Three Questions with… RJ Andrews

This content originally appeared as part of The ‘Gale newsletter.

On September 25, 2020, the virtual doors of the Stanford Libraries’ swung open to reveal the Data Visualization and the Modern Imagination exhibition, which explores the rich history of information design beginning in the 1700s. Scientists, economists, politicians, explorers, and medics used graphics to make sense of quantitative information ranging from family trees to mapping landscapes to chronicling the passage of time.

These early visualizations “changed how we understand the world and our place within it. Data visualization helped a new imagination emerge, wired to navigate a reality much bigger than any single person’s lived experience,” according to the website’s homepage. The exhibit elevates some of these early works and celebrates the innovations that built the discipline of data visualization, and which still inform much of the work being done in the field today.

We were fortunate to have caught up with exhibit curator, RJ Andrews, for a quick installment of “Three Questions With,” to commemorate the exhibit’s launch. Award-winning data storyteller RJ Andrews is author and founder of Info We Trust and a scholar of data visualization history. He helps organizations solve information problems with maps, charts, and diagrams.

1. If you could be any type of chart, what would you be?

In Info We Trust I revisualized this old armor visualization with a chart form I call pictorial multiples. A small multiple is a lot of abstract charts arranged in order that conveys some sort of information. Instead of arranging abstract charts, it arranges pictures. Here, you have illustrations of helmets arranged on an evolutionary tree. And, you can tell something about each individual picture and their relationship to each other. It’s a form that deserves revival.

I am a fan of pictorial diagrams, but a pictorial diagram is not enough for me. I want some sort of statistical insight as well. You can do that by arranging pictures according to some order.

I did that with the cathedral spread at the end of the Info We Trust book. I was intentional about arranging these. Each one’s an individual map and it’s on polar coordinates — it’s also a polar bar chart.

2. If you were stuck on a desert island, what viz would you want to create and what would you use to make it?

If you’re on a desert island, it’s sort of like a prison, right? So, the natural thing is that you would want to track time. That might keep you from going crazy. Also, how big is this isle? Is this a New Yorker cartoon desert isle? Or, is it a Robert Louis Stevenson desert isle?

I have to eat, so we’re going to assume access to fresh shellfish. I’m making my visualization out of shells. And, I’m not going to be optimistic about my survival. I’m going to clean the beach and make it perfectly smooth. And, the thing that you can do on a desert island better than anywhere else in the world is you can look at the stars. I’m going to take all the shells from the shellfish I’ve been eating and I’m going to bleach them in the sun. Then, I’m going to make the most beautiful visualization of the night sky and reflect it back. That will probably entertain me. And, it’ll keep me out of the sun during the day when it’s hot. It will give me something to do at night. And, I’ll probably do that until I wither away from exhaustion.

3. What is one visualization that has inspired you?

It feels appropriate to pick one from the exhibition. I’ve written about this before, but the Paris Theater Review is my favorite thematic map. I love it. It may be my favorite piece of data visualization of all time. It’s not just perfect, it’s incredibly delightful. When you look at the exhibit write-up, I gave it a second paragraph. There’s nobody who knows how to do what they did here. The color on top is just so vibrant, but you can still see the base map below. It’s an incredible work.

Source: David Rumsey Map Collection, Statistical Diagram: VI. Exposition Universelle de 1889. Recettes Brutes des Theatres et Spectacles des Paris de 1878 a 1889.

Thanks, RJ!

For 20 years, Mary Aviles has stewarded projects driving strategy and content, human experience, concept development, and systems change. A graduate of the University of Michigan, her work has spanned the business-to-business, health care, and nonprofit sectors. Mary is a mixed-method UX researcher at Detroit Labs and the managing editor of Nightingale. She writes about dataviz in real life (IRL) in an effort to help practitioners and “non-data” people enjoy better understanding and experiences in their shared ecosystems.