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What Makes A Data Visualisation Elegant?, Nightingale

What Makes A Data Visualisation Elegant?, Nightingale

On a dedicated channel, #dvs-topics-in-data-viz, in the Data Visualization Society Slack, our members discuss questions and issues pertinent to the field of data visualization. Discussion topics rotate every two weeks, and while subjects vary, each one challenges our members to think deeply and holistically about questions that affect the field of data visualization. At the end of each discussion, the moderator recaps some of the insights and observations in a post on Nightingale. You can find all of the other discussions here.

Elegance is a design concept I have always found hard to define, especially in relation to data visualisation. I know when I see something that is elegant. I also know when this quality is absent. But it is often hard to articulate why. It lacks definition, which makes it hard to control, hard to explain, and hard to pursue.

To try to find some common understanding, I asked Data Visualization Society members:

How do people define and describe elegance in visualisation as well as other creative or communicated work?

Here is a summary of the main themes that emerged.

A prominent strand of discussion observed the importance of a visualisation being able to appeal to its audience through its visual aesthetic. It should charm them and create a positive first impression.

Elegant aesthetics are formed by a recipe comprising astute colour choices, layout decisions, typeface selection, and interactive slickness. It intrigues the viewer, inspires their curiosity, and invites them to read and interact with the contents.

Some of the key words used to define this initial aesthetic quality included calm, ease, gentle, fitting, softness, natural, poetic, smooth, soft. The use of shades of grey, of limited colour palettes and pastel tones were expressed as being present in works that people think of as being elegant (the work of Federica Fragapane, Giorgia Lupi, Nadieh Bremer, and Nicholas Rougeux were mentioned).

It was interesting to see the words charm and calm mentioned several times. I’ve often found myself using a word like seduction but charm is less needy and perhaps less desperate. Calm conveys a sense of serenity, once again, of not trying too hard to gain attention but getting it none the less.

Oren Bahari mentioned how an elegant design “oozes style without even trying or seeming to try”. He continues:

“It is [the] subjective illusion of graceful artistry, where the hours of yelling at your computer weren’t rendered into the final design. The point at which your effort, knowledge, input and time for your visualisation hides its work and appears magical is where it becomes elegant. In general, data visualisation is then naturally elegant because it magically compresses so much, from data processing to design prototypes. Filtering down all your labours, elegance become that reduction.”

An important question posed in the discussion asked if elegance is an intrinsic quality to good design, or more of a perceived quality relative to the nature of the audience? Stephanie Tuerk wrote:

“The general appreciation of elegance as we are mostly all discussing it here is very Eurocentric, most likely coming out of early 20th Century aesthetic doctrines (Modernism) that themselves were roughly inspired by developments in the sciences.”

When speaking about aesthetic opinions, we are clearly talking about personal taste shaped by cultural, societal and social influences. This creates fluidity in how one person might perceive the aesthetic quality of a design compared to somebody else. Will Chase said:

“…aesthetic preferences vary hugely by region, culture, religion, upbringing, and just plain personal preference. The qualities that a lot of us link to elegance are likely very Eurocentric, which is no surprise given that most of the discussion in dataviz is dominated by people from US/Europe. But I wonder how these translate to the rest of the world? Maybe there are certain qualities that are universal?

I do think that by following traditional design teachings relating to typography, color, layout, etc., we can achieve a base level where most people would say “that looks nice”. But in moving to the next level, where someone is totally wowed by the visuals, I can’t see that there’s any rules to follow. At that point, it’s basically art, and something that I think is incredibly beautiful and elegant, someone else might say “eh, it’s kinda boring and old-timey”.

Jeff Harrison argued that the visual aesthetic of a work needs to transcend “just what I like” type judgments. An extension of the aforementioned aesthetic quality is to consider how it might tonally match the subject. The expectations of the audience with regards to the consistency of the look-and-feel of the work was another key strand. Ben Childs wrote:

“I would consider [elegance] as whatever tone is most appropriate for the context: There are times when elegant might be a bold, punchy and authoritative explanation and others where it may offer an intricate and lengthy exploration. Both are elegant executions in the correct context.”

A key visual channel through which elegance manifests itself in visualisation is through the colour and typeface choices. Though people often have preferences for each, creating a style that is coherent with the nature of the subject — removing any cognitive obstacles to recognising the subject — was raised as an important matter. Will Chase added:

“I gravitate towards more muted or less ‘aggressive’ colors. But then I look at something like Nadieh Bremer’s work, which isn’t necessarily ‘aggressive’, but often makes use of lots of high-saturation colors, and I find it incredibly beautiful and elegant. Another example that comes to mind is ‘Into the Spiderverse’ (one of my favorite pieces of visual design in years)… it is also full of bright flashy comic-book style colors. I think it has a lot to do with how the piece fits as a whole and how the colors connect to the visual metaphor.”

