Monday, October 29, 2007

visualization at the new york times

InfoVis 2007 kicked off with a keynote presentation from Matt Ericson, Deputy Graphics Director at the New York Times, titled “Visualizing Data for the Masses: Information Graphics at The New York Times.” This is obviously a topic near and dear to my heart, as a publication like the New York Times represents a space where the average “layperson” (as in visualization non-expert) is most likely to encounter information visualization.

Fernanda Viegas has blogged about the talk already on behalf of infosthetics, so I don’t want to repeat too much of what she had to say, but I did want to emphasize a few points that Matt made in his presentation (and afterwards).

As Fernanda mentions, one of Matt’s main points was that they approach infovis primarily as journalists, and that they see their work as “storytelling for the masses.” At the same time, he expressed one of their design principles as “show, don’t tell,” constantly asking themselves where they can show readers what’s happening rather than telling them in words. Through a bunch of examples, Matt described the design challenges they face in producing these pieces, including extremely short publication deadlines, readability issues (his point about scatterplots was really interesting -- apparently readers have a hard time understanding a two dimensional graph where time is not on the x (horizontal) axis), and issues of Tufte-style “honest portrayal,” where they must pay attention to whether the visualization gives the “right impression” of the data. His example of this latter point revolved around producing political maps (“red vs. blue” population maps, etc.) whose visual presentation reflects the actual statistics (for instance, he pointed to red vs. blue maps of the last presidential election results, by county, that show the US as primarily “red,” despite a much more even distribution in the popular vote).

Also interesting, despite their “show, don’t tell” mantra, was Matt’s emphasis on the usefulness of embedding textual descriptions within the visualizations themselves to help guide users, as well as the usefulness of combining different types of visualizations to reinforce the data (for instance, coupling a more “complex” image with a simpler one). Related to this was his suggestion that “presets” or “shortcuts” in to the data are particularly important to interactive visualizations, where users may be overwhelmed by the number of options on the interface. This directly reflects my experience developing educational visualization tools in the past.

So, after hearing all of this, I was really curious to know if Matt’s group, or the NYT in general does any analysis on the effectiveness (or even popularity) of their info-graphics. I got a chance to talk with him at length last night, where he indicated that while they would like to, they haven’t tried to collect that kind of information in a formal way. Being so restricted by deadlines, he described their operation as very much “by the seat of their pants,” where they mainly use their own editors at usability testers. He did suggest that they are trying to collect more statistics with their online interactive work, as it much easier to capture information about what their readers are spending time on. I would be really interested to see the results of that kind of survey. Either way, the principles their team employs seem to be quite effective, as they haven’t received majorly negative feedback about the graphics they produce. This surely speaks to the particular considerations of designing visualization “for the masses.”

Matt has published his presentation slides at his website,

More InfoVis to report on later, but my internet connection is spotty at the hotel, so it may take a while.


andrea said...


Wanted to ask you more about the presentation - this notion of 'storytelling' - what did Ericson say about that, and how it balances with presenting an accurate portrayal of the data?

Also, what about the 'find, explain, annotate, design, edit' sequence.

(Damn being halfway across the world!)

mike_d said...

Hi Andrea,

I think his main point was that the infographics in a newspaper need to convey their meaning (or “story”) just as well as a written article. Along those lines, he emphasized that they should be self-contained enough that a reader doesn’t have to dig through the associated article to understand what the graphic is presenting. I also don’t think he was setting this principle in opposition to accurate portrayals of data; it was more about just providing additional context (through textual annotation, etc.) to the graphics.

The “find, explain, annotate, design, edit” referred to their design pipeline: Find the data they want to show (their first step is always collecting as much relevant data from various sources as they can), Explain the data (I think this just referred to coming up with an appropriate visual encoding for that data), Annotate the graphic (again, providing lots of textual annotation on the graphic itself to guide the reader through it), Design the layout (choosing colors, arrangement, etc.), and Edit it (it’s an iterative process, go back and change stuff that doesn’t work).

It was an interesting talk! I was most intrigued by the tension between this well-defined pipeline and the deadline-driven “seat-of-their-pants” characteristics of their process in general. For instance, in talking to him afterwards he mentioned that all of their graphics, even the ones with lots of plotted points, are produced by hand in Illustrator – no automated graphing tools or anything – so a lot of their design decisions end up depending on how much copy-pasting they can do in the time given!

andrea said...

thanks for answering my questions!

The 'seat of the pants' thing is very interesting -- because I wonder if there is some method to their madness, from both a 'what do have to portray from the data' and a more-stylistic point of view.

This is a vastly different context, but when I was working as a casual infographics artist at a financial paper, everything was done in Illustrator as well -- mostly line graphs were *manually* drawn over GIF images. It was crazy! They were moving towards Illustrator's pie charts a little more after I left, but still - they at least had the same sort of data day-in, day-out.

At NYT, I imagine that datasets vary so much that they *have* to have a very specific 'seat of their pants' sort of process.

animalsensor said...

We Epic Systems together with Beemode ( have developed a Data Visualisation software almost ready to be released soon.

We are looking for ideas to promote the software.
You can view our preliminary version at :

Your comments will be appreciated.

Hisham Abdel Maguid

animalsensor said...

Here is another link for a project we did with Princeton University on US unemployment :

So many ideas are there.

In a few days you can test the software by uploading data on our website and getting the corresponding Flash charts. This is for a limited number of users.

Eng. Hisham Abdel Maguid

TrendCompass said...

Epic Systems together with Beemode ( have developed a Data Visualization software "Trend Compass" almost ready to be released soon. It is an extension to Gapminder which was invented by a Swedish Professor. You can view it :


It is a new concept in viewing statistics and trends in an animated way. It could be used in presentation, analysis,research, decision making, etc.

Here are some links :
- Part of what we did with some Governmental institution:

- A project we did with Princeton University on US unemployment :

- April 2008 Media Monitoring on Cars TV ads (ad duration vs occurences over time) :

- Ads Monitoring on TV Sattelite Channels during April 2008. Pick Duration (Ads daily duration) vs Repeat (Ads repetition per day).

I hope you could evaluate it and give me your comments. So many ideas are there.

You can test the software by uploading data on our website and getting the corresponding Flash charts. This is for a limited number of users.


Eng. Hisham Abdel Maguid