One of my favorite components of library school is the opportunity to take an elective that dives into an interesting topic and learning more about a world or community that had never been on my radar. I’ve posted here on HLS previously about some of the visualization critique skills I learned in a recent class entitled Introduction to Information Visualization. Today, though, I wanted to broaden that discussion to include the enjoyment that is discovering new experts and wisdom in a field that I was not familiar with before taking the course. I was introduced to many experts and leaders from the field of information visualization and one who stood out to me was Jessica Hagy and her clever work on her blog Indexed. Her body of work includes other websites, books, and more, but her simple straightforward posts on Indexed are an excellent introduction to her stye and this corner of the world of information visualization.
As the tagline to Indexed says, her posts are “published weekday mornings as the coffee brews.” Each post is a simple visualization presented on a background of a 3×5 inch index card. These posts are topical in nature and often relevant to news, pop culture, or perhaps her own personal life. Because of her posts’ simplicity, I chose to discuss the merits of three brief posts, with each connected by one tag: communication.
Visualizations do not have to include specific numbers in order to be useful or interesting. In fact, Hagy’s stated purpose for Indexed is to allow her to “make fun of some things and sense of others. [She] use[s] it to think a little more relationally without resorting to doing actual math.” While visualizations with precise data and analysis have their purposes, Hagy instead harnesses the power of simplicity to establish her points. She tries to provoke feeling and emotion beyond hard data, using humor, hyperbole, and imagery to get her point across in her visualizations.
Even if specific numbers are not included, this does not mean that math is ignored. In fact, visualizations such as Hagy’s require the viewer to have a fundamental understanding of basic math principles in order to grasp what she tries to say. Understanding proportion, x- and y-axis, and more is essential for understanding her visualization. In her posts, relationships between pieces of information are paramount.
The following two images are interesting to contrast because of their similar structures. In both, as the item on the x-axis increases, so does the item on the y-axis. In the first image, the negatively connoted item, “lawyers involved” is on the y-axis with the positively connoted “forthright statements” on the x-axis. The second image has the positive item “calm and joy in life” on the y-axis with the potentially negative “apps that send you notifications on the x-axis. Even though the positive and negative are reversed, the viewer can clearly note the correlation in each post.
These posts are each critiques of different matters important to Hagy, one can presume. The first accuses lawyers of not telling the truth while the second indicts the notifications that attract us to our phones and reducing calm and joy. There are no quantifiable numbers attached to these critiques. Instead, if either of these topics resonates with the viewers, they can relate to the way the two points intersect with one another.
While simplicity is to be admired, the one downside of simplicity is a lack of context. If you do not see the post on the day it is added to the website and are not tuned into the same cultural zeitgeist as Hagy, you might not find the same conclusions she is trying to draw with her visualizations. As her posts are intended as food for thought and starting points for thinking about new ideas, this lack of context could lead to interesting conclusions for consideration. However, some background to her visualization decision-making could be beneficial.
Quite simply, Hagy makes visualizations fun. Her work encourages viewers to think deeply about what they are seeing. Her biography on her main website describes her work: “Her style of visual storytelling allows readers to draw their own conclusions and to actively participate in each narrative” (www.jessicahagy.info). By emphasizing how emphasis on visualizations can help tell a story, Hagy’s work is accessible for those of us freshly entering the visualization world. Where working with large datasets of numbers can be overwhelming, Hagy’s visualizations are a reminder that a look at a smaller picture can still tell an interesting story.
Sarah Davis is a Bilingual Youth Librarian at a public library in Oklahoma and an MLIS student at the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa.
To read other posts in this “Visualize It” series, click here for the Visualization tag.