on data manifestations
on effect and affect
luke dubois (2016):
data visualisation. when you do it right, it’s illuminating. when you do it wrong, it’s anaesthetising ; it reduces people to numbers.
there’s a difference between communicating data effectively versus doing so affectively. designers do not exist to serve or ingratiate data : heck!, our work may not even present the data, as long as it somehow succeeds in affecting emotion and behaviour.
nadeem haidary (2009):
Much of the knowledge and statistics in the world exists in places like books, newspapers and web sites. You read things like “In Britain, 20 million tons [sic] of food is thrown out each year.” Statistics like these may be striking when you first read them, but without context or placement in the physical world, they are rarely remembered and rarely change people’s behavior. What if this kind of information crawled off the page…
limitations of visualising data
even though data plays such a central role in our lives today, few people are literate enough to engage with it, and 2d data-visualisations seldom produce lasting affect in audiences who have grown numb due to overexposure to a precision-engineered stream of attention-hogging visual artefacts.
hence: to make our data memorable (and thereafter affect behaviour change), it wouldn’t hurt to sometimes pull data out of 2d-media ; to manifest and situate it in the real world ; so it may be experienced more holistically.
what data can help us do
data can help us inform people: elucidate, educate, put-forth an interpretation, highlight a problem, support a solution, or
merely invoke curiosity. it may also be provocative: to express skepticism, pose a question, or challenge a norm.
what manifestations can help us do
data manifestations may work as hooks, to draw people into an unknown or less-considered topic, or as reinforcements, to bolster conversations around a known topic. they may also help study data, see it in new light, and discover patterns in it.
how data manifestation’s come to be
there exist naturally-occuring forms of data manifestation, like tree rings and rock strata. more often than not, they manifest time.
sometimes, flat representations incidentally (just happen to) manifest beyond two dimensions. ‘the book of names’ at auschwitz, which i visited in 2019, is one example of this.
at most times, however, we intentionally go-about manifestating data. let’s look at one example:
iraqbodycount meticulously documented civilian deaths caused by the 2003 american invasion of iraq for well-over a decade. names of the deceased could have been stored in a table or book, and were usually presented as a bar-graph on their website.
i portrayed this data as a stream of blood on a webpage (2020) ; this was a moving, yet flat, representation. in order to pull it out of the screen, the data was manifest using tubelights, showing how ‘every life lost is a light going out from this world’ (2016).
attributes of manifestations
manifestations can be: literal, abstract (using numbers, graphs and charts), referential, or metaphorical.
when manifesting extreme magnitudes or unfamiliar units, designers create concrete scales to help “relate, re-express [by referencing familiar concepts], and compare them through visual depictions using magnitudes and units that are easier to grasp”.
as designers, our goal is to make data relatable. most of the work produced for this is visual and on two-dimensional surfaces (and that’s okay). sometimes, we do physicalise the data: we make it tangible, textured, touchable, pickupable, whathaveyou. however, our work may just as well be acoustic, olfactory (and edible), liquid or gaseous, felt as heat or pressure, or something else altogether.
the term ‘data physicalisation’ is quite popular while describing such work (see: dataphys). but since we can employ a wide-range of media (and modalities) that comprise a person’s lived experience in our work, i prefer calling it ‘data manifestation’ instead.
we may produce an object, fill a space, stage a performance, design a participatory experience, or do something else.
how may our manifestations behave?: they may be fixed, active (changing or moving in a predetermined sequence), reactive (to the audience, or to a data-stream, or something else), or interactive ; they may even be ephemeral.
we may start our work by looking at a dataset, but, ultimately, want to use this data to invoke a feeling of some kind in the audience ; we want to gift them a memorable experience, and invite them to engage with the data/topic at hand.
to do so, our manifestations may be quantitative or—in a manner of speaking—qualitative, or even perhaps something mixed. in other words, we may represent a statistic, or manifest the impact (emotional, or otherwise) surrounding that statistic.
our manifestations may be accurate or approximate, distorted or (over-)simplified, or even skip representing the data altogether. they intend to impart an affect, and we (as designers) are permitted some creative freedom while representing the data (as long as we are not dishonest).
think of it this way: what use is an accurate library-catalogue if no one visits libraries any more?1 designers may not be tasked with building libraries, but we are in the business of gifting people the motivation to read. i repeat— we’re not merely designing catalogues, shelves or entrances : we’re gifting affect.
we may distort ‘space’ or ‘time’ in our representations, in order to direct or pronounce affect. by distort, i mean things like shift, warp, scale (for example: enlarge or diminish space, and, elongate or compress time), conjoin, etc.
besides distortion, we can also use scale and multiplicity to pronounce the affect our manifestations lend the audience.
we pay attention to context—cultural, geo-spatial, temporal, or otherwise—while manifesting the data.
where can our manifestations be placed?: on a table, in a museum or gallery, outdoors, in homes, be ephemeral, as a performance, in a dining experience, or, basically, in any-and-every context where a person experiences things. it may be a single piece, or a group of objects, or a sequence of experiences tied together by a common story.
like you see with experience design, there will be countless papers and projects which try to build-up theory about this (and that is fine), but no amount of theory can substitute sensitivity. spend time with the subject at hand, feel the data, take a stance, observe the context, discover what people relate with and value, develop a craft, believe in yourself :and good work will flow through you and manifest into the world. you can use theory to tune your work, but use your humanity to decide what to make in the first place.
at the end of the day, whether in written or visual or manifest form, and irrespective of finish, a design is only as strong as the content and concept it stems from. here are some prototypes made over 3 days, using paper and found/waste-materials, by my students in a data-manifestation workshop in 2022.
prachi raj tiwari: “13000 school students commited suicide in india in 2021”.
saoni ruikar: “plastics are in the foodchain, and people ingest ¼ kg plastic a year”.
uddipta gogoi: 2-wheelers showed up in three statistics in india: 50% of all road deaths in india involved people on 2-wheelers ; a staggering rise in “quick” home-delivery services was being fulfilled by ‘gig’-workers riding 2-wheelers ; and, driving “quick” led to a three-fold increase in road-accident deaths. (note: i worked with uddipta on the text after the workshop.)
a designer’s allegience: data or affect?
human endeavour should evidence integrity, compassion, and morality; and be about using technology to improve the world (instead of misusing the world to improve technology). once you grow past the initial infatuation with your craft, i hope you realise that working with data is no different.
our work is free to be visual, sonic, tasty, written, miniscule, fleeting, grand, intricate, painful, or something else: as long as it is affective.
now, go!, make good art.
in 2014, the World Bank studied how most reports published by it are never downloaded. the Washington Post wrote about it, and questioned how the world-bank’s work may contribute to change if it is seldom read. ↩