.

Turning excel spreadsheets into erotic lyrics.