Data Visualization and Infographic Design

Effective data visualization helps us to more easily comprehend trends and relationships between sets of quantitative data that may not otherwise be readily apparent.  If one is looking at numbers and statistics on a page, trends and correlations are many times not easy to see.  Large data sets that are effectively transformed into a more visual context can be much more fully comprehended.  Journalist David McCandless has perhaps articulated this best in his Ted Talk “The Beauty of Data Visualization” (below) when he says, “By visualizing this information, we have turned it into a landscape that you can explore with your eyes.”  In his talk, he highlights key features of effective visualization of data, and provides some excellent examples.  My personal favorite was a design motif called the “balloon race” (time 12:42), for which he examines both the popularity of, and scientific evidence for, various nutritional supplements.  

Another fantastic example of excellent data visualization can be seen in Hans Rosling’s Ted Talk, recorded in February of 2006, involving a number of metrics for global development.  In his presentation, he demonstrates the power of adding animation to data visualization to add an element of time for the viewer.  You can explore more updated statistics and charts about global development here, which is presented by the organization Gapminder.  (Gapminder also has a page specifically for teachers who are perhaps interested in ways to use these tools in the classroom.)

I’m not intentionally trying to inundate you with videos, but I really do find Hans’s work to be fascinating, so I can’t resist sharing another.  This one, from the BBC, also ties back to my previous post about storytelling, in which Hans “tells the story of the world in 200 countries over 200 years using 120,000 numbers – in just four minutes.”

Chemical Infographics

One of my favorite sources for chemistry-related infographics is a site called “Compound Interest”, run by chemistry educator Andy Brunning.  On his site, Andy features chemistry-related infographics covering a variety of themes, and I encourage you to take a moment to explore some of these before reading further.  I have included an example, which explains the chemistry of Camembert cheese, below.

(Image copyright: Andy Brunning   Shared under Creative Commons License.)

I have been following Andy’s site for several years now, and have really liked the quality of the chemical information, as well as the visual aesthetics of the infographics he produces.  Each one is filled with interesting (as least, in my opinion) information/facts regarding a specific chemical compound, class of compounds, or perhaps another interesting chemistry link.  

Having now studied aspects of good design in a more formal sense as part of COETAIL, I can now better articulate what I really like about Andy’s infographics from a visual perspective as well.  

Use of Color

Each of the infographics has a color theme, usually related somehow to the topic of the infographic.  For example, the “Colour and Aroma of Roses” infographic has a red color scheme, while the “Chemistry of Broccoli” has a green one.  

Use of Space

The infographics make excellent use of space, by balancing both visuals and empty space.  They do not appear to be cluttered with too much information, yet, do not leave large areas of space unutilized.  For almost all of these graphics, Andy could have chosen to include more information, more chemical structures, and more visuals.  But I feel that he consistently strikes the right balance between visuals and text in his infographics, as well as arrangement of these elements overall.

Consistency of Visual Theme

The Compound Interest infographics all contain a common visual theme, while all being individually unique.  I sometimes come across these infographics on other sites, and can immediately recognize them as Andy’s work based on their visual layout, even without looking closely at them.  

I have printed out (and laminated) many of my favorite infographics to hang around my classroom.  I usually do this with A3 or A4 sized paper, so they are not too large and easy to fit on cabinets or small wall spaces.  This allows me opportunity to put up several around the chemistry lab at once, and then rotate them throughout the school year.  Many of Andy’s infographics are related to times of the year and holidays, and these provide a convenient link between chemistry and the real world.  For example, this one, posted by Chemical and Engineering News, is related to the chemistry behind dyeing Easter eggs.  

My students really seem to like these infographics.  I often see students pausing to read them, and expressing clear interest in what they are reading.  What I’m noticing is that students really enjoy reading about the link between events/objects in their lives, and the chemistry associated with them.   I have recently been thinking about how I could utilize these as part of an assignment/activity for my students.  

I’m thinking of having students investigate their own areas of personal interest to find links to chemistry.  This would allow students to practice their research skills, apply their understanding of chemical concepts to new areas, and also give them a sense of autonomy in their own learning.  My students would also be able to apply principles of good visual design in the creation of their own infographics, perhaps using the Compound Interest infographics as inspiration.

Please let me know if you have any ideas and/or feedback for me related to visual data representation, or its implementation in the secondary science classroom.  I look forward to hearing from you!  

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