That’s the downside we hear so much about. The upside (already taken for granted, it barely merits a mention) is the opportunity for exchanging information of whatever denomination across the globe at any time of day or night. Welcome to the Information Age, we’re told.
As a slogan for our times, Francis Bacon’s sixteenth century maxim scientia potentia est, commonly paraphrased as ‘knowledge is power’, has certain merits. But surely understanding has a stronger claim to power than knowledge. Without understanding, knowledge can be inert and lacking in purpose.
I know, for example, my computer does whizzy things courtesy of processors, random access memory and assorted silicon-and-precious-metal thingamabobs. But I’m blowed if I understand how it actually works or the physics of it (it might as well be sorcery). Which gives my local PC service & repair shop a distinct advantage in negotiations when the thing goes kaput. Knowledge will get you so far, but understanding takes you to another level altogether.
The acquisition and retention of information is a form of knowledge that can facilitate understanding, but experience tells us that mere access to the superhighway doesn’t, by itself, promote personal, community or commercial betterment. Information of whatever kind needs to be understood in context, and it requires interpretation to become meaningful.
That’s why curators, commentators, critics and other expert witnesses (whether professionals or laity, academics or otherwise) are necessary mediators in the digital world. And within this list we should also include the newly emergent tribe of ‘information designers’.
Without wishing to over-simplify, information designers create information graphics, or ‘infographics’. They take an information set (it might be numeric data, but it doesn’t have to be) and design a visual representation that conveys at-a-glance-meaning through the depiction of patterns and associations between variables.
We’re not just talking about fancy pie charts here. The best infographics combine aesthetically pleasing form with information-rich content. The result is often revelatory, yielding insights that require no prior knowledge or special skills to decode.
Infographics are nothing new and feature commonly in the news media. But the form has really taken off on the Internet, coinciding with efforts to make information, including data, widely and freely available in the public domain. I’ve posted previously about the Guardian’s excellent Data Store, and there are other such laudable initiatives (Wikipedia, of course, but there's IBM’s Many Eyes project for another example).
Data are shared and infographics developed and refined within online networks, ensuring anything that's misleading, or just plain bad, is open to scrutiny and challenge. It may even be appropriate to talk about an information design movement, whose watchwords include ‘accessibility’ and ‘usability’ (active practitioners deploy phrases like ‘See What You Mean’ and ‘Information Is Beautiful’).
This is inspiring stuff to someone who blogs about publicly available film business data. It may be an obvious contrivance, but infographics seem particularly well suited to the subject of film because cinema is a visual storytelling medium and the Internet is awash with film-related data ripe for visualisation.
In the coming weeks I plan to launch a competition to design the best infographic representation of such data, details of which will follow in due course. But in the meantime I’d like to share my favourite film-themed infographics. Some are works-in-progress, while at least one is award-winning; some have been done for the sheer fun of it, while others have serious intent behind them.
See what you think…
- Created by: Mathew Bloch, Lee Byron, Shan Carter and Amanda Cox
- Published: New York Times, 23 February 2008
- Sources: Baseline StudioSystems; Box Office Mojo
An engrossing image at once both beautiful and functional: this infographic shows how films fared at the US box office between 1986 and 2008 using colour, height, width and area to convey the ebb and flow of movie revenues over time. The image captures not only the magnitude of box office takings of individual films but also their longevity in the market place. Plus it is interactive, so users can bring up a details of each film from the NY Times archive.
2. Trilogy Meter
- Created by: Dan Meth
- Published: http://danmeth.com, 11 February 2009
Simple, effective, personal and provocative. Dan Meth created this infographic as part of his series of Pop Cultural Charts. He rated the constituent films of a number of well known trilogies (some of which, in a Douglas Adams twist, run to more than three parts…), based on the ‘enjoyment level of each film and nothing else’.
Even such a simple execution can yield fresh insights. As the designer says, ‘frankly, I’m surprised by how many sequels were better than the original. And I’m not surprised that the 3rd movie is never the best’.
3. How Star Wars Changed the World
- Created by: Michelle Devereaux (with additional research by Erik Malinowski)
- Published: Wired, May 2005
- Source: Lucasfilm Ltd.
Not a retelling of the ‘queues-around-the-block, box office smash’ story, but a map of ‘the people, companies and technologies touched by the Force’ beginning with Lucasfilm’s creation in 1971 and ending with the release of Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith in 2005.
It’s by no means exhaustive, but captures the essence of what, in another context, might be termed Star Wars’ impact on popular culture and the careers of those involved.
4. Movie Narrative Charts
- Created by: Randall Munroe
- Published: http://xkcd.com (undated)
Absorbing, tongue-in-cheek renditions of the interactions of major characters in films like the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the original Star Wars trilogy and Jurassic Park.
5. Future entertainment: the convergence of film and gaming
- Published: TrendONE/ BVD Virtual Think Tank 3.0 Film Tank, March 2008 (multiple contributors)
Forecasting, the infographic way: want to know the 'best case' and 'worst case' scenarios for entertainment in the foreseeable future? By 2020 we might have Running Man style TV shows featuring androids…
6. Highest Grossing Films of all Time
- Created by: Nathan Yau
- Published: http://flowingdata.com, 2 January 2008
Simple, elegant and effective: inflation-adjusted US box office grosses for the top 25 performing titles, colour coded by genre and using font size for magnitude.
7. Rambo kill counts
- Created by: miscellaneous
- Published: http://forums.flowingdata.com, June/July 2009
Assorted visualisations of a dataset describing the Rambo franchise body count. Bloody marvellous.
8. The top 250 best movies of all time
- Created by: David Honnorat
- Published: http://blog.vodkaster.com, 25 June 2009
A subway-style map depicting the 250 best films as voted by IMDb users on 19 June 2009. The ‘train lines’ correspond to different genres, and the intersections are revealing.
9. Dark and Fleshy: The Color of Top Grossing Movies
- Created by: Armin
- Published: http://www.underconsideration.com/speakup, 17 July 2007
Proving that infographics can be abstract and still pack a meaningful punch, this visualisation reveals the most common colours used in posters of top performing films across the MPAA ratings categories. The result is surprising, as the designer notes:
‘Now, I love black backgrounds more than anything else in the design business, and yet I was still very surprised to acknowledge how dark theatrical posters are and that, specifically, in this context, the top 25 grossing movies of all time across all ages didn’t run a very wide gamut.’
10. Timelines: Time travel in popular film and tv
- Created by: David McCandless, Dominic Busby, Alice Cho
- Published: The Visual Miscellaneum, InformationIsBeautiful.net, August 2009
- Source: Wikipedia
Quintessential movie-related ‘visual miscellaneum’: a slice of visually striking fun for genre fans, using space and colour to depict time and travel. Ingenious.
11. Eyewitness: The British Film Industry
- Created by: Uncredited
- Published: The Guardian, 22 July 2008
- Source: UK Film Council
A perfect example of newspaper infographics in action, providing an overview of the British film industry based on data from the UK Film Council Statistical Yearbook.