Decoding Design

'Information is Beautiful' shortlist illustrates data visualization trends

Posting in Architecture

An information design Web site enlists Brian Eno and other high-profile judges to recognize excellence in data visualization. The prizes' shortlist points to smart, stylish projects and firms.

Information is Beautiful, the Web site on data visualization created by independent information designer David McCandless, soon will be giving a total of $30,000 in awards for, you guessed it, beautiful and informative graphics. The shortlist was just announced on August 10, and winners will be revealed in mid-September.

One reason to pay close attention is that the panel of judges is remarkably stellar. It includes music legend Brian Eno (who's worked with U2, David Bowie, and Coldplay among many others); Museum of Modern Art senior curator Paola Antonelli; popular blogger Maria Popova of BrainPickings.org; Aziz Cami, Creative Director of market researcher Kantar, which is sponsoring the awards; and of course McCandless himself, among others. But perhaps the best reasons to take a look at the shortlist are to see how the data-viz realm is evolving and growing and to observe both trends and variation within it.

Looking at the shortlist, it's clear that even within specific genres, there's a wide range of themes that can be addressed with a spectrum of communication styles. Some shortlisted projects are more business-minded and show off statistics in manners we're used to seeing, like a chart showing the growth of well-funded home-sharing start-up Airbnb in the Infographic/Information Design category. Others are more educational and about activism, such as a striking visualization of the dangers of rhinoceros poaching that incorporates realistic images in a poetic way. This also happens to be in the Infographic/Information Design category.

The Data Visualization category has some real stunners, such as a gorgeous and simple look at profitable colors used in corporate branding. In the Interactive Visualization category, Fat or Fiction's streamlined and easy to use nutritional guides to food are a lovely example of, and forgive my pun here, eye candy that's also highly nutritious for the mind. And which presents a fresh, clean, yet almost print-magazine-style approach to information design for the Web.

The Data Journalism category features established names in this field, from the Guardian U.K. to The Economist and San Francisco's talented consultancy Stamen Design. There are some surprises in this category as well--for instance, a graphic of the biggest lies in dating is on the shortlist, and it is not compiled by a traditional journalistic source or design firm, but from match-making site OkCupid (proof that companies are creating their own editorial features to draw people to their services and build their brands.) I was surprised there wasn't an example from the New York Times here, personally.

The Motion Infographic category itself is interesting for naming this genre of short animated video intended to be spread virally and to educate viewers on a specific set of data, such as an index of economic opportunities for women, or a cute clip on diabetes information. (I know it seems odd and even disrespectful to pair "cute" and "diabetes" in the same sentence; my own father, a physician, has diabetes, so I'm very respectful and aware of the condition.) The attractiveness of the graphics are likely to draw in audiences to learn about the disease.

Perhaps the most fascinating category of awards is the one for Web tools themselves. Here on SmartPlanet I've blogged on the new trend of designing tools as the next big challenge for designers, now that nearly anyone can "design" beautiful graphics. The shortlist for this prize offers a helpful overview of user friendly programs, many with catchy, band-like names (Freedive, Dex, Gephi) which will likely be used to create the next crop of elegant, thought-provoking information design.

Image: Screenshot from the Information is Beautiful Awards site.

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Reena Jana

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Reena Jana has written for the New York Times, Wired, Harvard Business Review online, Fast Company, Architectural Record, Artforum, Time Out New York, Harper's Bazaar, and GQ. Previously, she was the innovation department editor at BusinessWeek. She holds degrees from Columbia University and Barnard College. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure