Manuel Lima is the author of three books and a leading voice on information visualization. He has worked with an array of organizations designing digital experiences and leading product teams.
On this week’s episode of the podcast, I’m reposting a video conversation I had with Manuel as part of the Data@Urban Digital Discussion series. We talk about his love of circles and trees, and more.
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Jon Schwabish: Welcome back to the PolicyViz podcast. I am your host, Jon Schwabish. I hope you, and your family, and your friends are all healthy, and safe, and well in these strange days. On this week’s episode of the podcast, I’m going to once again repost one of the recent data at Urban Digital discussions. This time, the one that I had with Manuel Lima, Manuel, as you may know, is the author of Book of Circles, the Book of Trees, the book and website VisualComplexity. He is a creator; he is a speaker; he’s an author. And we had a really good time chatting with one another and taking questions from people who attended that live video chat. So I’m not going to talk about anything else, and I’m just going to get right to the episode. So I hope you’ll enjoy this episode of the PolicyViz podcast with Manuel Lima.
Hi, everybody. I’m Jon Schwabish from Urban Institute. Thanks for coming in to this digital discussion, chat. Good to see everybody. And I see a bunch of people who’ve been here for the last few days, which is great to see people coming back. So yeah, love it. So I’ll just set up the parameters of the chat. So as you can see on your screen, Manuel Lima is here to talk to us about all of his awesome work. So this is going to be great. If you have questions, just put them in the chat window, and I’ll try to make a bit of a queue and then, you know, you can just unmute yourself when it’s your turn, and you can ask Manuel your questions. There’s no need for me to have to read them unless you don’t want to unmute yourself. That’s totally fine too. And that’s it. It’s pretty low key. There’s not a lot of polish to this. So just a chance for all of us to connect and have some conversation maybe with some adults for an hour and let the kids go have some screen time or whatever. So, yeah. All right. Manuel, how’re you doing, buddy?
Manuel Lima: I’m doing great. Thanks. Thanks everyone for, thanks everyone for joining. And thanks, John for hosting me. This is, this is a great initiative for sure.
JS: Well, I’m glad you could come on. So I’m going to, I’m going to show you have other books. So this is the newest one, right? Is that right?
ML: No, it’s the second. The newest is Circles, actually.
JS: The newest is Circles. Okay. So here’s Trees. So here’s the Book of Trees. And here’s the Book of Circles. So we can talk about circles and maybe pie charts. And you can, we can argue about that. These are both beautiful books. So I thought maybe we would start, you could just start by telling people about yourself. Again, it’s whatever. But I mean, what I as we were talking about before we kind of started, what I love about both of these books is they feel that the physical version, it’s super tactile; it has a great feel to it, the print, the color. So maybe I don’t know if you want to talk about the process of creating these books. And in your, in your process because there’s, it’s all historical. So what is your process like to go through and, you know, research all this material? And then maybe we can just after that we can, we can segue into what you’re doing now and then people can sort of post their questions. We just take it like that.
ML: That sounds, that sounds great.
JS: Great. Yeah. So go ahead. Why don’t you go ahead?
ML: Yeah. So you mentioned the quality of the books, right. That’s something that I also feel very proud of, of achieving in many ways with these books. And I think really, the credit goes to Princeton Architectural Press, the publisher. They really invest a lot of time in making the great books, high quality paper, you know, high quality printing colors. They really strive to do high quality work. And I think it’s really at a time where we have a lot of really cheap, cheap books that are just really low quality and I hate to actually consume those books. I would rather have a PDF. In those cases I think it hurts everyone, right? It’s not a good experience. It kills more, more trees along the way. And it’s just a really like, yeah, suboptimal experience for sure. So, huge proponent of like high quality books, I think it’s actually one of the quality, one of the types of books actually going up in terms of numbers. Because people that care about books care about high quality, right.
ML: So, so yeah, people that are new to my work, I would say, maybe read my books in reverse order, which is starting with the latest, and then navigating all the way to my first which is Visual Complexity. And I say this because like, when I started Visual Complexity, and this Visual Complexity for those who haven’t seen the book, it’s really all about network visualization, right? And it tries to understand this new sort of phenomenon of obsession for networks and visualizing really complex intricate structures. So as I was doing the book, right, and even the first chapter of that book is called the Tree of Life. And that was me trying to go back in time to understand the origin, right, the genesis of interest from humans to visualize these intricate structures, which take, took me back to the tree diagram, right? And then I knew when I was actually doing visual complexity that the tree diagram as I was uncovering all these illustrations, all these medieval work and so on, I realized that this was too good to be just a single chapter, right? So at some points, making a whole book dedicated to the tree diagram had to happen. I knew it in my, in my mind, it had to happen. So that was my second book, the Book of Trees, which really covers almost 800 years of human exploration of mapping hierarchies in the shape of a tree. And there’s multiple cases there, multiple types and topologies for tree diagrams. And then I think following the same sort of mental exercise, I’m a little bit of obsessed about the origin of things. I wanted to go even further back, right? Yeah. I wanted to go even further back. That’s a great, it’s like almost slides, right? I wanted to go even further back, right, like, would actually the first time that humans were thinking about visualizing information, right. And it took me to circles, like some of the most primitive. It took me actually back, roughly 40,000 years back in time to the first category of, you know, rock carvings that people were making really around the world, and many of them were circular in nature. Some of the most ancient archetypes of data visualization is the spiral, the concentric rings, and the section circle, which is the reason for why pie charts could possibly be so popular still today. So that was fascinating to me. And as I was discovering a lot of this old material, I became more interested in the old material than the new, I have to say. And I think part of that is, is well, twofold. One is that we are very present oriented, you know, we might think that we are in the pinnacle of civilization and everything we’re doing data visualization related or else or in a different subject is very new. And it has never been done before, right. So I think I was trying to dismiss to find that, that sort of take that everything we are doing is right, which is it was, and I discovered so many cases where what we’re doing today is still just variants of what has been done in the past. So that was one thing I was just really becoming in, you know, falling in love with a lot of this old material. And then the other, the other reason for me to do some of these books was also to preserve some of the stuff that we were doing even still today. And one of the concepts that was frightening to me, and I discovered this 10 years ago when I was working on the visual complexity book is that notion of the digital Dark Ages, which is this idea that, you know, many, you know, maybe a generation or two from now we’re going to be able to look back at the current time and not being able to see, read or decode a lot of the artifacts, the cultural artifacts we’re producing. And that for me is a super scary outcome. Right? I mean, it’s almost like, again, like this is a very, and it’s not even hard to imagine, it’s already happening, like already there’s this article on, I think, BBC the other day on researchers trying to understand the work of a physicist, UK physicist, right, and having to go back into old drives that he had, and they couldn’t, they don’t have the technology to read that stuff done in the 80s, right. And this is just like 30 years ago or something. So it’s really frightening. So imagine, like the same process of all the amazing stuff we’re creating today not being able to be read or just consumed by future generations. That’s a really scary thought for me. So if anything, some of these books, especially one of the modern examples are also going to preserve them for posterity right for that, for those future generations in some ways?
