Should news information be beautiful?

The Future of News summit here at MPR last week left me mulling over several ideas — and criticisms — over coverage. How do we share the news? How do we communicate data? Can presentation make or break the story? It certainly conveys more than we might realize. I remember sitting in a Newspaper class (yes, it was called “Newspaper class” then) with a USA TODAY in one hand and a Pioneer Press in the other, in order to compare “impact” and what the graphics might actually be saying about the sources.

This image from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) certainly communicates what Minnesota may face on Wednesday November 25, 2009:

1Wx_2009112600_minnesota.jpg

Rain. Snow. But you can’t interact with it and the quality wasn’t great before I crunched it a bit more. (Interested in the weather that day? Read more about Thanksgiving Travel: Roll the weather dice)

Servicable, useful, but what else does it tell us? Does it reflect on the technology used to create it? What makes good information design?

Independent visual & data journalist David McCandless hears this question often and tried to answer it:

“To be honest, I don’t know. I am unschooled in both information (I was a college dropout) and design (I am a self-taught designer). I’ve never really thought about it.”

As “unschooled” as McCandless is, he thought about what makes data visualization useful in a blog entry, Interesting, Easy, Beautiful, True? He distills it in words,

* Information needs to be interesting (meaningful & relevant) and have integrity (accuracy, consistency).
* Design needs to have form (beauty & structure) and function (it has to work and be easy to use).

He also shares a first-run of what that might look like and asks for online feedback. After looking at the cooperative projects and visuals on his site informationisbeautiful.net, I have to wonder what other independent sources can teach us.

Should news information be beautiful? Should the priority be on usefulness? I’ll hang up and listen.

  • The short answer, for the unschooled, is that useful information is beautiful.

    There are plenty of people who have thought about this question and are schooled in addressing it. Start with Edward Tufte, Richard Saul Wurman and Donald Norman, but not Nigel Holmes, please.

    Then look at these:

    Visualizing Economics

    Dynamic Diagrams

    Junk Charts

  • Craig

    Let me place an additional, unfair constraint on graphic information in the news. It needs to look serious (tight, crisp, and muted.)

    I hereby confess an irrational desire to project a certain persona to strangers. Hence, I would never read a newspaper containing colorful charts on an airplane or in a coffee shop, no matter how good it is.

    Likewise, when I am in a public place I am reticent to read websites with frivolous, overly colorful graphics, no matter how serious the content. Again irrational, but I don’t want to be seen as “surfer.” When someone peeks over my shoulder I want them to think “there’s a serious fellow.” I don’t know why I care.

  • GregS

    Beautiful news and the National Weather Service…… Ah, but there is a link.

    Have has anyone flipped on The Weather Channel? No, not the slick one, the other one. The one with the scratchy, mechanical reader voice dubbed over an image that a fifth grader would be embarrassed to hand to a teacher.

    I know writers and artists who are mesmerized by the grainy graphics and the lost the larynx voice. I never knew it was until I, duh, asked them. It was the immediacy of the data and the integrity of the data.

    The poor presentation reinforced the “this is true now” aspect of the news. Anything with a slick presentation is something that someone had to manipulate.

  • Al

    Beuatiful – maybe. I guess the quality of the images isn’t terribly important to me as long as they are usable. The existence of them is the key.

    I am surprised at how few media outlets give me the information I want with a story on the web. I love maps. If I had to do it all over again cartography or GIS would probably be my choices for majors. So it never ceases to amazes me that more news stories on the web don’t have maps showing where the event is happening – and displaying a map is easy! Many web stories also don’t have meaningful pictures. That is the beauty of the web. You can easily use pictures to help tell the story.

    One thing I really dislike in web stories is video. I am not supposed to stream non-work related video at work, so I can’t click on the video links. If some video just starts playing and my computer starts making noise it is like a loudspeaker to the world announcing “Hey, he’s surfing the net instead of working!”.

  • Julia,

    Left you a comment with all kinds of recommendations and links that seems to have disappeared into the ether. Even my browser history doesn’t show I was there this morning.

    Anyway, trust me. It was beautiful. And the short answer is: Useful information is beautiful.

    For those unschooled in the matter, start with Edward Tufte, Richard Saul Wurman and Donald Norman.