In Class Assignment 1: The Simplest Visualization Problem

by Mike Gleicher on January 21, 2017

Note: this is meant as an in-class assignment. Students should not read the assignment before class. Part of the idea is to come at the problem fresh.

If you missed class, try the assignment on your own. It’s a lot less fun without a group. However, (after you try to come up with your own designs) you can use the original design exercise (here) to get some additional designs to look at.

The idea of this assignment is to explore the diversity of visual designs, to see how different visual designs might “group” together, and to start to think about what designs might be good for (or not). In order to do this, we will use a really simple “data problem.”

This exercise is inspired by one in a design class, described here. But don’t look at that page! It has 45 different answers. I want you to try to invent your own. (you can look at the page AFTER class). Also, this exercise was intended to focus on creating designs: not necessarily organizing or evaluating them.

We used a variant of this exercise in a workshop that I ran (with designer Stephan Thiel) to teach literature scholars about visualization. They turned out to be quite creative.


The Challenge and Assignment Overview

Your problem: design a visualization to communicate the numbers 75 and 37.

I’ve already given you one visualization (write out the numbers). How many more designs can you come up with?

The assignment will be divided into 3 phases. We’ll do all in class…

Phase 1: Generate Designs

This will be done in pairs. Each pair of people (if you can’t pair up, you might need to move to a different table – there should be at most 1 group of 3) needs to start with a blank piece of paper. Write both names on top of the page. Divide the paper into a 4×2 grid (we’ll give you suitable paper).

The goal of this phase is to generate as many different designs as you can. Make sketches. If you can’t sketch accurately enough, add text to explain what you are trying to draw.

The key here is to generate as many different designs as you can. The posting that inspired this exercise was called “45 ways to compare 2 quantities” (so you can guess how many that designer came up with). In the workshop, we came up with almost as many (and they were different than what were in the posting).

Don’t judge how good/bad they are (yet). Just make the designs.

To start things off, we’ll show you a few. Don’t copy ours.

Each pair of people should come up with at least 10 designs in 15 minutes (the clock is ticking). You can fit 8 on each side of your paper (see why we divided the paper).

Part of the goal here is to introduce the idea of design ideation: come up with many ideas, and then assess later. Part of the idea is to get you to realize there are lots of choices we can make in how to present data.

Each pair will turn in a page of designs (so make sure your name is on the page!)

Phase 2: Gather and Group Designs

With 30+ groups each generating 10+ designs, we’ll have a lot to look at. In this phase, we’ll try to group them together.

We’ll start as a class. We’ll pick one design. Then we’ll ask to see who else has this design, and who has variants. Then we’ll ask someone (pick a table) to give a design that is as unique / unlike the ones we’ve seen as possible. We’ll do this a little as a class, then we’ll let each table to this.

At the end, each table should have a set of “buckets” of common designs.

Part of the goal here is to get a bigger appreciation of the space of designs. Another goal is to see how to group similar things: what are fundamentally different designs, and what are just minor variants?

Phase 3: Evaluate Designs

In this phase, we’ll look at designs and ask “what could this be good for.”

For each design, try to come up with at least 1 thing that it is good for – what is a question you can answer quickly looking at the visualization. Then come up with (at least) 1 thing that it is less good at. For that 1 question that it isn’t good at, find some design that is better at that task.

We’ll do a few of these as a class, and then let people try doing it themselves in small groups. We’ll trade papers (each table trades with another table). Divide each table in half.

Part of the goal here is to start to appreciate how design connects to task, and to see the range of tasks. Part of the goal is to start to think about critique, especially in response to task.

Each half table should turn in a sheet with: everyone’s name on it. A sketch of each design you evaluated along with a list of tasks its good for, and a task that it isn’t good for.

Why are we doing this?

Hopefully, this exercise will get your creativity going in thinking about visualization, and help you start to realize the wide range of possible ways to do things. It should motivate the need for some terminology for discussing visualization, and for some systematic ways to define and describe designs. It should get you thinking about tasks, the connection between design and task, and critiquing with respect to tasks.

This will exercise will also hopefully be a fun ice-breaker. And get you used to the idea of creating and collaborating in class.

In terms of evaluation: we won’t be judging your artistic skill or design talent. Hopefully, you will be inspired to try as best you can (the more you try, the more you will get out of the experience). If learning doesn’t inspire you, maybe peer pressure will. Pretty much, everyone will get a “good” for this assignment (unless you obviously don’t try in all the phases – but we expect everyone to get a “good”). We will have no way to give anything better than “good” – but remember, getting a good grade in this class is about consistently participating in the exercises.

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