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Lecturer Emily Chu on the Future of Infographics and Data Visualization

In a relentless 24/7 news cycle, people are looking to infographics even more to make sense of the changing world. Infographics and Data Visualization Lecturer Emily Chu spoke about the necessity of this rapidly growing field.

“Even though data visualization has consistently been essential, it’s often operated in the background. But now it’s really come to the forefront,” said Chu, who has taught the online Information Design for Infographics and Visual Storytelling course since last year. “People have realized that there are countless ways we encounter information.”

Chu listed the John Hopkins Coronavirus tracker and The Washington Post’s “Flatten the Curve” simulator as examples of how timely and high-profile data visualization has become.

“People understand the importance of having that information available visually for rapid decision making and strategic analysis,” Chu said.

Current events and social justice issues sparked Chu’s initial interest in the data visualization field. After working in various business admin roles, Chu went into marketing for a health and wellness company and noticed the attractive possibilities in designing with data. One of her most memorable data visualization projects during her graduate studies was for the Jain Family Institute, where she worked with a research fellow who had written a white paper on the compass algorithm, which was highly scrutinized for its tendency to bias recidivism results, or the likelihood of someone who had been incarcerated returning to prison. She was alarmed at how biased the data was against minorities.

“It’s always eye-opening to work on data visualization projects that deal with social impact,” Chu said. “There has been increasing scrutiny in the field on how big data collection and prediction is exposing ingrained preconceptions, hurting the way we develop and build as communities, cities, states, countries, neighbors.”

Instructor Emily Chu shared a student project from one of her Infographics and Data Visualization classes.

Data integrity is a priority for Chu when she reviews student work. In fact, she places it at the top of her criteria for successful infographics. For her, number 2 is the clarity of the message and the purpose (“You have to have a purpose behind your design,” she says, “this is how many designs excel in pushing the field to create visualizations, graphics, products that challenge people’s minds, hearts, and ways of relating to one another as well as the world at large.”), #3 is memorability and #4 is the overall presentation. Chu said the visualizations that are most memorable to her are the ones that move from a strong opening into specific facts — from an environmental visualization that noted that the water needed to produce one cotton t-shirt is enough to quench the thirst of an adult for about four years, to a project on the World Happiness Index that concluded with how the U.S. stacks up against all other countries on each index measure.

“The project-based course compels students to think about what their ultimate vision is: What are they willing to sacrifice to bring home the main message the most effectively?”

Chu recently presented her own work from the Parsons M.S. Data Visualization program at the 2020 South by Southwest (SXSW) festival. She spoke about her “Notes on Perspective” project which illustrated audience members’ emotional reactions to a live musical performance.

Chu said although she encourages hand-crafted visualizations, there has been a shift into the interactive — and that’s where the technical concepts come in. Chu said she introduced JavaScript and other web development essentials at the end of a recent Data Visualization course. Chu said the biggest challenges students face include mastering the technical skillset while working on visual encoding and design principles, and selecting the right narrative patterns in parallel.

“How do you try and clarify what your message is if your technical skills aren’t there yet?”

Industry-standard products used in classes include Tableau and Illustrator, although students are also free to explore other platforms including RAWgraphs, Datawrapper, Chartblocks and Infogram.

Although data visualization attracts working professionals from business, graphic design, and journalism, Chu said the Data Visualization and Infographics Certificate is suited for anyone.

“It can accommodate different schedules and people from all different perspectives, industries and crafts. Because you have people from so many different backgrounds providing feedback and critique, it supports the spirit of collaboration in the data visualization community,” Chu said. “I actually think anyone should take data visualization. They all have a story to tell. This is true of practitioners across the board.”

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