The Aesthetics of Data
While I’ve been working on the Cultural Plan project (www.ImagineDenver2020.org; please submit your input if you haven’t yet!), I’ve been thinking a lot about data presentation. I’ve been thinking about it partially because people who enjoy arts, culture, and creativity obviously value aesthetics, but also because the data from this project, like most projects, will be useful to many people and should therefore be presented in an easy to use format. Data presentation comes in all forms, such as tables or infographics; however, it often is not given enough thought because it is generally one of the final steps of a research project. Data presentation is such an important step, though, especially when you want people to act based on the findings.
Easy-to-digest data actually have some very powerful psychological effects. In psychology we refer to the sensation of easily understanding or processing something as an instance of “fluency”. If something is easy to understand or process, people feel happier , they perceive it as more beautiful, they perceive it as more familiar, and they are more likely to believe that it is true. Thus, when data is presented in an easy-to-understand format, people will feel more comfortable with the data and even happier.
There is a growing push to produce presentations of data that are not only easy to understand but that are also beautiful. We tend to assume that data are not aesthetically pleasing: they consist of numbers, are often messy, and tend to be put in dry tables and documents. But as any good data nerd will tell you, there is a beauty in the numbers. Creating easy-to-digest data presentations can make it easier for people to appreciate the beauty of the data. There are plenty of websites out there documenting beautiful data presentations, such as coolinfographics.com and blog.visual.ly. Other researchers have taken it a step further and have tried to present data in a format that mirrors the content of the study. One extreme example is the analysis of David Bowie’s music; the researchers translated the results into sounds as a form of data presentation.
Sadly, a bad presentation can mask interesting data. It is important to create a presentation that makes the data easy to understand without detracting from the story of the data.
Here are three infographics we found that make us happy (i.e. perceived as beautiful and easy to understand).
 Winkielman, P., & Cacioppo, J.T. (2001). Mind at ease puts a smile on the face: Psychophysiological evidence that processing facilitation increases positive affect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81, 989–1000.
 Reber, R., Schwarz, N., & Winkielman, P. (2004). Processing fluency and aesthetic pleasure: Is beauty in the perceiver’s processing experience? Personality and Social Psychology Review, 8, 364-382.
 Whittlesea, B.W.A. (1993). Illusions of familiarity. Journal Of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 19, 1235–1253.
 Reber, R., & Schwarz, N. (1999). Effects of perceptual fluency on judgments of truth. Consciousness and Cognition, 8, 338–342.