Information Design as Art

One category of blip that seems to be frequenting my radar lately has to do with a certain kind of information design. This subcategory seems like it deserves a better name than "information design," in that it serves to take great heaps of shapeless data and make something beautiful and interesting out of it. On second thought, maybe that's what all of information design is meant to do. Maybe it all deserves a less boring name. In any case, in this sub genre I'm talking about, the purpose is not to, say, take weather data and make cool charts out of it, or creatively show people how they could be saving more on their taxes with a color-coded deductions table — it's to take a whole category of information that you never would have thought to look at, and creatively squeeze it through a series of algorithms, filters, and visualization subroutines until it becomes something really thought-provoking.

Really great infographics are a sharp weapon that can be used for good or for evil. The same set of raw numbers on Civil War battles, for example, could be presented in two totally different ways, one of which would make you believe you've been flying the wrong flag all this time. Or in even more insidious, subtle (and therefore dangerous) cases, the data could be tipped just slightly, the range of an axis narrowed imperceptibly in a way that doesn't stand out, but makes you question whether global warming really IS that big of a deal, or whether we SHOULD be keeping those drug dealers in jail longer than the murderers.

What I like about these examples is that their creators are clearly aware of the power at their fingertips as information designers, but they are making a choice to subvert that power by abstracting the whole science into a form of self-expression. The data sampled doesn't necessarily say anything by itself, but the way it has been meticulously mined and re-formed says something sort of fascinating about those who cataloged it.

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wefeelfine.org

These guys take an impressively scientific approach to culling "feeling data" from the blogosphere. The site's built on an engine that pulls sentences from thousands of blogs every day that include the words "I feel" or "I am feeling". This data is then categorized by a number of metrics including specific feeling, location, age, gender and geographical location. The wefeelfine applet allows users to parse and view this data through a variety of beautiful visualizations or "movements" with names like "Madness", "Murmurs" and "Mobs". They've even gone as far as to publish an API so programmers can access the feeling data for their own purposes. They are clearly not taking this lightly.

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Gretchen Nash

Gretchen is a designer from L.A. whose book "Dear Gretchen," is a graphical analysis of letters that she has been collecting in a suitcase since childhood. She painstakingly counted word frequency across all of these correspondences, categorized those words, and then created charts from them. The amazing thing about this piece is that each chart is actually created in three dimensions by way of Gretchen's very impressive papercraft chops, and then photographed. The result is a much more precious and personal take on the bar chart than I've seen.

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The Feltron Annual Report

My mind was actually just blown in two while researching the designer of the Feltron Annual Report, because I found out he's also responsible for the consistently awesome infographics in New York Magazine's Intelligencer section, which I have been a huge fan of for a while. In his Annual Report, Nicholas Fenton parses data he has meticulously collected throughout the past year from the minutiae of his daily life. The report encompasses everything from how many miles he has traveled by air and rail (60,574 in 2007) to how many teeth his cast has lost (1).