“Beauty is truth, truth beauty”

by w3woody

I was reminded of the quote from Keats when reading the following article: Should Data Visualizations Be Beautiful?

The question is, “Should data visualizations be beautiful?” For years a battle has raged between infographic designers who emphasize the importance of aesthetics and data visualizers with a more practical bent who focus on the degree and quality of understanding that results. Those in the aesthetics camp argue that if an infographic is not eye-catching, no one will look at it, and that compromises in the quality of communication are justified as a means to capture the reader’s attention. Those in the optimal-understanding camp argue that the reader’s attention is wasted if the visualization does not clearly and accurately tell its story.

While the battle rages, however, fundamental questions are being ignored.

Should data visualizations be beautiful?

What qualifies as beautiful?

Having met with and worked with a number of designers, my experience is that those designers who would rather sacrifice “truth” for “beauty” often are doing so because they have little experience in the information they are presenting, little experience in the psychology and physiology of human perception, and want the unconstrained ability to present “art” that contains content–and if the content suffers for it, it’s because we don’t appreciate the art.

But history is full of great artists who, rather than demanding the medium in which they were working be perfected so they can express without limits, find the art within the limits of the medium they are working within. The Picasso Museum in Malaga, Andalucía (which my wife and I visited while we were in Spain) is full of Picasso pieces where Picasso worked with various processes (such as intaglio printing, engraving, drypoint, etching, and lithographs, to name a few), and created some fantastic art pieces within the constraints of each of the various media.

Picasso wasn’t just a painter.

And Picasso’s famous abstract art style that he is most famous for, in his later works period, represents a very small percentage of his artwork. (Personally I’m partial to his earlier “blue period” works, particularly works like The Old Guitarist.)

Great artists seek to understand the constraints of the medium in which they operate. They seek to understand the symbology in which they operate. And from those constraints, both in terms of the medium and the symbology of the medium, in terms of how people perceive what they are doing and how people will react to the work they are creating, great artists seek to push the boundaries of their work to maximize the value of that work.

Within the field of data visualizations, artists are further constrained by the needs of the medium; you cannot simply produce a work with random symbolism:

It isn’t up to the painter to define the symbols. Otherwise it would be better if he wrote them out in so many words! The public who look at the picture must interpret the symbols as they understand them.

Instead, the work has to be clear, intelligible, tell the story of the data. It needs to draw the user’s focus on the information being presented, while dropping away all distractions. And it needs to do so within the constraints of the medium: within the constraints of a small area or an interactive design (where the actual expression of the design has many fringe cases the artist cannot just “wish away”), with the limited color palette perceptions and 2D spatial perceptions most humans possess.

And it needs to find the beauty in truth, rather than use truth as an excuse to hang beauty off of.

It is arguable that Apple’s design sensibilities are extremely beautiful. But they are beautiful precisely because the designers worked within the constraints of the ability to mass manufacture devices with small hardware footprints and accelerated graphics and small memory footprints to create something that is useful to people as well as pleasing to the eye. And working within these designs (such as creating an operating system that is responsive by placing constraints on application designers who have learned to play within these constraints, running in a fraction of the memory a Windows CE or an Android or a Windows 7 Metro needs to properly run), Apple has created a beautiful product that is also extremely profitable and successful.

Beauty did not require the sacrifice of truth, and in fact, truth drove how beauty was expressed.