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Tuesday, July 9, 2013

It's Okay to be Beautiful.

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

God Appears & God is Light
To those poor Souls who dwell in the Night,
But does a Human Form Display
To those who Dwell in Realms of day.

 William Blake, from The Auguries of Innocence.

The introduction and conclusion of William Blake’s The Auguries of Innocence is a great way to express the struggle of information designers. 

Information designers provide perspective for their audiences. The first stanza of Blake’s verse talks about pausing and appreciating an overlooked perspective. Perspective can be beautiful, and perspective can reveal unseen worlds.  

Dwelling in the Night.

Plenty of data visualizations provide perspective and help people discover unseen patterns. But they are often about judgment, rather than appreciation. I’ve shown patterns of inefficiency and waste, injustice, or an approaching crisis. These are the perspectives that are important to me, and they are what I deliver to my clients to help them communicate issues and manage risks. 

The last stanza of Blake’s verse hits me just as hard as the first. When we serve up information design for the sake of clarity, we become a cold, hard blade that effects truth.  Sorry – a little bit of bad poetry there.  Oh, here’s some more: eventually, we arrive at the bone of truth… and an existential emptiness! 

Here's the favorite quote of the information design purists:

If you look after goodness and truth, beauty takes care of itself. 

I love that quote.  But for me, it’s not enough on which to live.

In the middle verses of The Auguries of Innocence, Blake writes about duality.  I spend a lot of time in my own head, looking after goodness and truth.  But if I’m having a good day, I ask myself: where is the heart and soul in what I’m doing, rather than just the technical?  

So, how about we spend some time, as Blake puts it, in the realms of day?  

Dwelling in the Day.

There are several wonderful information designers (my label, but maybe not theirs) that help us dwell in the day.  Or, expressing this a bit more plainly: creating work from the heart.  

One of my favorites is the amazing Stephanie Posavec

Here’s a great way to illustrate her work.  I’m worried, constantly, about writing effectively. It doesn't help that I often fail.  Here’s how I think about writing (credits to Tony Cowan): 

I judge writing in terms of its impact, clarity, or its forcefulness.

Stephanie, however, has explored the written word, searching for and discovering patterns and rhythms that seem to express the organic, soulful and spiritual aspects of human expression.  One of my favorite works is her exploration of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.  Here, she creates incredible visualizations of Kerouac’s sentence structure, word count, and rhythm as expressed by sentence punctuation:
It’s hard to pick favorites, since every one of her works is awesome.  But since this blog has to be short(ish) – one more example.  If you are old enough to remember having your favorite cassette tape mangled in your stereo, you may also remember this funny roadside scene: a long audio tape streamer fluttering from some roadside bushes and trees, where someone, in a rage, flung their cassette tape out the window after the car stereo ate the tape.  

Stephanie's Measuring Kraftwerk explores the audio tape as both a medium and measure.  

Her design expresses the length of the audio tape needed to play Kraftwerk’s Computer World, (in this case, a little more than 50 meters) and she has brilliantly organized this information as the title of the work.  There’s no judgment, no driven agenda, other than the celebration of Kraftwerk’s optimism about technology.

And what’s a total bonus cool?  Giving the proceeds to charity.  Totally dwelling in the day.  

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