Click here to view hi-res versions of David McCandless's Knowledge is Beautiful infographics.
We're all drowning in information—a pool of 295 exabytes (billion gigabytes) of data, to be exact. But for journalist David McCandless, this wormhole of numbers is a gold mine. McCandless detangles stories like spaghetti strands from complex data sets, distilling ideas down to their purest forms, and then translating them into simplified and digestible graphics. The fruit of his labors is Knowledge is Beautiful, his second tome of data visualizations, information designs, and knowledge maps, are his responses to the many topics that have sparked his curiosity over the past two years.
“I start with the idea, and usually a question. Something that typically stupefies me, bewilders me, or frustrates me,” McCandless tells The Creators Project in an interview. “And then the question becomes a concept, and the concept becomes a graphic.” For his new book, the follow-up to his 2012 compendium, The Visual Miscellaneum: A Colorful Guide to the World's Most Consequential Trivia, McCandless tackles the silly along with the serious: he deconstructs a sandwich, maps UK’s gender pay gap, diagrams the best Simpsons episodes, reimagines the star map, and traces the evolution of human body parts, all using beautiful data.
A great and effective data visualization begins with an accurate and well-structured data set, a compelling story and an intention or a goal for getting the information across, explains McCandless. The visual structure comes into play only at the end of the research stage, following the pages and pages of spreadsheets a reader never gets to see. “This work is about 80% research and 20% design,” he explains.
Mavericks and Heretics, one of the very first graphics he created for the book, stemmed from McCandless’s interest in history’s “poor assailed loners with their insights to truth.” He felt he could relate. After hunting down salient information, including dates of birth, dates of their heresy accusations, and what fields they studied in, McCandless and his team sliced and filtered the data to isolate the most important and exciting narratives. The ideas that stuck out, for him, were how old these mavericks were when they were declared heretical, and how soon they were vindicated afterwards.
“A lot of people just visualize complex data,” says McCandless. “They’ll take the data without wrapping it in a story, filtering it in any way, humanizing it, or focusing on what’s interesting. Without doing that, you just translate the complexity into visual form.” A complex visualization is counterintuitive, he adds, because its purpose is to clarify and distill data. The strength of an idea is what carries it through each precise stage of the creation process, from data gathering through structuring and designing. Only 196 ideas out of 500 made it into the final publication.
McCandless notes that while the differences between data, knowledge, and information might be subtle, they're entirely separate “materials,” each with their own unique sets of challenges. With visual language, McCandless can cut through the noise in information overload, uncover the insights locked within data, and decode the self-referential language that pervades knowledge. In fact, he bookends Knowledge is Beautiful with a visualization of the variations of data, knowledge, and information -- a piece he completed towards the end of the making of his book.
During the course of creating the book, McCandless became fascinated with ways in which readers could burrow more deeply into ideas, and explore, twist, and filter the data for themselves. He even includes the data set on the right hand corner of each page as a reference point for the most curious of readers. While he wants the audience of the book to think of it as a collection of “static images of interactive ideas," many of the works featured in Knowledge is Beautiful will also be released as interactive and explorable versions on McCandless’s online portal.
Big data and art converge in the first installment of our Reform video series, Data Becomes Art In Immersive Visualizations: