How to Communicate Complex Ideas With Visuals: David McCandless's Information Design

The Internet and other digital technology create huge amounts of data. But how will humans be able to understand it? Or make it useful? Or even beautiful?

London data-journalist and information designer David McCandless makes data visual. And he does so with such grace and intelligence that his work is frequently published in the Guardian, Wired, Die Zeit. Indeed, his work is also collected as art and has appears in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Wellcome Trust gallery in London and the Tate Britain. McCandless has also done work for GE and Google.

He founded the visual blog Information Is Beautiful and wrote a book by the same name.

McCandless began his career writing for cult video game magazines such as Your Sinclair and PC Zone in the ’80s and ’90s.

“David McCandless creates visual landscapes from the debris of internet statistics,” writes Michael Owen Fisher in Guernica. “… [I]n whittling data to its core, [data journalists] must guard against losing a story’s nuances. McCandless manages to achieve this balance. He works with large pools of information, often fusing datasets to distill the central trends and tease out hidden relationships.”

Social Web Chart

He covers a wide range of subjects from times of year when break-ups are most common to carbon emissions to conflict in the Middle East. Research for McCandless’s visualizations is time-consuming. Once, McCandless scoured 10,000 Facebook statuses.

Facebook usage chart

McCandless is a self-taught designer. “All the domains I’ve worked in—programming, video games, magazines and newspapers, advertizing—are very visual in their own way and are design-related,” he told Guernica. “I think I absorbed a lot of design nous and design sensibility by being exposed to these media domains over the years.”

Who can catch which flu

Marketers and advertisers might have something to learn from McCandless because of how his work communicates complex ideas with very little effort from his viewers. “People across a range of industries, not just science, are struggling with their communication because their output doesn’t compete with what people see on a day-to-day basis,” McCandless told Guernica. “Some of the commercial work I do is helping people to improve their presentations and add some design thinking.”

What does McCandless think makes a dart visualization good? It must combine information, function, visual form, and story. “…Without story, you get ‘boring.’ Something that looks good but isn’t that interesting,” McCandless writes on his blog. “Similarly, if you combine visuals, information & story without considering functionality and your goal, you get something useless.”