JS: Can I ask for people who are, so I would guess there, there’s a few different types of people who read your books. There’s people who are just fascinated with historical data visualization, and how it, how it has changed and evolved over time. There’s people who are interested in history in general, people who are interested in design and the origins of design, and there’s probably another camp of people who are data visualization practitioners working in the modern tools, and I wonder what you would say to someone like that, who, you know, they don’t really have a necessarily an interest in the origins of design or data viz. What would you say to someone who, who’s a practitioner says, how can I use this book in my current work?
ML: Yeah, I mean, it’s, that’s a great question. And yes, to your point, I think that’s what appeals to me is that I, you know, since I can remember, I always hated to be part of one single label or being in one single box, right? I like multiculturality. I like, you know, just very sort of expressive ways of thinking and visual complexity from the beginning has been that. I’ve always been fascinated by the amount of people and different backgrounds of people reaching out to me from, you know, architects to biologists to, to artists to, I mean, the full gamut of almost roles. And I think the books touch that, you know, even some of the media covering the books.
ML: It’s not just about data visualization. It’s tech media. It’s art. It’s design. It’s science, you know, I had like Nature and Science talking about the book. So it’s a book that really touches a good full gamut of professions which and I think that’s actually part of the goal, really, because I think that’s the true nature of some of the stuff that is portrayed in the book. It has that sort of broad appeal, and I really I like that aspect of it. Now to the data visualization community specifically, you can learn a few things, like one, of course, you can be inspired by both modern and ancient things, sometimes even more inspired by the stuff they did in the old days, because a lot of that stuff was done, you know, by hands, right. And it’s incredible. I always give this example of, of the [00:11:23 inaudible], this like medieval technique that they had, you know, that span about hundreds of years ago. And it was basically discs of paper that you could spin independently. And this was really similar to analog computers. They were actually able to create millions of combinations using a very, very simple process of just paper discs and annotations, you know, fantastic stuff, the kind of thing that really, it really portrays human ingenuity in a whole different way I feel, especially those, those old ones. So I think data visualization people I think, been inspired by, again, both modern and ancient examples, but then also understanding the logic behind some of these things, right. So one of the things I think I talk in Visual Complexity is the notion of [0:12:09 inaudible] minority, which happens in the medieval ages. And this was when people were being literally inundated by new information. There’s, there’s a great book called Too Much to Know. And it, basically, it’s an entire book telling portraits or stories of people in that moment in time. This is roughly 700 years ago, 600 years ago, being inundated by new data, like there was a huge growth of production. There was all this information coming from the ancient world, ancient Rome and ancient Greece, and people had to make sense of it all. This was like they were facing Big Data as we know today, right? Just in a different time. And graphic depiction, right, these are data visualization was a huge factor in it. And Origin of [0:12:53 inaudible] was an attempt to decode the main principles for portraying information in a graphical way that would allow the user to actually memorize at a later stage. So this is really the genesis of information design. So a lot of the principles we still use today were actually created in medieval times. So for any kind of school or person that’s interested in, in, in data visualization principles, and I’m definitely obsessed with principles. I think it’s a great way of looking at a practice. It’s through the main guidelines that it has. I think it’s great to look back and see what again, the Genesis what drove those principles in the first place? Are they have evolved over time? And now to a certain degree, many of them are still used today.
JS: Right? Do you, I want to ask one more question about the books and then you can talk about what you’re doing now. Do you have a, you’ve mentioned already a few like these historical examples. Do you have a favorite from either the Trees or the Circles book? Do you have a, do you have a favorite, like medieval [0:13:49 crosstalk] example?
ML: Yeah. I have it here. I think, well, it’s so hard to get one favorite, but one of my favorites, it’s super hard to have one. You know, it’s, I think, it’s like, when you do a book like this, you kind of, you know, you really fell in love with so many examples. And even yesterday, I was talking to my daughter, Chloe. And of course, one of the, one of the positive things about everything that’s going on in the world right now is that you get to spend, well, positive and negative at times.
