Mark gives a talk

Last week, Katy and I went to see Mark talk about Interaction in Data Visualization at Boston CHI.

Since talks can be one thing when you hear them and quite another when you try recap them later — sans speaker charisma, raised stage and elegant delivery — I often find it interesting to return to my notes a while after the talk. See if the genie is still in the bottle. What stays with you over a bit of time, is often more valuable than your immediate impression. (Stealing the slides also helped.)

Mark’s point on interactivity in data visualization states that a display needs to be interactive if a changed view lets the audience focus on the analyses rather than the data.

It’s a principle often ignored. Even when a designer exports the data into visual expressions, the viewer still often has to spend energy locating comparable data sets.

While in the example below, by making data from the Community Health Status Indicators (CHSI) report available in a single-screen interface for the iPad app Stats of the Union, the viewer can change perspectives while preserving the context.

Mark also gave the “why this, why now” of data visualization.

Visualization has long been simply a practical method for communicating information. The effort to tease meaning out of data sets and show it visually — be it uncharted coasts, human behavior, or balls of light traversing the night sky, is not new.

But this is why companies and the public pay more attention to the field:

Mark detailed the process of how analysts, developers, and designers establish relationships between numbers, images, and text in order to fit them into an interactive app that preserves meaning and is simple to use.

A week after hearing his perspective, one thought in particular had stayed with me:

Insights are expensive.

Once the work is done, an insight may appear simple. But the effort that someone went through to acquire them was far from.

An expensive insight, once truly understood, can often be extremely concentrated. It’s the sub-clause that sums up a writer’s understanding of how Russian literature affected the Western voice — precisely what the story needs — versus the cheap effort of filling two paragraphs with notes on a late morning. An expensive insight may add just a small part: a slice of a three million year old bone extracted from the Ethiopian desert, cleaned, analyzed, and fitted into context — Lucy — by a patient archeologist.

Once simplicity is reached, a design looks obvious, even banal. Of course it’s done this way! It’s almost annoying. But with the aim on clarity, one should never show off the effort. Showing off effort tends to inspire design that may look intriguing but is about as instructive as its real life equivalent:


Founded in 2010 by Ben Fry, Fathom Information Design works with clients to understand complex data through interactive tools and software for mobile devices, the web, and large format installations. Out of its studio in Boston, Fathom partners with Fortune 500s and non-profit organizations across sectors, including health care, education, financial services, media, technology, and consumer products.

How can we help? hello@fathom.info.