Data visualization is a very hot topic in the research and evaluation world right now. As a student of art history and art education, visual communication is something I believe in whole-heartedly and, like many evaluators, have been honing my skills in visual presentation. In reading about data viz, the tip “keep it simple” is ubiquitous. I mostly agree with this statement, but to say you must “simplify” really oversimplifies the problem. I think data visualization expert Stephen Few’s company, Perceptual Edge, highlights the issue well with these three quotes:
Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity. Henry David Thoreau
Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. Anonymous
Seek simplicity and distrust it. Alfred North Whitehead
Simplicity can be distrustful if it is not done with clear intentions. Having clear intentions for data visualization requires a critical knowledge of methodology and analysis to understand what is being lost in the simplification process. What value is a simple graphic if it does not accurately represent the data? This tension between simplicity and accuracy reminds me of a children’s book by Lois Ehlert where a tiger becomes a mouse as shapes are incrementally stripped away. The process of deconstructing a tiger to a mouse is exciting…but when the results are really a tiger and you are making decisions from a representation of a mouse, there is a problem.
So while simple is better, or as we like to say here “less is more,” readers and data viz creators must question simplicity. No one wants to be surprised by a hidden tiger.