JS: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
ML: Double edged sword. But definitely spending more time with the kids and then talking to them in a way that you, you didn’t had the time before. Right? So, I was, I was showing her a lot of like these old tea tree diagrams. And she’s very much into drawing and all that. So this is actually one of my favorite examples is that it’s actually a double page. It’s a [0:14:37 inaudible] the Book of Trees. It’s an example of an original tree. What I love about this is that if you notice, the, it’s, this is actually, this is a tree of morality, which is actually a very famous theme in medieval Europe. It basically portrays the tree of virtues and the tree of vices. And notice how the designer in this case creates a lot of sort of visual metaphors to indicate what’s good on this side, right? Notice how the tree is, is much more rich. There’s like color everywhere. The leaves are all fully green. There’s fruits coming out. And this is the tree of vices, what you should not do, right? And notice how some of the branches are actually kind of dying, losing color. And they play with all these visual metaphors to explain some really complex concepts back then. And again, these are things that were all done by hand. And again, just the amount of creativity that went through some of these things is remarkable.
JS: Yeah, yeah, that’s great.
ML: Yeah. You, you’re also mentioning the process. I think the process for this, I feel like I’ve completed my trilogy of books at this time. I think it’s kind of like the worst type of books you can do in a way, because not only do you have to write a substantial amount, and you have to do research on, on writing the right, the right things and telling it in the right way. So there’s a lot of writing and research there. But then the worst part, arguably, is actually getting the images themselves. That’s a really usually time consuming process of going after the authors. You know, sometimes the authors no longer exist. Even modern examples are equally if not even as hard to get. Because, again, the digital Dark Ages, a lot of these things done in the early 2000s are lost, literally lost, like they lost the code. They, the plugin doesn’t work anymore. They aren’t able to reproduce it. Sometimes it’s actually harder to get a modern example than a medieval like three to 500 years ago, right?
ML: Then there’s that and then it’s just like the whole process of, of, of actually writing, putting the research, making the images, the layout for the book, getting, I remember getting this is 10 years ago, Visual Complexity, getting the first manuscript back from the publisher with rad annotations all over the manuscript. I think I almost cry that moment. I was like, I was naive to the point of thinking that, you know, when you hand off the manuscript to the publisher, it’s pretty much–
ML: It’s like, hey, my job is done. I wash my hands. I can relax somewhere. And that was just the beginning of the process, right. And then all those phases, just, I mean, of course, now I know about the process, I don’t get as scared or depressed as I did 10 years ago. But it is, you know, quite a time consuming process for sure.
JS: Yeah. Well, the other thing about, about these books, um, and again, I would maybe harder for the early ones is that the quality of the images are all very, you know, they’re all high resolution images.
JS: So which, which is, I don’t know, is it harder to get those, the older, is it easier or harder to get the older ones in a high res image than the stuff today?
ML: It’s actually easier. I mean, again, to be honest, like there’s a lot of material still today that’s probably hidden in dusty cabinets somewhere in New Zealand galleries, elsewhere. So we only know what we know. Right? And, and, and, but fortunately, things are changing. And a lot of these institutions are actually making a lot of their collections available online for people like myself. I can be in a cafe in Brooklyn, and consuming these old medieval manuscripts I don’t actually have. This is also something that I saved for, I think, you know, 20 years ago, it would take a lot longer to do any of the books that I’ve done, right, in terms of like, historical ones, because I would actually have to go physically to a lot of these museums in Europe and elsewhere and US and actually grasp it. I didn’t even know how long it would take to do the Book of Circles, for example, if I, if I wanted to do it like 30 years ago. So it’s making it a lot easier. And yes, a lot of these examples are in high res. Now, it’s surprising, like let’s say that I want to make an example, and this happened in Visual Complexity a lot. An early example of a network visualization done in 1996, the resolution of those images were so bad back then, right? ‘96, you were talking about like 400 pixels by 400 pixels or something like that. So you couldn’t do that in a book, you couldn’t reproduce it. And then, again, like a lot of the code was done, like the author was like, hey, I would love to help you. But I don’t think I can like, like there’s no way, right? Or it just would take so much time for them to do it that way. It’s just not worth it. So I ended up not including a lot of these examples, modern examples because of that, for that reason. The only impediment for all the ones sometimes is the money because a lot of these institutions ask for a considerable amount. And I don’t have that amount to pay for every single image.
JS: I know.
ML: I had to pick and choose, I had to pick and choose a few ones that I actually ended up paying a good amount. You have to pick and choose. I think, you know, the Library of France, for example, National Library of France has amazing, beautiful illustrations, but they tend to charge a considerable amount. So I picked a few, but not many.
JS: Yeah. I’m finishing another book right now. And it’s like the Washington Post and the New York Times, like, they want, you know, a lot of money, so–
ML: Oh, yeah.
JS: And I won’t say how much, but it’s a lot of money.
ML: It’s a lot of money. Yeah.
JS: And so then, then you talk to, you know, more local newspapers, like I have a few from the Texas Tribune who they do great work and, and they’re more willing to negotiate, you know, to say, you know, they want this amount. It’s like, well, I have to pay for this out of pocket. Would you be willing to do this? And so, you know, it’s great when they negotiate, but when you get to the big organizations, they have a whole company that does it for them, so–
ML: Totally right. And then, I think what people also don’t understand, like, and I get requests like this, like, hey, why don’t we make this illustration like larger and then the price is also an outcome of that, right? It matters, like the size matters, where it’s gonna go, it all has a price. So if you want like a full page, like, especially in the cover, you would have to pay a lot of money.
JS: Yeah, yeah, it matters. Yeah.
ML: It matters tremendously, for sure.
JS: Um, you want to talk a little bit about what you’re working on now. And then I’ll just remind people, if they have questions, just put them in the chat box in the chat window. And then you can ask directly, but maybe talk about a little bit what you’re working on now and then we’ll see if–
ML: Yeah, absolutely. For sure. So, all right. So I’ve been at Google now for, I think, four and a half years. And what’s been interesting for me at Google is that I think, finally, I was able to match or marry the two sort of separate lives that I had up to now. So all the research that you saw, the books that we just talked about, you know, talks and teaching on data visualization, this has already been done on the side, right? It hasn’t really paid the bills substantially, which is another sort of thing that people that want to venture into this world of publishing should know it doesn’t pay that well.
