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Jackson Pollock and Tableau - Art and Data Visualization – A discussion
This is the first of a two part blog on the world of art and more specifically, those persons who changed our conception of art and the arrival of Tableau Software in the world of visual business intelligence. In both instances there is a common thread – the most powerful of all our senses, the human eye.
“The eye and the visual cortex of the brain form a massively parallel processor that provides the highest-bandwidth channel into human cognitive centers.” Stephen Few - Tapping the Power of Visual Perception 2004. As a former co-worker, Stephen and I go back to the first data visual software offering by Brio Technology 15 years ago.
When art becomes the center of a discussion, more often than not any debate is settled with the adage “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. And so it was and is with Jackson Pollock, an American artist who created upheaval in the world of art. If you are not familiar with Pollock, the link below can provide background information on a US artist whose works sold for millions. His art was considered disruptive, revolutionary and a break through by critics of his time as was the case when Tableau Software issued its release 1.0.
To produce in Jackson Pollock’s “action painting”, most of his canvases were either set on the floor, or laid out against a wall, rather than being fixed to an easel. From there, Jackson Pollock used a style where he would allow the paint to drip from the paint can. Instead of using the traditional paint brush, he would add depth to his images using knives, trowels, or sticks. This form of painting had similar ties to the surreal movement, in that it had a direct relation to the artist's emotions, expression, and mood, and showcased their feeling behind the pieces they designed. Stylistically, he is often remembered for his “drip paintings”. If we measure Pollock’s body of work in financial terms, does $140MM sound too high…..for one painting? It was art created at the speed of thought......keep that in mind.as you view this example of Pollock's body of work.
Enter Tableau Software but why so within a blog posting that includes Jackson Pollock?
Simple –Tableau Software arrived on the visual business intelligence scene over 10 years ago. Tableau was also disruptive and as seen by many, as revolutionary. It was drag and drop and like Pollack, changes at the speed of thought. Think of it - Don't like a bar graph, click - you have tree-map,,,,,,Pollock called it "action painting". Moreover,Tableau bridged the chasm between the arcane world of data and the average user of data. More specifically, Tableau presented the world with a tool for the undeserved business user. More importantly, that tool was based on proven concepts of data visualization and analysis. Born in the labs of Stanford University, Tableau could not have been more timely in an age when data was growing exponentially. Under the direction of Dr. Pat Hanrahan (think Pixar Studios) https//graphics.stanford.edu/~hanrahan/ Tableau was launched as a commercial offering.
Tableau created shock-waves within the B.I. community with a simple proposition – Parallel thinking was possible as the human eye and brain will consume information more rapidly than archaic and voluminous reports back in the day. Visual techniques using color, size and pattern analysis with change at the speed of thought gave birth to the visual data analyst – an artist like Pollock albeit the desktop user of Tableau Software. But have we the data artists gone too far?
In Part Two of this discussion we will compare examples of Tableau authored by a new generation of Tableau Desktop users. Do they abide by the old rules? Are their renderings more like Jackson Pollock?
The old rules were: 1) Do not be accidental, 2) have a message 3) keep it simple, 4) provide context and 5) use design fundamentals.
With a baseline established for our discussion, we now consider how Tableau is being used by the new authors and data artists. The title or moniker data artist has become in vogue over recent times, we will focus on Tableau desktop users who author business related content (Worksheets and Dashboards) for content consumers. At the conclusion of Part I, I asked if this new wave of desktop users followed the old rules noted below.
1. Do not be accidental - Think before dragging and dropping anything which was lacking in Pollock's
"action painting" method. What question(s) are you answering and for
what kind of content consumer?
2. Have a message - Let the data do the talking. The goal is not to become a "chartoonist" but to think visually - Tableau's Show Me options helps to render the message clearly. There are others charts that the author can create. Do not waste your time trying to be cool.
3. Keep it simple - Brevity is rewarded. Test your content with a colleague(s). If they have to stare at your work like a Tableau/Pollock story you have failed.
4. Provide context - Well designed visualizations include and are not limited to correlation, trends over time and distribution. Do your data sources include critical information for a complete and compelling story? Example - perhaps population or data samples from economic sources is needed.
5. Use design fundamentals - Less is always best. Do not abuse color. Do not try to be cool....that is not the goal. Like a good resume, white space is key to the creation of any visual that is to be understood in seconds. If you are building a worksheet that is destined for dashboard, think about the use of labels, filters of any type and the use of font size.
Now lets look at some examples:
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Moreover, students who seek to challenge me is the best way to become a better teacher. If you do not improve when challenged by students, you forgot why you were there in the first place.....You do not have every possible answer or potential outcome to queries about the content that you are delivering. If you cannot become a student again, you should not be a teacher. At the conclusion of my training engagements, I award the world famous map by Charles Minard which tells the story of Napoleon's ill-fated march to and from Moscow. These students pushed this teacher/trainer and I am better for it as an instructor. Thank you for making me a student of my craft.