Beautiful data, van Gogh and Vivienne Westwood

When I go to the National Gallery I never miss the chance to spend time looking at the paintings of van Gogh, Monet and Turner. To me they are beautiful.

Beauty is a word readily and unquestionably used of art – even though we may not agree as to which works deserve to be called beautiful. Similarly with architecture, furniture, clothes, home furnishings, cars, computers, phones …

But numbers? Especially numbers in their use as data and statistics??

Yes – in the hands of people like pioneer data-journalist, David McCandless. His book, Information is Beautiful, is a best-seller.

Speaking last night (Wednesday, 19 November 2014) to a packed audience at the Royal Statistical Society, McCandless set out his view that “interesting, strange and even quite magical things can happen” when visualising data.

He is not wrong. Whether it’s Earth-skimming asteroids, government spending, popularity of dog breeds, horoscope text or efficacy of food supplements, McCandless has found ways – through his choices in placement, shape, colour palette and font – of presenting data that is pleasing and intriguing.

They are not the usual graphs and charts and tables of the academic text. They aren’t meant to be. But they can be an inspiration to those working with numbers. They can do for data visualisation what, say, Vivienne Westwood, Alexander McQueen or Giles Deacon do for fashion: challenge established thinking and explore new ground.

Some might quibble about the statistical purity of McCandless’s visualisations. But I’d say that would be like me – as an astrophysicist by education – quibbling about van Gogh’s “The Starry Night”.

Certainly McCandless given me some thoughts on how to develop my rather down-to-earth jelly bean visualisations …!

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