This is a long-form version of my poster from Tapestry discussing Kelly Martin’s bird-plane viz. It’s my first take at analyzing a viz using the linguistics model.
I confess to many things, but one obsession I have is music. I especially love anything that falls in the order of electronic dance music (EDM), techno, house, or whatever you want to call it. It’s simply stunning to me.
Now, Giorgio Moroder stumbled on a true gem. Call it playing or a happy accident or the workings of a genius, but the man created disco and EDM. His experiments led to something profound that gave something new to music. It sure makes me happy he did.
Daft Punk recently revisited this with Random Access Memories. They brought Giorgio in and just let him talk for hours. He told his story, from the tale of his name to the experiments that brought forth the music that powers a good number of my vizzes. But, it was towards the end, he said something that struck me and left spinning:
Once you want to free your mind about a concept of harmony and music being correct, you can do whatever you want. So nobody told me what to do and there was no preconception of what to do.
Did you catch that? If not, go revisit some of his work. His fingerprints are everywhere.
Discovery is spontaneous. It’s not planned. It’s chaos blending with curiosity; a hole begging to be filled with someone willing to try wood when there’s no dirt; or a 5 year old who looks to the sky for a ladder to the moon.
When I was learning American Sign Language, Nicaragua had just created its first Deaf school. Rather than bring in people to teach ASL or another sign language, they let the students interact and create their own language.
Now, true languages are not like programming languages. They evolve from people throwing things out there and others using it. Grammar evolves this way too and it’s signed off by the real human beings using and creating it, not CEOs or teachers.
The first generation of students used a blend of gestures from their individual homes and others they agreed upon together. In short, they communicated. It was clunky and unstructured, but a start.
Then, in comes a younger class a few years after and, within only a few years, matured and formalized the gestures to a true blue real language. Linguists from all over booked it to Nicaragua, because new languages seldom spawn from thin air like this. Most new languages today evolve from blending two existing ones, not from a blank slate. I’ve seen videos of this and studied it a bit. It’s legit.
What does this have to do with data visualization?
I presented a poster at Tapestry that walked though it a bit quicker. You see, if Giorgio Moroder and the kids from Nicaragua met and did a viz together, it’d probably look a bit like Kelly Martin’s bird-plane viz.
Go look at it. It’s stunning. But more than that, it’s the start of something that can’t even be named. I’ve looked at this probably more than one human should and I see in my head the kids from Nicaragua, the differences – worlds apart – in just a few years. I hear Giorgio and what he did to music.
It’s easy to write this off as fandom. Really, what’s not to love about Kelly’s work? But, for me, seeing this set off the bells and whistles.
Here’s the rub: this isn’t just best practices or following rules. It’s letting go of the notion of harmony and what is correct, and adding a click. It’s formalizing a linguistic layer. It’s creating a language. And guess what? The adoption of this “language” is growing.
Let’s break this down. I’m going through the lens of a modified form of American Sign Language linguistics, not formal data visualization terms. List of experts will come, I swear!
Now, this viz has quite a few parts: the title, the text, some critters, a map, a scatter plot, the legends, and the stats how bad (or not) it is to hit a critter.
Let’s look at the flow of this for a moment. It all starts with the map. It’s HUGE! But, it’s also limited to just the states – no Canada, no Mexico, no labels on oceans, just the states colored by number of strikes. Clicking a state changes it. It all flows left to right, much like the Western world reads.
It’s not just flow; there’s movement. The eyes are led to one spot. From the eye-flick upwards along the scatterplot to the lines and title, it all goes toward that cluster of color and band of grey: There’s something going on here.
Let’s take a look at shape. Now, the scatterplot could’ve had circles or x’s or any number of icons, but no, it’s this jagged-edge starburst thing representing each crash. Which, conveniently, seems to be a common shape for showing impact: I personally thank Batman for this. The critters and planes also give me an idea of meaning without reading (smarter people discuss this elsewhere). The map, I’ve discussed: less clutter = win for shape purposes.
The color is almost all greyscale with the exception of the scatterplot. The morning to night color progression follows a logical order and there’s no color confusion between metrics: no blue on the map because it’s used elsewhere already.
Now, here comes the real mind-bender: placement. I had someone ask during Tapestry which was more important, and, really, you need it all. But, in this viz, it’s the placement that simply blew me away.
Look at the lines. The spacing. The balance created between units. The lines drawn by the eye between each piece. Look at the map and the text and see how it starts to form the golden ratio. Look at how the rest of it fills in, smaller and smaller, completing it. For me, this explained my near-obsession with this viz. It was the final evolution from gesture to language, from generic pop music to the start of something by using a single click.
It was a true honor to present this viz at Tapestry. Much thanks goes to Kelly Martin for allowing me to do this, as frankly, it can be as scary as my singing to let someone else present in this fashion.