06 July 2021

The world’s best data visualizations are a team effort

I was recently listening to an older episode of Jon Schwabish’s PolicyViz podcast with Edward Tufte. Tufte’s books influenced a lot of my thinking about topics here on the blog. I cite some of his analyses in the Better Posters book.

In the interview, Tufte praises scientists for data visualizations. He specifically name drops the journal Nature and says something like, “Nature has the best data visualizations in the world.”

Now, in the course of writing this blog and seeing many data displays produced by scientists, I can say that my impression is that — even for researchers at the top of their game — scientists do not routinely make graphs that would be described as world leading. Many, if I may be blunt, are mediocre. (But not yours, my dear reader. Yours are great. 😉)

So as I am prone to do, I asked on Twitter. And several people confirmed that Nature journals do not necessarily take figures as submitted. Instead, they have an in house team that redraws figures to meet the journal’s house style.

This is important, because so many scientists are resistant to anyone changing their work. A significant derides this kind of polish as unnecessary. (The No Name design philosophy.) They disparage the claim that journals “add value.”

(Of course, when journals pull back on design and only deliver the content, someone will be grumpy about that, too.)

We should not pretend that the world leading graphics that many admire are a natural outcome of scientists grappling with intricacies and complexities presented by data. Will that help? Sure. But let’s give credit to the uncredited: the designers who quietly improve graphs without even asking for co-author credit.

To paraphrase a sports cliché, “There is no ‘I’ in ‘data.’”

P.S.—Tufte, I think it’s fair to say, has a reputation for being extremely self-confident and sometimes a little prickly. But if so, this interview finds him in a much more genial mood. 

External links

PolicyViz Episode #21: Edward Tufte 

Beautiful Evidence reviewed

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