Jen Christiansen's Four Visualization Lenses

11 Apr 2016

Visualization Data Expert

Data Visualization can be a great addition for any data analysis presententation, but just like any tool, it’s not always an appropriate choice. Jen Christiansen, senior graphics editor at Scientific American, has four lenses through which she looks at an article to determine whether a visualization will enhance it.

1. Can an image tell the story more efficiently, effectively, or completely than words?

As an example of this, she mentions Feynman Diagrams, which help scientist visualize complex interactions between subatomic particles. Even without a physics background, one can see that trying to describe the relationships captured by Feynman Diagrams would be difficult with words alone.

Some Examples of Feynman Diagrams

2. Does the narrative involve complex and intertwined relationships?

The example Jen uses here is the (literal) textbook example of a photosynthesis visualization that you’ve probably seen in an intro to Biology textbook. This visualization allows the reader to review various inputs/outputs of different parts of the system without rereading a long block of text over and over. Additionally, this visualization helps the viewer remember the overall flow of the process.

Photosynthesis Diagram

This lens is asking whether the viewer will benefit from having key highlights from a dataset put into context by seeing them with the rest of the data as a whole. A good example I found of this is from the New York Times. It’s a visualization of Barack Obama’s 2013 budget proposal. In this visualization, you can easily see the largest deviations from the previous year’s budget and compare those deviations to the rest of the budget.

Visualization of Barack Obama's 2013 Budget Proposal

4. Would a direct and immediate visual comparison be helpful?

An example I found to illustrate this lens is another from the New York Times, Assessing the Damage and Destruction in Gaza. In the before and after interactive visualization, a viewer can move a slider back and forth to compare the Gaza Strip on two different days, one before the 2014 conflict and the other just after.

NYT Before Visualization of GazaNYT After Visualization of Gaza

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