Design in the Digital Age

Data is like the air we breathe — constantly around us, essential to our survival, and often taken for granted until it's suddenly not there. We are fenced by data in countless forms, from the information we consume on our smartphones to the data-driven decisions made by businesses and governments. With this flood of data, designers have had to adapt to new ways of visualizing and presenting information in aesthetically pleasing and easily understandable ways. The intersection of data and design has led to the development of new aesthetic norms and trends in the display of information.

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The Sharks of Business visual - Image: GDS Infographics on

People have always had an impulse to make sense of the world through visual means. Cave paintings depicting animals in various poses and situations have conveyed information about animal behavior and habitats, while drawings of hunting scenes may have helped hunters plan and strategize their hunts.

Although the ancient means of data visualization may not have possessed the complexity of contemporary infographics or data dashboards, they do manifest the natural human tendency to visually represent the available data. As technology ascended, data became more abundant, and that wealth brought complexity, which required organization. Enter, design. Designers –from their modern caves and more radiant walls, aka computer screens– have had to adapt to new ways of organizing and presenting information.

Well-presented data is not only aesthetically pleasing,” said Angela Testa, an Italian-based data visualization designer, “but can also evoke emotions and inspire action. By using design to create visualizations that tell a story, we can help people connect with human experiences surpassing the cold idea that data is just numbers. For example, a well-designed visualization can help businesses understand where they are lacking, and where and which actions to take. Picturing migration patterns can help people understand the scale and impact of this global issue, while also conveying the individual stories of those affected.”

Testa thinks that well-presented data help us identify trends and complex patterns that are not apparent looking at raw data alone, thus transforming information into knowledge, inspiring individuals and organizations to take action, and affecting positive change.

Cristy Benson, a user experience designer based in New Zealand thinks that well-presented data visualizations can be understood by a much broader audience, than data displayed in tabular numerical form.

"Data represented visually and designed following Gestalt Principles," said Benson, "essentially hijacks our species' visual perception superpowers that have evolved over millions of years to quickly identify predators, select edible food to eat, and read weather cues. Humans are naturally equipped to see and quickly register patterns, shapes, unusual outliers, and trends – after all, our survival once depended on it! And it's this that makes well-presented data visualizations a fundamental tool for UX and UI designers."

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When Sea Levels Attack data visual - Image: mkandlez on

Data can appear like a muddled newspaper at times: dry and overwhelming like trying to drink from a firehose. But design makes it almost like a very digestible movie. Striking aesthetics can make anything boring seem arresting. Design is a gentle intervention that aims its magic wand at the “hard” facts to output impactful visuals that help us better comprehend the world around us.

Data is a slippery material," said Silvia Romanelli, a France-based data visualization designer, "but if presented well, it can bring much value to communication - improving understanding, showing hidden relationships, and creating engagement. Data visualization is a construct of reality. We choose a point of view, select a window of rows and columns in a dataset, and paint it in colors and patterns, bringing readers' attention here, and taking it away from there. It's a delicate exercise made of macro and micro design choices. It requires attention to details, critical thinking, ethics, and honesty. There is no one right way of doing things. If you question your choices and, in the end, can justify them, then your visualization will be an interesting window on reality for your readers."

"Data helps people take decisions,” said Irene de la Torre Arenas, a Spanish data visualization designer, “from individuals picking which car to buy to policymakers who must choose where to invest money after studying unemployment levels in a given neighborhood. Data visualization transforms these abstract numbers into something accessible and easy to understand, enabling people to take action."

"As a data journalist, telling a story using well-presented data to show data-driven insights is what I do on a daily basis," said France-based Julia Janicki, "though the first step is to get accurate and high-quality data from a reliable source, data presentation or visualization is what gets the message and story across that could potentially lead to the desired impact. Without a presentable visual, the audience wouldn't be able to properly see, understand, interact with, and interpret it. Proper and well-thought-out presentations can show trends in the data, provide context and perspective, and finally, tell a story."

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Salt Mountains, a minimal data visual - Image: GDS Infographics on

Data might either adopt a minimalist approach that stresses simple raw elements, or a maximalist approach, producing designs that are visually stunning and complex. Storytelling can merge into the visual product to harvest a more captivating narrative that inspires action and drives positive change. Striking a good balance between information and storytelling is key to presentation success.

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Numbers can be boring but circles are fun - Image: GDS Infographics on

Data’s union with design has driven modern aesthetic resolutions in presenting banal –to some– numbers and charts, crucial information made digestible as a result of aesthetic direction. Designers have paved a new way into the pool of data, another field at which to sway their magic wands and apply a visual transformation that apprises aesthetic appreciation. As data progressively buds in our lives, aesthetics will attend with it hand in hand, affording designers exciting forecasts to explore.