Moritz Stefaner has created a name that distinguishes himself from any other data visualizer. Working with information aesthetics, user-interface design, and with a couple of co-authored books as well as numerous talks on information visualization – the data wiz has adopted a title that encompasses all that he does: Truth and Beauty Operator.
He says that he chose the title because he was tired of explaining exactly what he does to other people. “Freelance information visualizer” wouldn’t do his work justice. His philosophy behind this intersection of truth and beauty:
Data visualization is exactly about marrying these two things, so you cannot just make something that’s just beautiful and ignore the truth factor or ignore the data… And so for me, I’m only happy when both are equally represented.
All in all, Stefaner says that his job is basically to help people make sense out of big datasets. He’s especially happy when his work sparks an interest in statistics to people who wouldn’t immediately think that data is the type of thing they’d like. While data visualization was traditionally reserved for scientists and businesses only five years ago, creative people have moved into the field and invented new ways of displaying information as well as making it accessible.
Scientists and artists, they often think that they’re at the exact opposite end of the spectrum but I think in many ways they’re very alike, and they just don’t know it. I’ve seen both worlds and I can see the parallels and differences.
One of the most significant times he’s been asked to speak at a conference was at the Eyeo Festival 2011 in Minneapolis. Of the many talks he gives, Stefaner finds unfamiliar audiences the most engaging.
I guess what I like most is when I talk to people totally outside of the field – I enjoy it most when it clashes a bit. It’s sort of easy to do the typical design talk at your typical design conference, but I draw more out of the talks I do at more foreign places.
He also sees a connection to journalism in his role of storytelling data visualization. A big part of Stefaner’s work is digging through data and making sense out of it, helping people find the shortcut while he “takes the thorny, rocky road and basically lift every rock” along the way. However, this doesn’t mean downplaying the original complexity of the dataset – he wants to leave enough work for people to question, query, and check the results themselves. “To me, it’s more important to present people with tools to investigate themselves than to present them with pre-digested insights.”
One of the areas that Stefaner has been trying to dig into is non-standard forms of visualization, like the data cuisine workshop he did last year with Susanne Jaschko. Their team explored how to use food for data representation through taste, temperature, and texture, and essentially created what Stefaner calls “edible diagrams.”
The more you think about it, the more you realize that [food is] actually much more expressive than any graphics.
One dish that Stefaner found particularly intriguing was a lasagna that represented the cultural mix in Finland between 1990 and 2011, with spices representing each nationality. One side ended up being rather bland, while the other was strongly mixed with different flavors, as diversity in Finland grew in later years. By the time you reached the other end of the dish, “you could really taste your way through time.”
The very first data visualization project that Stefaner took on was also one of his most meaningful. The OECD Your Better Life Index ranks countries based on a flower metaphor, with each leaf representing education, air, housing, money, and more. The index allows the viewer to compare standards of living across the world, letting them adjust their search by the topics that interest them most.
Stefaner has been able to balance the work he’s done with clients and collaborators around the world with the masters course that he teaches in information visualization at the University of the Arts Bremen. He’s excited and impressed about all of the young people moving into the field today, and glad that they have the support of the global data visualization community, who’ve paved the way with explorative work before them.
Read more about Stefaner’s projects, biography, and talks on his personal website. Follow him on Twitter to keep up with the Truth and Beauty Operator’s latest endeavors, and be sure to check back next week where we’ll showcase another Spotlight Interviewee.