ML: If you’re doing it for the money, you’re not going to go far.
JS: Yeah. Yeah. You are fooling yourself. Yeah.
ML: So but apart from that, so yeah, so I had to pay the bills, right, and especially now with two kids. So over the last 15 years I kind of I feel like I’ve lived like two parallel lives, you know, on ‘95 I was working for as a UX designer, UX lead manager in places like Microsoft and startups and at Kia back in the day and now Google. And of course, on the side, I was doing all of that, researching, teaching all that stuff on data visualization. But interestingly enough, I think now at Google, I was able to marry the two things. And now I’m leading a team of data visualization team building, a library, a component library of charts, all of Google really focused on cloud, but also we have internal clients across the company, which is really fun. And I think that’s also the kind of way that I like to approach data visualization is being as horizontal as silicon and pluralistic as possible. multidisciplinary, right? So, we are, so my team is really a lot of roles from designers to UX engineers to researchers. And we are also focusing on some more sophisticated types of visualization components, you know, things like network topology or flow diagrams or complexity, you know, timelines of that nature, not your typical bar chart or line chart.
ML: And there’s a growing appetite for that, both internally right across different tools that we have at the company, but even externally as well, especially on clouds. And some of the cloud products are already importing and using and adopting our components. So that’s kind of like what I’ve been doing. And again, it feels good because I think for the first time I’m able to, to combine and unify these two passions that I had. And then on the side, I’m also thinking about a fourth book. It’s not going to be the Book of Triangles though. I got, I got that, I got that from a lot of friends and my wife like what was the next book? The Triangles book? Yeah.
JS: The wise guy. Yeah. Real funny.
ML: Yeah, exactly. The Book of Squares that would be quite the book, you know, I think I ended this trilogy of books of that nature. So I’m thinking about doing another one. And that’s going to be an, probably an announcement of that sort. It’s more geared towards the design community this time around. And it’s not going to be as visual. But I think it’s going to be exciting. I’m definitely excited about that book specifically. And then I’m also interested, especially at the time where we are now in kind of doing something like you’re doing, John. I think, people being kind of, you know, at home in these really tough times, I think, if anything else, it’s a great opportunity for us to invest in ourselves, rather than expand our mind a little bit, talk to other people and educate ourselves and expand our mind in other ways, right? So I just started a series of free webinars. I’m using Crowdcast, which is really a cool platform. I’ve been doing a lot of research on what’s the right webinar tools to use and whatnot. I give, I tried a couple of others, but I think Crowdcast is a really cool one because you can follow people there. It’s kind of like there’s this social dynamics, you know, into podcast. So I’m [0:25:00 inaudible] that. And I announced this last week, about the same time that you announced this talk, I announced the free webinars. And you know, these are three webinars that it’s going to be called the Evolution of Data Viz, the Language of Data Viz and the Principles of Data Viz. And all three webinars, 100 people each filled up in like two hours.
ML: Which is to say, I think, I was really kind of blown away by the demand and interests. And I think there’s really a lot of appetite both for the subject, and also, of course, as a result of a lot of people being at home right now. But I’m really excited about that. I think, you know, looking back, doing some introspection on the things that excite me and you kind of do that when you turn 40, I think there’s a little bit, a little bit of a middle, middle aged–
JS: Middle age crisis.
ML: Middle age crisis that’s going on. It’s like hey, why don’t we, what do I want to do with the rest of my life?
JS: Right, right, yeah.
ML: And for me, for me, it’s really about, you know, communicating my knowledge and, you know, and inspiring other people, you know, and the book is really, the books are reflection of that passion that I have for, for knowledge. So I think doing that through webinars is really fun, like, what you are doing right now. And I like webinars more than just being a static video that you do online because we have interaction, like, hopefully, we’re going to start that in two minutes or so, you can actually have people asking questions and interacting with others. And I think it’s, it’s still not quite the same as a physical type of, of experience or a seminar or talk. But it’s almost the same, right? At least there’s some interactivity between. And the fact that anyone can join across the world is to me super empowering as well.
ML: You know, if you were to do this, in, let’s say, New York tomorrow, you would be really conditioning people by the money that they would need to spend, you know, to travel to New York, to stay in a hotel, to go to this conference, and not a lot of people can afford, but doing this now you have people all around the world. You know, the webinars I was looking at the data, I have people from all the way from, from India, China, different regions of Asia, Europe, US. It’s, it’s really like the pluralistic effort. And I love that. I really do love that.
JS: Yeah. It also, and I mean not, not for these, but for other webinars where you do them for an organization, the advantages, you know, maybe only they can only have 20 or whatever number of people attend the webinar at that time. And if you say well, just record them, then they have their own library where they can, you know, other people in the organization can go back and, you know, hopefully learn from it. It’s, it’s different because you’re more like watching a video as opposed to having an interaction. But it’s, it is, I think, it’s, it’s certainly a challenge and we’ve been, we’ve been having conversations like these for some of these discussions with, with people, you know, last couple weeks. There’s obviously a different sort of, like, technologies that you need with microphones and headphones and all that, but it’s, and I think we all know like it’s really easy to put that video, the webinar window like minimize and check your email. So I think it’s, there’s a, there’s maybe a strategy, a different kind of strategy when you’re, when you’re teaching in a webinar than, than when you’re, you know, live in front of an audience. Well, we can, we can keep talking, but let me, let me just pause and see if anyone has any questions because there’s, you know, this is, this is intended to be a discussion. So there are no questions in the window now. But does anyone have any questions for, for Manuel and on the books, current work? You know, how he’s faring in Brooklyn with two kids? Either folks are sleeping or they’re, they’re too shy right now. So we can just, we can just keep talking. So I’m curious about the Google work. I don’t know how much you can talk about it. So you know, whatever you’re allowed to talk about, but so you’re building, is it building a library of graphic types for people at Google to use as a reference library? Is that, is that essentially what or not essentially, was that the goal?
ML: Yes. It’s kind of twofold, right? I mean, one is that we, we have created this, what we call internally, the spec, which is basically a set of specifications or guidelines on how to use charts. And that has been widely sort of used internally as, as, again, as a list of guidelines or best practices on how to use charts to bring then many types of charts and applications. And then, of course, the other thing we are doing is we are creating a component library, like a UI component library that people can just plug and play our components into their own products.
JS: I gotcha.
ML: And, of course, the plugin plays doesn’t quite happen that in that way. There’s always a lot of handholding and customization that’s needed. And actually one of the toughest challenges for us to understand is where do we draw the line between doing a general low charting library for different teams and knowing where, you know, when we can actually spend a lot of time customizing them for, for the, for the specific needs of an internal client or partner team. Right?
ML: But then a lot of these charts will be visible in internal products that never see the light of day by anyone externally. But also some of them will be in, you know, many cloud products, for example, that will eventually be seen by, by enterprises and companies and end users elsewhere outside of the company.
JS: Yeah, really interesting. There was a quick question for you that the webinar, I put the Crowdcast webinar link in the chatbox, and it looks like it’s full. So Bridget wants to know what, you know, gonna be more in the future recording them, you know?
ML: Yeah. There will be more in the future. Again, like I was, I was rigid. I was highly surprised by, by the interest. I think I put it on Twitter. And again, it took me four hours or two hours to just the whole thing to be filled. And these are, you know, 100 people each per webinar. So it was more than I was expecting. I have kind of like a 100, 120 people limit. And this is more like a technical limit. I kind of realized that after 100 something people that can actually doesn’t work so well and you start kind of having issues. And it also has, I have issues with the plan that I have, so I would have to pay a lot more for the stability that comes with having more than 100 people. So I’m definitely planning on adding on doing more of those. Again, I was not expecting this type of demand. And I think, people, which is great. It’s great to know that people are both interested in this topic and, and probably like, you know, as they are today, locked at home, they are even more eager to do something that takes them away from home.
ML: So I’m definitely planning on doing another series.
JS: So if you, uh, the one thing that I’ve been thinking about with these is picking a time. So like I’ve picked noon seems to work or right around noon seems to work because you hit the West Coast folks, you know, they’re three hour behind you and I. We are on East Coast time. And then, you know, I think the UK is now like four or five hours ahead and Germany is six hours ahead. So you kind of get that, but then you miss, you know, the rest of the world. So I haven’t really figured out like the best way to pick the time actually. Have you thought about, thought about that, like are you trying to pick a consistent time or just say we’ll just do kind of random time so that I try to get as many people as I can?
ML: I’m actually doing, yeah, I thought about that. And I was kind of doing some research on what would be the right time. I think 11 AM Eastern Time as we are doing today. And I’m going to do that exact same time tomorrow. I think it’s going to be one of the best because like you’re saying we got still, it’s a bit early for, for the West Coast, but, you know, it’s manageable and it’s, it covers a lot of people in Europe. Some places in Asia, it’s already a bit late. But, you know, we didn’t go there. I think I was, I was pinging, someone was pinging me to make sure of the time. So it’s 11 AM Eastern, but then for them, I think there are somewhere in India, it’s going to be 11 PM. Exactly Two hours later.
ML: Which is a little bit late, right, granted.
ML: But it’s hard. Yeah, I don’t think there’s like a specific. I think 11 Eastern might be.
JS: Yeah. That’s what I was thinking, 11, 12. I mean, also, for the West Coast folks, it’s 8 AM. But people don’t have to commute now.
ML: So you can sort of show up without being ready for work, you know, because you don’t necessarily have to show your screen. So, Zainab, and excuse me if I pronounced your name wrong, but, but he’s in Pakistan says it’s nine o’clock there. So, you know, maybe that’s as far as we can kind of go at this 11 o’clock.
JS: But there is a question about tools and resources that you would suggest for someone just getting started in data viz, I don’t know, if you have, you know, specific tools or things that you would, you would recommend, but–
ML: Oh, I mean tools. What is the question? Oh, yeah, tools and, and?
JS: And resources.
ML: And resources. The field keeps changing. I mean, actually, I was putting together a few slides for this webinar tomorrow. And I keep mentioning the profusion of tools that exist now in data visualization is just incredible like when I joined the community, you know, it was still a very sort of academic practice. This was like 15, 16 years ago. You would have to actually know a lot of coding programming language instruction to make any substantial effort in this, in this, in this area. And you probably recall that, John, like there was just not as it, as it is today at all. So I think it’s for the best, but now it’s hard to keep track of how many tools exists is if, if whoever asked that question, I can actually send them a link of resources. I keep track of some of the resources. I think visualizing data actually has a good page.
JS: Yeah, I was just going to put that in here. Yeah.