Indeed, one might also choose to utilise these design choices to encourage a particular mood or emotional response depending on subject, audience and aims. In describing an example work that resonated with him — ‘Drones’ by Pitch Interactive, Will Stahl Timmins said:

“It’s the animation that really makes it elegant though — the curved line representing the attack, the little explosion, and then the casualties being rammed downwards ‘into the ground’. It’s the visual metaphor that I think is so successful, and the minimalistic visuals and restricted colour palette are exactly what’s needed (and nothing more).”

There is always a need to find the sweet spot, however. When the pursuit of elegance veers in to the territory of gratuitous gimmick, fanciness, or being cool, this can lead artificial appeal and a short-lived positive experience in the eyes of the viewer. As Elijah Meeks explained:

“Audiences tend to call anything spidery or with sweeping arcs ‘elegant’ — in general, anything that looks art nouveau — and I really think there’s something to the aesthetic that can spur a person to think of it as more elegant even if it is cluttered or information-poor or otherwise something I might criticize.”

Bridget says that sometimes adding apparent ‘junk’ to a visual can make work more approachable to a given audience. “Some of it is also a mix of whimsy to evoke an emotional response,”she adds. This is fine when handled astutely, but in the wrong context, it can may impede the audience’s trust in the work — that key first principle. I have plenty of anecdotal evidence of people not trusting a visualisation because it looks ‘overly designed’.

A further aspect of being coherent through your design style concerns being consistent and conveying a sense of unified decision making. The whole thing should work as a whole thing: it should be harmonious, it should feel like a singular design aesthetic has been applied throughout, rather than a chaotic suite of different treatments. Stephanie Tuerk wrote:

“Conceptual elegance… is the idea that all design decisions from… layout of components on the screen to the strategy for labeling elements stem from a common principle ie. the same idea creates both the whole and its parts — or informs design decisions at all of the different levels of details.”

Perhaps acting as a useful counterbalance to the tonal style, a further branch of discussions related to somewhat more conservative terms, such as economy, restraint, grace and neatness.

This may not necessarily mean being free from superfluity — aka minimalism. Though the ‘less is more’ mantra (from Dieter Rams, Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe, Tufte etc.) is still quite pervasive and, on occasion, entirely reasonable. Kelly Gilbert said:

“Elegance, to me, isn’t necessarily about economy but simplicity and refinement. In fashion, there is a quote widely attributed to Coco Chanel. Paraphrasing, it’s something like “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and remove one accessory.” I think of this before publishing a viz: what ‘accessory’ (gridline, outline, label, cool-but-unnecessary chart or graphic…) can I remove?”

Perhaps a more sophisticated and flexible modern approach to the somewhat blunt notion of minimalism is that of “refinement”. What’s important is editing and, at times, being courageous or restrained about what you should not include or attempt to do. It’s about finding that moment — perhaps only through experience — where something just ‘feels right’. That leads me to one of my favourite German words, fingerspitzengefühl, which means having an intuitive flair or instinct — a ‘finger tip feeling’ where you just know.

Moritz Stefaner mentions another key German word for this discussion, “pragnanz”, as meaning “concise and on point, but also memorable and assertive… so, not minimal for minimalism’s sake, but maximally effective with minimal effort”.

Refinement is about being decisive. Possessing the clarity of vision and caring for the little details. This conveys to your viewer that your work has been thought-through and thought-about.

Whereas the preceding themes have focused more on ways that elegance contributes towards initial impressions, it was also suggested that elegance should be considered in relation to the function of a visualisation. Does it help to make a visualisation accessible: is it clearly understandable and as usable as possible, given the context in which it is required to function?

When discussing visualisation design principles, I tend to create distinction between such concerns around accessibility from those of elegance, perhaps echoing the traditional fault lines of function and form. Inevitably, elegance can and will overlap with accessibility, as many observed in the discussion. DVS member ‘Gorm’ expressed the idea that elegance covers both of these principles:

“There are two competing requirements for elegance in data viz: Data viz needs first to get a pass by the senses before it even gets a chance to “sink in” with our logical and conceptual system — visual elegance opens the door, functional elegance then kicks in.”

The pursuit of elegance should not be at the cost of accessibility, though it often is, as explained by Liz Gilleran:

“I’m a UX designer mostly and a lot of us will groan about elegant designs that were unusable and useless or downright discriminatory because they favour the most able-bodied amongst us.”

