Lucy Davison

I am never one to decline an invitation to a party so when asked to join Kantar and my heroes Aziz Cami (Kantar Creative Director) and David McCandless (the Rest of the World’s creative director) at the Information is Beautiful Awards last week, I was quick to accept. Glass of champagne and delicious nibbles in hand, I was able to catch up with the young and groovy data viz crowd at The Oxo Tower overlooking the Thames in Central London, to celebrate the world’s best data visualizations and information designs.

For those who don’t know these awards, they were conceived three years ago to celebrate excellence and beauty in data visualizations, infographics and information art. Other than the aforementioned Cami and McCandless the judges are an eclectic international crew of graphic designers, software engineers and data wranglers: Alberto Cairo, Assistant Professor at the School of Communication of the University of Miami; Giorgia Lupi of Accurat – IIBAwards gold medal winner in 2013 with “Nobels, no degrees”; Stefanie Posavec, London-based designer and data artist; Duncan Swain partner with David McCandless at the IIB Studio and UCLA ‘data experimenter’ Nathan Yau, of FlowingData. The categories cover Data Visualization, Infographics; Interactive Visualization; Motion Infographic; Tool and Website. There’s also a best of the best award (or in this case, ‘Most Beautiful’) for the overall winner.

Data visualization needs no introduction. Everyone has been seduced by the potential of this merging of information, design, function and form. Like a mini ‘whodunit’ I think the power of data visualization is partly about discovery – the excitement of revealing hidden patterns and stories within data – the uncovering of a moment of truth. It could be a definition of insight itself. But it is also simply aesthetically pleasing; data visualizations are art as much as science.

On arrival at the awards I was handed a large format newspaper of all the shortlisted entries, and I scoured my copy for any familiar names from the world of #mrx. Reader, I was disappointed. Other than Kantar Worldpanel, who deserve a mention (although it feels a little muted as the awards were of course sponsored by their parent company), there were none. Why is this? We deal in data, we tell stories with data and we reveal hidden patterns.

I think there are several reasons for the lack of market research entries, let alone winners. First of all, I know there are lots of great data visualizations going on in the insights industry that will never see the light of publicity. Lots of clients and agencies work with data visualizers and software tools to create stunning portals, websites and infographics for internal consumption. Because much of what we do is primary research commissioned with a specific business objective in mind, none of these data or visualizations should or could be shared or publicised. We also run projects with multiple data sets; needing to turn them around for presentation/debrief fast and without the indulgence of ‘playing’ with data in the way most data visualizers do. We can’t just pick a great data set and run with it in a software programme to see if we can tell a story with it, stripping out the elements that don’t fit. We have to include other elements– or at least we think we do.

But I also feel that within MRX there is a lack of understanding of the power of really great design. Many researchers are not aesthetically minded. They see beauty in numbers and strive for the ‘truth’, but are not going to fall for a design for design’s sake. In fact, researchers will often strive to fight the power of design seduction and treat it with suspicion; whereas the rest of the world simply enjoys it and clicks the ‘like’ button. We can learn from this simple, emotional response to beautifully presented data.

Good data visualization is not only the synthesis of data/research and a story, there must also be a clear aim or rationale (what action do we want the audience to take as a result of seeing it, or what action do we want the business to take as a result?). This means grounding data visualization in a broader business context – an element that is often lacking from the research perspective.

So, there is much we in marketing research can learn these awards and, for my halfpenny, here’s some things for you to look at and be seduced by.

  1. The winner of the gold data visualization award – Rappers, Sorted by Size of Vocabulary by Matthew Daniels; I thought this was a witty and well-presented idea that challenged my pre-conceptions.
  2. The gold winner in the Tool category and overall most beautiful – RAW by Density Design Research Lab in Milan. Go play with it; it’s amazing.
  3. Finally, to commemorate 100 years since the Great War, the joint Bronze winner in the interactive category ; Commonwealth War Dead of the First World by James Offer (although it could be argued that the Poppy display at the Tower of London was an even stronger data visualization of the appalling loss and bloodshed of the Great War than this).

Go and look at the awards site here to see more, stunning work.

Finally, here’s my analysis of the evening. Out of 12 categories (13 if you count the ‘most beautiful’ overall winner;) five were won by visualizers from New York and an additional two from the US (California and North Carolina). Of the remaining five there was one each for Canada (Quebec), UK (Shoreditch), the Netherlands, Germany and Italy. But the Italians get an extra vote for winning the overall prize. So New York is the place to be if you are in the data viz business and this article is now crying out to be turned into an infographic. If you get my data set!

Lucy Davison, is Colonel Mustard at Keen as Mustard Marketing