ML: Yeah. That’s a really good page. I think it’s just, basically, for all types of data visualization related tools. It’s so hard to keep track. It’s like in hundreds, right. And, and I think, it’s hard to pick one because it really depends on what you need. Right? So in terms of like, what are you trying to achieve? What is your fluency with, with programming languages? It kind of there’s a full gamut. There’s a full range, you know, from, from being a completely nervous or design oriented person to being like really familiar with code. And that will change the number of suggested tools change depending on that. That’s a pretty good pitch to start off. And then books is the same thing, like so many books have come out. I think, maybe the angle of my. of some of my books are more historical sort of background visual culture. If you want to go more into like the deep, deep one, like the ultra books, there’s a bunch of others. I think even visualizing data also has a another link on books as well. But if you search, if that, if that person sends me a link, I will ping them to my, I keep a page on notion that’s public for people to that, you know, had these type of questions on resources, I can just ping them.
JS: Great. That’s great. So, yeah, so ping Manuel on Twitter. Twitter, okay?
ML: Yeah. That’d be great.
JS: So there’s a few other questions here, and I’ll just let people just unmute themselves. So we’ll start with Adida, and again, excuse me if I’m pronouncing names wrong. So if you want to unmute yourself and just ask Manuel yourself, we can just start there. And we could start, start sort of start a list, so.
Female Speaker: Cool. Thank you. Hi, Manuel. [0:36:47 inaudible] from Germany. I totally feel your need of collecting historical examples of getting into crazy walk through the centuries to see how much data visualization is actually in our genes. I, myself am a cartographer, and facing now the challenge of trying to organize those wonderful historical examples of storytelling maps. And I was wondering, do you have some sort of a peer to peer tip how do you organize your collections of graphics of trees, networks, circles and so on and so on? That would be great.
ML: Yeah. That’s a great point. Well, thank you. It’s always good to meet a kindred spirit. So thanks for that. Yeah. I think a lot more taxonomies especially of these old material are needed, right? And I think we need more people like you to investigate that. So I really appreciate what you’re doing. So the tools that I used, it was, it was hard. I think it was a mix. So I can also send you the list of institutions and many of them not only, like illustrations and I actually thought about doing a blog post at some point, which basically is, again, that the list, the list of institutions are making that collections open and freely available for researchers like, like yourself and myself to use and browse, right? So I think it’s something I’m probably going to do at some point and share with the world and community. But that’s a good question. So there’s a bunch of institutions, and I’m happy to like recommend you a few. The Library of Congress is always the easiest in the sense that it’s public record; it’s in the public domain. So anything that’s there it’s safe to use. There’s a many more in, in Europe, of course, institutions, especially tied with universities. There’s a bunch I can send you that list if you want, if you, if you’re interested. In the process of itself that I used, I actually used Pinterest, believe it or not. I used Pinterest to make sense of some of these images I was uncovering and to discover the patterns, right, the themes that I was uncovering, because sometimes A lot of themes and this is, you know, me looking back at, let me just show you here for a moment. So if, if you haven’t seen one of my books, they always start off, we have them start with a taxonomy in the very first page of this. This is the taxonomy of the Book of Circles, right? And these taxonomy is really hard. These taxonomy doesn’t, it’s not in my mind when I submit the proposal at all, right? It’s, it’s a taxonomy that is that emerges through the research, through the research that I’m doing, right? Collecting all these examples, try to put them in groups and categories, and the taxonomy kind of emerges naturally through that process. And for that process, I use Pinterest a lot to actually start making sense of similarities, resemblances between some of the motifs and some of the styles that people were using. And then I also use illustrator, Adobe Illustrator, just, you know, just an application that allows you to draw, but I would be basically collecting all these images and putting them in a really massive digital whiteboard of sorts, right? And again, grouping them in, in ways that makes sense. And then the great thing about doing a taxonomy like that for the book, and again, I’m just going to show it again, is that it is both the taxonomy of all the types in this case are the seven families of 21 topologies of circular diagrams, right? But it also is a way for you to, it’s also a table of contents, right? It also has a link to the number where each category starts. So you can jump into a specific category in the book, right? So that’s why I think, you know, taxonomies are really important, not just from a research contribution, but also even in a book like that, it allows you to actually understand the whole practice through it.
JS: Yeah. That’s really interesting. So Francesca has a question/comment for you. So, um, which I think is a really good one about, about talking the data viz language and reading the viz language, so, okay, there she is.
Francesca: Hello. Hi, Manuel and everybody. Yeah, so I use, thank you. I mean, I use your book in, at school quite, quite widely. I teach from data visualization design curriculum, from a very graphic point of view. So they’re very, very useful instrument. And I want to share a comment with everybody which is like we, we say in classroom that you can learn how to create data visualizations, but then you also need to learn how to read data visualization, and because there’s a language like the capacity of talking and listening need to be developed, like along one another. Otherwise, like you’re not really talking to anybody, right? So I appreciate the books, because I think that they, they slow down the process, and they really requires, I mean, you can also go through very quickly and just they’re just like beautiful, but if you want to understand them, they slow down the process, and they demand time for the understanding and the listening, which is something that I feel digital tools doesn’t require so explicitly. So if I think about even in the last several weeks, all of the news feed are absolutely bombed by so many visualization kinds, so many charts, so many things and lines that grows and decrease. And I’m not sure what is the, what normal people, ordinary people really understand out of that, because I not sure they have the instrument to actually receive so much information packed and processed in such a condensed language. So, well, this is the comment. If I can have a question is more like how do you think about the capacity of people of reading visualization nowadays? So how much the first piece of the production of this visualization gets along with the capacity, the speed of people to being able to reading them? And what we can do as designers or educators or, or just people that is like visual communicator to help this capacity of reading to increase, you know, to make, to make these people, these tools really useful for the people that received them.
