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Sandra Rendgen is an art historian. She has worked for print media as a picture editor and she develops interactive media installations for various museums and institutions. She is the author of Information Graphics, a must-read book edited by Taschen on contemporary infographics.
Who had the idea to make this book? What was the editing process like and how long has it taken you to produce it?
The whole creative process took about two years. I approached Taschen and suggested a book on information graphics. Taschen’s editor Julius Wiedemann and I envisioned the book should have an introductory part with some theoretical background. We invited contributions from Richard Saul Wurman (founder of the TED conferences), designer Nigel Holmes, journalist Simon Rogers from the Guardian Datablog and design theoretician Paolo Ciuccarelli from DensityDesign Lab.
Compiling the works for the main part of the book was an intense process of collecting, arranging and re-arranging work, in close collaboration with Praline Design who created the design and navigation system for the book. Thankfully, I also had the chance to discuss the state of infographics with many professionals.
We live in a world saturated with information where most of the time we find ourselves lost halfway between certainty and ignorance. In this sense, I found particularly inspiring the piece by Richard Saul Wurman “How I strive to understand what it is like not to understand”, where he talks about not knowing, about curiosity. I think it is perfect to dive into the subject.
That is good to hear because Richard Saul Wurman was indeed a great inspiration for this book. He has this wonderful way of questioning things. Already in the 1970s, he realized that we have to expect a major change in media habits and need to think about information overload. He keeps reminding us that we should never be too shy to ask if there is something we don’t understand.
In the introduction to Information Graphics you state that the information needs to be filtered and evaluated for it to have a meaning. You also write about how “visual interactive user interfaces are required to access digital archives, whilst the introduction of digital devices in general is changing our reading habits”. How do you see the role of printed books within this outlook?
A book is usually the result of processing a lot of information. That means in a book, all these steps have been taken by the author: to filter available data and to make it accessible by writing a structured text. Now we have large digital databases, but they consist of lists of entries. We need to make them meaningful.
Printed books will lose many of their functions because they are not the main carrier of information anymore. However, they might remain a good medium for discussing problems in a concentrated form.
Tell us about your work in museums and institutions. How does this relate to your work as editor for printed media?
For the past years, I have regularly collaborated with ART+COM, a Berlin-based company which creates media spaces for museums and companies. Every interactive installation is created from scratch. My contribution is that of an editor: to create a structure for the given content and to make sure the information is accessible through interaction. The link to my work in print media is: How can we use a particular medium to get across complex information? And as far as I can see, this is the crucial question in visualisations and information graphics as well.
There are 200 infographics in the book. What was the selection and editing process like? And why 200? Were many left out?
We wanted to show the biggest possible variety of work – from journalism to science, from fine art to education, from dead serious to funny nonsense. We wanted to demonstrate how visualising information is something many people do. Of course there was a whole lot of great projects we could not show simply because of the physical limitations of a book. We had to find a compromise between wanting to show everything and having to confine the choice. I think we managed to put together a collection that is both wide and representative of what is happening in the field.
Have there been any occasions when you have felt that two dimensions weren’t enough?
Yes, absolutely – you cannot but feel restricted when trying to present interactive projects in a printed book. At the same time, what a book can do is give you a concentrated overview of a topic. We are featuring projects of all sizes and from all kinds of media, from printed posters to animated videos and complex interfaces. We tried to convey their spirit as good as possible. The large format of Information Graphics helped as it enabled us to put emphasis on the images and show how intricate many of these visualisations are.
Where does your interest in the subject come from? Do you have a favourite infographics from the book?
Well, I am an art historian – I love to look at visuals. And second – I felt that the days of long continuous texts are over, that we need to look for other ways to convey knowledge. There has been a long tradition of showing information in diagrams and maps. Today this has taken off to become an important branch of visual communication. I am particularly fascinated by how many different ways of expression there are in this field.
In Information Graphics you state that “there is traditionally a suspicion that ‘beautiful’ graphics may tell lies”. Could you tell us a bit more about this idea?
In philosophy and also in religion, there is an old discourse about the potential of images to deceive people and to hide the truth. I felt that this discourse has had somewhat of a comeback in information visualisation. Since the fifties, several authors such as Edward Tufte have fought for statistical data to be visualised correctly. However, this also entailed a very strict view that anything other than plain data graphics should be avoided. Tufte doomed all decoration to be “chartjunk“. Many designers today both respect the necessity to treat the data correctly but also consider this strict view to be a restriction to their creative work.
We are growing more and more used to assimilate information in a visual format. Do you think that visual language is “universal”, capable of crossing all language borders, or maybe that we see in one way or another depending on the culture we belong to?
That is a good question. I have always been skeptic about the idea that images are universally understandable and I share the view that our way of “reading” visuals is strongly shaped by cultural imprint. This starts with simple things like preferred reading directions or abbreviations used. For instance, it is usually not easy to read medieval diagrams if you don’t know a few things about medieval sciences.
What do you think is the origin of the fascination and the need of the human being to create maps, graphs, cartographies?
That is hard to tell. I would assume that it is a basic function of our human brain to try to understand our everyday experiences and try to structure them. Writing long texts in a book is one way to cope with things, but not always an efficient one. Maps and graphs on the other hand have the potential to provide a quick insight into complex problems. Also, they can look good. People enjoy that a lot.
What do you think the future of infographics will be like?
Well, I can only assume that in data visualisation as well as in other fields of communication we will see a variety of channels and formats, and that we will have to deal with more complexity. I would assume that it will be crucial for data visualisation to create access to multidimensional databases and to integrate various media formats such as graphics, images, texts and moving images...
Do you believe a dystopian future is waiting for us, where whoever has the information has the power?
Oh no, I like to believe that the future is bright! I agree that there is always the danger that powerful groups in a society could try to limit the access to information to enhance their power. Power games will always be in fashion. But I think limiting the access to information is becoming more and more difficult. To me, it seems very likely that in the long run people don’t accept to be cut off when they know they could have access to information sources.