Making It Visual

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Making It Visual

My first major project as a Digital Fellow will be to work with a very impressive team to make interactive visualization/ map of the impact of the Graduate Center on New York City. As a precursor to this project, we made images to represent the sheer volume of work produced by GC Students for the president’s convocation address. He wanted a way to visually articulate the impact of the Graduate Center. Ultimately, the images weren’t used, but it was an exciting request, and an even more exciting larger project. Exciting because of the shift it represents in how we are displaying information and how we are communicating with each other.

Just ten years ago, it would have seemed out of place to try to incorporate visualizations into anything, much less a speech. Infographics were in their infancy, they were not commonly used to illustrate a point. Now, data visualization, visual storytelling, and images are so important that major publications (the New York Timesthe New Yorker, etc.) employ teams of people to make these illustrations. In this time, Infogr.am, Gephi, and Piktochart have sprung up to help the lay person visualize data and create images, and Haiku Deck and Digital Films have been developed to help people tell stories visually. Clearly there is a desire for academic and semi-academic visual communication.

The hard part is that just like good research, good communication is difficult, and making work and ideas visual highlights where the problems are. For example, one of the most powerful things we found in the impact project was that all the dissertations written by GC graduates, laid end-to-end, would cover the subway system three times! But, think about it visually – how would you represent it? With a subway map and the number 3? Movement and multi-directionality is difficult to represent in a static image. It’s much easier to show that all the dissertations stacked on top of each other would be just shorter than the Empire State Building. That’s a clean, static image that people can immediately relate to without having to really think about the analogy (with or without an image). The amount didn’t change, the power of the message didn’t change, it’s just that the parts quit moving.

As I struggle with my own research, and constraining all of the moving parts, I can’t help but see the parallel. Often in research, we take multiple variables, multiple populations, or multiple stimuli, triangulate them, cast them against a theory and make predictions about the rest of the world. The power is in the details, and the details are often messy and difficult to pin down. But what makes good research is taking those complex, highly interdependent details and isolating them, making them concrete and constraining them as much as possible, then looking at them again. Those pieces don’t make sense if they are framed in terms of something that’s moving or something else abstract, they make the most sense as real objects in the real world.

So I tried it with my own project, I took what I want to do, what I want to say and drew it out. It took most of the weekend, but I came away with a much clearer idea of what I’m actually doing, and feel better prepared to talk to people about it. This is after hours of writing out what I was going to do. The drawing aren’t good – they are mostly boxes and labels, but by moving the idea into a different modality, it was constrained and simplified.

The image here is Gray722. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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