ML: That’s, that’s great. I mean, I love your, your connection with language and, and maybe not coincidentally, my webinar next week, which, again, I hope to do it again. And hopefully, when I do the second series, you can join that one, Francesca, is called the Language of Data Visualization. And I kind of start the webinar by this, this hypothetical scenario that, you know, tomorrow you’re going to face an alien, right, that comes and comes to earth and asks you what a cat is, like the animal. And then you try to explain by using a series of descriptors, you know, it’s loud. It’s, it’s this or that you can try to explain a predator. You try to explain what the cat is. Now the understanding of those descriptors would only make sense for the alien if it understands two things, the building blocks of that language, right, of that alphabet. So the letters that you actually apply, which, by the way, are just one single alphabet, and I think, more than 200 known alphabets today live, living off of that we have on planet Earth would only make sense if that, if that alien knows what those building blocks are, the letters of that those words and the grammar or the rules on how to combine that, right. Without those two things, it would be meaningless to explain, and it’s the same thing with graphics. Graphics only makes sense if people understand the building blocks of those graphics, right, mostly conveyed through shapes, color, size, and position, right, things of that nature, the visual variables, and the rules on how to combine that grammar of graphics. It’s the same process, and I go through the webinar, like, what does that mean the visual decoding out the various nuances of that grammar. And, and there’s, but again, answering that it’s all, it has to be through education. And, and I think one of the great things that, for example, John has done, which I love, it’s called the graphic continuum. And I’m sure you can also you should post here as well. It’s one of many examples. I think there’s a few other frameworks. But that one specifically, we actually have the poster version. John, I should have mentioned this in the beginning. We have the poster version at Google. And we have the little one of the desktop version as well. And it’s super useful because again, it allows you to understand it’s a connection between, you know, what type of data you have, what do you want to achieve with that data, and the suggested chart, right? And I think it’s a really like it’s a mental tool. It’s a mental process, and you have to like practice this. There’s a little bit of like language, right? Like I have my five year old Chloe here. And she’s just learning the language, the written language, right? The building blocks, the letters, and how to combine them. And you can see the brain adapting to this new knowledge, right? With graphic language, it’s the same thing. And we cannot expect people to just get it and understand it. Because imagine how long it took you or any of us here to learn written language and to master it right to the point where we’re really comfortable with it. It takes years, right? And now all of a sudden, we are expecting that we can put in front of, in front of people some really complex charts and then just expect them that they would just understand it. It doesn’t happen that way, right? So I think it’s our job, especially your job, Francesca, as well as as an educator to really teach this because the nuances of that language are really important for people to understand, especially as, as an example we are more and more relying on charts as we now see with, of course, the Coronavirus epidemic. And now it’s, it’s, it’s becoming really ubiquitous than the amount of charts. Also because we have a bias of accuracy when we actually see a chart, we perceive that to be more accurate. And it’s, it’s a bias as many biases that we have. And, and actually my, one of my favorite Wikipedia pages is the list of cognitive biases. It’s a great page. And if you are a designer or anyone dealing with data visualization should go to that page, because you really understand that’s the genesis of a lot of principles we used for communicating information and data, right? So one of them is that bias that exists. So if that bias is very prevalent across populations, and if they’re not educated, right, or not to reading and interpreting charts, it’s a problem. Right? There’s a lot of possibility for misunderstanding and misinterpretation.
Francesca: Thank you. Thank you very much.
JS: Yeah. That was, that was great, great question. Great, great discussion. Um, Oksana has a question on learning code. I don’t know if she wants to.
ML: Uh, yeah. Should designers UX graphic code in your opinion? Again, it really depends on what you want to achieve, Oksana. It really does. I don’t think it’s a, it’s a need per se, you know, you can easily partner with someone else. I think to be honest, it sometimes and I feel this also as UX manager and, you know, being familiar with some of the startups, I think designers are being asked to do too much these days, you know, they are being asked to do research. They are being asked to do code and are expected to do all these things equally well and achieve, you know, great success and impact on all those things together. I think it’s a lot to ask. And it really takes the emphasis on doing one thing really well, right? And I think no matter what people tell me about and try to sell me the concept of unicorns, like I’ve never met a person like that. Maybe I’ve met actually a couple, but those are really, really hard to find. And these people might not be super happy with their work life balance either, right? So I think you better, my advice is like, yes, I would say, if you want to learn code, I think there’s nothing that you shouldn’t do. I think it’s always worth it to just explore something new. You will learn a new skill set that can only bring good things to you on a personal basis, right? It will challenge you. And it would actually allow you to expand your mind in different ways. But I don’t think that’s a nice like no one will hire you expecting that, that skill if you are being hired as a designer, right? So I don’t think there’s a niche on the market for that necessarily. I think it’s more of a personal option. Like, for example, I did a lot of coding in the past to do some of the projects that I did, but I think no, I’m unable to be as good as coding as I am in other things. So I would rather partner with someone that’s really good at coding and I can focus on other things and through that collaboration we can achieve better, better projects all together.
JS: Just to say, I think that’s a great answer, because I agree. I feel like everybody, everybody wants to be a unicorn. And a lot of people who hire want unicorns and neither of those things are, they’re called unicorns for a reason, because they don’t exist.
ML: Exactly, don’t exist.
JS: Right. I mean, and I would, I would also extend that just, just as sort of a, as an aside, that especially in the moment that we’re in with all these visualizations coming out about COVID and the pandemic, there’s a lot of people creating visualizations who maybe they should not be creating visualizations because they don’t know enough about the spread of a disease and public health and epidemiology. And maybe it’s just human nature where we kind of think that we know more than we do, and instead we should be asking for help. And this, this theme has come up a bunch of times on these discussions and in a podcast I recently did, but I think it’s, it’s not just on what we expect people to do in their job with the tools, but also what we expect people to sort of publish and put out into the world. There seems to be this expectation of like doing too much. And maybe we should be relying on each other a little bit more [0:51:14 crosstalk].
