Seeing The Bigger Picture: Data Visualisation and Storytelling

Posted on May 26, 2016 by Xenia Kingsley

Stefanie Posavec visualisation

Hi. I’m Xen and I am a storyteller. As someone who’s worked in the field of marketing communications for the best part of a decade now, experience tells me that marketing broadly consists of four core components (handily alliterated for memorability): strategy, storytelling, selling and scrutiny (by which I mean measurement). Generally speaking, everything we do fits into one of those categories, and while they are all codependent, storytelling is ultimately the crux of what we do.

Being able to condense incredibly complex business issues into a digestible narrative isn’t easy, and we should know. We’ve been unravelling IP and delving deep into data for heavy hitting professional services firms for more than eleven years now.

But something has been niggling at me recently – a niggle that has been amplified by a recent Meetup I attended in Brighton. So often in the world of PR and marketing, we start with a hypothesis based on our knowledge and understanding and then we scrutinise available data to see if our hypothesis is supported or refuted. Finally we produce content such as press releases, whitepapers, videos and infographics to communicate our findings. But maybe we’re missing an opportunity by only focusing on a select set of results.

Mightn’t it be more exciting to let the whole data do the talking for itself through visualisations? At the Data Visualisation Brighton Meetup, host Peter Cook of talked about the process of visualising data as begining with a question rather than a hypothesis.

It’s important to note here that there’s a fundamental difference between infographics and data visualisations. Infographics (usually) have a planned narrative and a visual theme or style that takes precedence over the data itself. So, for example, the theme of the graphic may be bread. It will include a graphic of loaves scaled to represent percentages. Though the loaves are larger or smaller according to the statistic they represent, the ultimate goal of the designer is to create an easy to read, visually pleasing piece of content – so it’s unlikely they’ll be 100% graphically accurate.

Data visualisations on the other hand graphically represent the statistics exactly in order for us to be able to visually identify trends and clusters. I think it’s fair to say that while the former is more rooted in art and design, the latter is more of a science. However, the reality is that data visualisation can also be an artform.

We’ve written before on the blog about David McCandless, writer, designer and author of Information is Beautiful and its follow up, Knowledge is Beautiful. His visualisations tell sometimes incredibly complex stories in a clear and visually appealing manner. Below is a graphic taken from his website visualising media-inflamed public ‘fears’, with clear peaks in 2005 (bird flu), 2009 (swine flu) and 2014 (Ebola).


Data visualisation by David McCandless representing media inflamed fears in the UK

Though McCandless’ graphics are clean and crisp, visualisations don’t need to be slickly produced to be effective. At the Meetup, Peter told us about the Dear Data project, in which two designers based in London and New York exchanged hand drawn data visualisations about their lives once a week by postcard for an entire year. The visualisations are sometimes complex, sometimes simplistic, but always beautiful, and always tell a story.

The postcard at the top of this post shows how Stefanie Posavec spent her time that week – with the majority of her week being taken up by sleep (light blue), work (pink) and travel (navy). It’s simple but I’m sure you’ll agree, effective.

The important thing about visualisations is that they communicate something quickly, in a way that a table of numbers couldn’t necessarily do.

I love the idea of thinking of data as a living, breathing thing which you can poke and prod to see how it responds and I can’t wait for my next data-led project.

Interested in working with us on unravelling your IP, delving into your data or working strategy into your story? Get in touch.


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