Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Visually Compelling & Perspective Changing

Image: Gapminder.org
The first time I saw a print of Napoleon’s losses in his Russian campaign depicted by Charles Joseph Minard, I was stunned. Although written in French, I immediately grasped the horrific troop losses taken across the distance and time on the figurative map. Happily I later found this and more images in The Visual Display of Quantitative Information by information designer, Edward Tufte. That, along with data visualization examples for evaluation and research in museums has pushed my thinking about presenting information in unusual, visually compelling, thought-provoking ways.
Image: Wikipedia.com
An incidental encounter with 200 Countries, 200 years, Four Minutes has tipped my thinking again. In this case, the combination of a sweltering weekend and exploring Gapminder Worldwide was perfect for being immersed in the videos and work of Swedish medical doctor and statistician, Hans Rosling.

Gapminder: A fact-based worldview, translates statistics into visual explanations taking on myths and complex questions like, does saving poor children lead to overpopulation? Not only does Rosling avoid simplifying the information or the answer, but he is very deliberate in clarifying relationships among factors and connecting results to changes in relevant policy. Interactive and incisive, Gapminder accommodates a wide range of perspectives; past, present and future; questions, misconceptions, reality, and mindsets.

Image: Gapminder.org
As visually compelling packages of vast amounts of information connected by a narrative thread, Rosling’s information graphics and talks challenge everyday thinking and assumptions on a wide range of contemporary issues: poverty, health, education, climate, HIV, etc. He translates information with unusual props and partners and in unusual places (See photo left). His graphics feel a bit like successive bursts of fireworks, beautiful and illuminating. 

Rosling and his team are generous in sharing both information and materials. Gapminder World Offline provides software that allows users to show animated statistics from their own laptops without internet access. There is also an accessible "indicator finder" as well as handouts and lesson plans on the site. Even the graphic of an update of Gapfinder World’s data structure is engaging, something I wanted to use even though I had no need to.  

Admittedly, museums are not primarily about addressing questions of global immunization trends, population growth, or the health and wealth of nations as Gapminder is. Yet, everyday, museums communicate information on a wide range of subjects to diverse stakeholders with particular ends in mind. These same groups are concurrently engaging with and expecting well-designed messaging in media, web design and marketing. Information expands and expectations are changing. 

Museums have comparable platforms, information to share, and opportunities to construct narratives. In communicating with trustees, staff, funders, partners, museum visitors, researchers, community members, and volunteers they can deliver engaging messages–rich in information and visually compelling–that change perspectives. Whether framing a case for an expansion, hosting professional development opportunities, presenting research and evaluation results, highlighting the year's accomplishments, presenting the museum online, or creating complex–but accessible–information panels in exhibitsmuseums can be both rigorous and lively, visually compelling and mind-changing.