ML: Yeah, I totally agree. And I think to be honest, like the whole idea of unicorns or like, the notion of product designers, which is something that turned out, as you know, according to the whole startup community, to be honest, I think it was just a cheap way of startups to get what they needed for a really low price, right?
ML: I mean, yes. If I need to hire like a researcher, designer and a software engineer, I would have to pay three times. If I got one person that does all three, you know, that’s great. But I don’t think that should be the guiding force for, you know, any of you to like lead your life through by how to do to save money, if anything.
JS: I was, I was just thinking I got in trouble for making this exact case at a conference, at one of the academic viz conferences. This is several years ago where I said, you know, you need to have a team, right? You need someone who can do the web development. You need someone who can do the statistics and the data. You need someone who, you know, can do the design. You need all these, all these different pieces, and there are no unicorns. And I got all these computer science graduate students after the talk saying I can do this, you know, I’m the unicorn. I’m like, yeah, because you’re in graduate school right now. But like what happens when you go to work and you have 500 competing things to do today? You just, it’s just not, it’s just not a tenure, you know, it’s just not something that’s gonna, gonna work for anything.
ML: Yeah. That’s agreed. I mean, at the same time, I think it’s definitely useful. Like, especially if you work in a trial like that, you know, if you are designer and you’re working, you know, side by side with engineers, and product managers and other roles and researchers and whatnot. It’s always good to, of course, to understand their roles. You don’t have to be an expert in research or an expert in let’s say software development, but like you need to understand the basics of it so that you know the limitations, you know what they struggle with, right? But that is to say about everything. And you know that there’s always a lot of, a lot of, a lot of aspects that, you know, we designers have to explain what we do so that people understand, like, I think engineers and researchers also need to explain to designers what they do, so that everyone is on the same level playing field. Even internally, I remember doing that, like every time there’s like a new project, a new collaborative project, the best way to start a project is by everyone explaining what they do, what they bring to the table, right? And how to best collaborate with them. That will just clear the water immediately, because now you know what you can rely on that person for, right? And it’s much clearer because instead, there’s a lot of misunderstandings that people aren’t gonna understand what role, what kind of contribution they can do, how to collaborate with them. It’s just avoiding a lot of that process for sure.
JS: Yeah. That’s great. Um, we’re basically at the end. I don’t know, do you have any like last words of wisdom for folks that you want to share or I don’t know.
ML: Not really. I just hope everyone is safe. And, and I’m happy that you’re doing this, John. I think it’s really good. And I think, Francesca before, like I think all of us doing and trying to educate the public on some of these issues, right. I think it can only bring good things, right. And I think, you know, visual literacy is definitely an issue. And I think we all collectively need to work on it in different ways. It’s through, you know, initiatives like this one, through webinars, through whatever educational platforms we can create. I think, it’s a really like important call to action for us to all be involved in.
JS: Yeah, that’s great. I’ll just quickly before we close up, just quickly remind everybody that there are, I don’t even know what it’s, Wednesday. It’s like the longest month ever. So, tomorrow, we’ll do, I don’t even remember what time we’re at, but tomorrow, let’s see. Especially for people interested in tools from 10 to 11 AM, Eastern Time, Gregor Irish and Lisa Charlotte Rost from Data Wrapper. They’re in Berlin. They run, they are part of the team on Datawrapper. So they’ll be here to talk about the tool and other stuff. And then Friday afternoon from two to three Eastern Time Enrico Bertini and Moritz Stefaner are from the Data Stories podcast would be here to talk about the stuff that they’re working on. And then just as a quick like a preview for next week, I have four of the five days all set, but on Wednesday, I’ll be doing this on my own. And I’ll be teaching data viz for kids. So if you have kids, Manuel, you mentioned this about your daughter earlier, so–
ML: It’s awesome. Yeah.
JS: Yeah. So I’m going to try to do a little virtual data viz class for kids. So all your kid needs or you doesn’t matter, right, they just need a piece of paper and some colored pencils. And we’re going to, I’ll talk for a little bit, and then we’ll actually be making some things, so, but I’ll be–
ML: That’s amazing. Can, can I don’t want to join as well?
JS: Of course, of course. It’s totally open. So, yeah.
ML: What time is that, John?
JS: I, well, you know what, I was just thinking of it. And I think I’m gonna do it at 11 because you said 11 is a good time. So I think I’ll do at 11 because I think about kids on the East Coast in San Francisco, they’re probably up early anyways. So maybe their parents can say go be online for an hour. So we’ll do 11 AM on Wednesday and, and then we can get out to, out to Pakistan at least.
ML: That sounds great.
ML: The 11 is good because it opens appetite for lunch as well.
JS: Right. That’s right. That’s right. Yeah. All right, everybody. Well, thanks so much for, for coming on. Manuel, thanks so much. This was a lot of fun. It’s great. Be sure to check out his books. And I think if you have other questions, just ping him on Twitter. And if you have any questions for me, ping me on Twitter, or the Urban website, wherever and we can share more resources. So, great. Everybody, stay safe, stay healthy, and be well, and we’ll see you soon. Thanks a lot. Everybody. See you Manuel.
ML: Thanks to everyone.
JS: Thanks for everyone for tuning in to this week’s episode of the podcast. I hope you enjoyed that. I hope you learned a little something about Manuel’s process and about his love of circles and his love of trees. If you’d like to support the podcast, please consider sharing it, letting other folks know about the show. Consider writing a review on iTunes, Spotify, or your favorite podcast provider. Or if you’d like to support the show financially, please head over to my Patreon page for just a couple of dollars per month. You can help me afford things like audio transcription, audio editing, webcasting, web hosting, all the things that are needed to bring this show to you. So I hope you are well. I hope you are safe. And until next time, this has been the PolicyViz podcast. Thanks so much for listening.