I totally agree with the idea that the pursuit of elegance can undermine use. If, in your pursuit of elegance, you decide to remove what was a key piece of text because it broke the visual rhythm of a layout, then that is a compromise that will jeopardise the overall effectiveness. Elegance and accessibility are intertwined, positively and negatively. I can think of many examples where so much has been added to help the reader understand a chart, but in doing so the overall elegance was undermined. Another dimension of the interchangeability of terms relates to the relative complexity of your content. Joshua Smith remarks:

“We need to account for complexity, and make sure we’re showing both a coherent and consistent view of the data (those two terms I’ve stolen from literature theory’s concept of normalization).

Simpson’s paradox is a great example: if I show just the aggregate, I’m delivering something simple, but I’m not matching the complexity of the data and questions. If I show the granular data, I might be matching the complexity but I’m not delivering something simple. However, a dashboard that allows some cross-filtering between visualizations that makes Simpson’s Paradox at bit more apparent makes the complexity approachable in simplicity. That’s how I think of elegance.”

Building on the discussion about the usability of a visualisation, some commenters went further to suggest elegance is not just about something doing what it was intended to do, but does it do this well? Jason Forrest remarked:

“I’d argue that elegance actually is something that separates usable UX design from delightful UX design.”

Moritz Stefaner adds that a solution is more elegant than a thing — “it picks up the fact that a great solution needs to be found given certain objectives and production constraints”. Many commentators discussed parallels with mathematical or programmatic elegance — performing operations in most efficient way (often minimal) — or verbal elegance — getting straight to the point. Dino Citraro wrote:

“I think an elegant design resolves and accomplishes the desired functionality, while meeting and overcoming the constraints in a simple and uplifting way.”

Words like ingenuity, efficiency, economical, effortless, optimised kept cropping up in the context of ‘solution’. What was interesting that perfect never did, perhaps reflecting that there is no such thing in visualisation. DVS member Ahmad said:

“I would define this as being efficient and effective in communicating the story that the data contains, but in a way that would not necessarily be immediately obvious — ie. a degree of ingenuity or creativity was necessary to achieve its apparent simplicity.”

Nicole Edmonds adds that “elegance should have an air of effortlessness, in the ‘they make it looks so easy’ kind of way.” This makes me think of different contexts, like sport where you witness the elegance of performers like Roger Federer (with his super-smooth tennis action), or Kane Williamson (with his impeccable batting technique) or Rose Lavelle (with her graceful midfield creativity in football).

Efficiency seemed to be a contentious choice, as this word can have utilitarian connotations and might be more attached to things doing the bare minimum, whereas the focus of most people’s thought here was about exceeding, surpassing, and surprising efficiency — efficiency that is observed, experienced and appreciated? Joshua Smith said:

“Elegance combines grace and beauty, but also ingenuity through simplicity. I think good analytics matches the complexity of the problem, but is simple in delivery – I see elegance as sort of mapping from the complex to the simple.”

Functional elegance in data visualisation also has a lot to do with visual hierarchy. As Alan Wilson observes, “it’s the art of guiding a viewers eye through the many layers of a visualization one-by-one, instead of hitting them with everything all at once”. Lord agreed:

“The first thing that sprung to my mind was Occam’s Razor that states that entities should not be multiplied without necessity. This doesn’t mean a solution has to be simple… But that it needs to fit the problem gracefully. It shouldn’t feel clunky and unwieldy or sparse and difficult to connect with… It works with that feeling of “that’s it — everything makes sense… I couldn’t have put it better.”

To close this discussion, here’s a somewhat inverted perspective: elegance is most noticeable when it is missing.

Perhaps we can become complacent with elegant things. As expectations rise, well-conceived, well-executed and well-performing designs become so natural and automatically engaged-with that we can take them for granted. Perhaps the greatest compliment towards acknowledging the effective pursuit of elegance is when it is seamlessly invisible. Faizel Mohammed added:

“Maybe elegance in data visualisation is like a hygiene factor (especially for practitioners): you don’t notice it if it’s done well, but miss it if it is not there!”

According to Oren Bahari, the absence of elegance is often easier to recognise when it comes to identifying design problems:

“My thoughts immediately go to the opposite of elegance: when there may be lots of effort contrasted with things like ‘junk’ in loading/animation, messy layouts, eye-piercing colours, cryptic information and [use of the font] Comic Sans.”

And it is another quote from Oren Bahari that I will use to close out this reflection. A lovely clean summary of the mysterious alchemy that lies behind elegance:

“[Inelegance] seems to be avoided with experience and feedback, which makes me think that elegance is mastery masked in simplicity.”

 Thank you to everyone who participated in this discussion and for Duncan Geere’s editorial support.

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