By Jeanie Hendrie

As an August baby and true Virgo, I come by my organization skills honestly. And if it’s not an astrological trait, it’s certainly a genetic one – as the daughter of a mother who sorts her garbage before throwing it out, my preoccupation with detail is practically a birthright. Such neuroses or “special interests” – as I like to call them – have long fuelled a curiosity about communication, presentation and design in all facets of my life.

For a client project, we are collaborating with an outside resource that uses the mantra: “Don’t spend a penny until you’ve got every penny out of what you’ve already spent.” Changing the way information, data or knowledge is presented can often lead to the discovery of new patterns or previously unobserved trends.
Here are some interesting ways people have used information design to enhance their message or, in some cases, create a new one:

New patterns discovered by charting previously unobserved data: In a TED Talk, entitled The Beauty of Data Visualization, David McCandless teases new patterns out of a series of data sets by re-examining common graphing techniques. McCandless, displaying a standard area chart, asks his audience, “what rises twice a year – once in Easter and then two weeks before Christmas, has a mini peak every Monday and then flattens out over the summer?” My initial guess of church attendance was in good company with some of the other incorrect audience suggestions, including chocolate sales, shopping and sick leave. The answer: peak break up times, according to thousands of relationship statuses on Facebook.

McCandless, whose video was recently mentioned in the Globe and Mail, believes we’re suffering from a period of information overload – a problem he claims can be solved by smart information design. He says the solution is “using our eyes more and visualizing information so we can see the patterns and connections that matter – designing that information so it makes more sense, tells a story or allows us to focus only on the information that’s important.” In his short video, McCandless is quite convincing and my instincts tell me his theory is applicable far beyond the ‘turkey dump’.

Visual graphs leading human behaviour: The TED website – one of my favourite online resources for information about every topic imaginable – is another example of unique information design. The main page hosts a series of still images from a number of the site’s newest videos. The size of each image is relative to the number of people who have emailed the video, visually leading visitors to the most popular TED Talks of the week and increasing the chance that the most popular videos go viral (a strategy that leads to TED’s frequent mention in popular online media and drives new traffic to the site thus setting in motion the cycle all over again).

A similar technique is used by a website called 10×10. “Every hour, 10×10 collects the 100 words and pictures that matter most on a global scale, and presents them as a single image, taken to encapsulate that moment in time.” Site visitors can click on each image to get more detail about the headlines that were used to describe it; they can go deeper still by clicking on a specific headline which will take them to the origin of the image.

Each of these infographics provides a new spin on the delivery of standard online information while offering additional insight into the interests and online behaviour of the general population.

Data presentation enhanced by new technology: In this video, which was shared with me by a fellow SWAN, academic and statistician Hans Rosling stands next to a life-size bubble chart which lives and breathes beside him as he explains patterns in global development over the past 200 years. While we’re not necessarily in the business of life-size deliverables, Dr. Rosling’s technique reminds us to stay innovative in our own approach to data presentation and information design.
 

 
It’s in this part of post – the part where I’m supposed to bring everything together – that I am beginning to wonder why I chose this topic. Alas, there is a point or…at the very least, a point of view. Each of the examples above is representative of what I believe to be some great best practices for innovative information design:

  1. Look beyond traditional information sources: David McCandless pulled his stats from Facebook. Take advantage of the new communication tools we have to see what you can learn from different social media applications. How is the internet universe talking about your brand? What sorts of words do people use when they tweet about your company? Mapping out this information can provide some valuable insights.
  2. Take information you already know and present it in a different way: The bar chart and pie graph are old standbys but sometimes the right information deserves some special treatment. Both 10×10 and TED show a clear picture of the information being delivered but neither uses traditional means to do so. When the message is important, spend a few extra minutes thinking about how you’re delivering it.
  3. Pick one area of focus…not two or three or four: Telling a clear story means having some focus. Dr. Rosling spends 5 minutes discussing income inequality. Now normally, I’d read that sentence and say “pass” – but by focusing on one fantastic method of delivery, Rosling transforms a set of dull statistics into a compelling story.

Whether it’s mining a new insight from an old piece of research or determining that your next boyfriend or girlfriend is more likely to jump ship on a Sunday than a Tuesday, information design has many ways of helping us elevate our message by transforming numbers and data into a clear story. Sometimes, fresh eyes and a little creativity are all we need to shake those last few stubborn pennies out of the piggybank.