How Picasso Helped Me Scale Up My Data Visualizations

I began my career as a business analyst. I was asked to create dashboards, analyze and automate stuff just like any other newbie in data science at the time.

I knew only one form of data visualization. Charts. Excel charts. I used the wrong charts for the data, did not represent the data well, added neon bright colors and whatnot.

However, the more I worked with data, the better I got with condensing it into visual elements. I was able to differentiate the charts I needed to represent composition from comparison and distributions from relationships.

I was good. I analyzed and reported facts which were used effectively to run the shop.

It was during the second year of my career that I read the book ‘My Life with Picasso’ by his former wife Françoise Gilot. This led me onto a Picasso obsession that made read about him voraciously and watch every movie that had his character.

Then the way I approached everything changed, be it a painting or a photograph, from what I wore, to the way I set the table and served food.

Everything about my little charts changed as well.

He was a child prodigy and during his initial days as an artist, he created realistic paintings. For a teenager, he drew like a master. He constantly worked on his craft without rest with passion.

As he grew older, he moved to Paris and got into conversations, discussions, and arguments with other artists. His art became more and more abstract.

His work made me see something I never noticed. When I saw a visual creation I engage in an internal conversation about it within myself. I looked for meaning. What does this abstract representation mean personally to me?

Does what applies to a painting, a photograph or a sculpture apply for a pie chart? Are we giving the ‘fact’ represented using data points by the pie chart our own subjective interpretation?

The answer is yes. Even though each one of us sees the same data, we might all be interpreting what it means differently.

However, it is also interesting that an effective data visualization’s purpose is the complete opposite of an abstract painting or a photograph in one major aspect.

Where a painting and a photograph inspires subjective thinking, data visualizations must encourage objective thinking while being able to relate to the viewer at the same time.

Relating to the viewer is important because it helps them process and recollects information faster.

Data by itself is not biased but interpretations can be. But in this information age, we need interpretations to run our daily life.

And we hence we need advanced visualizations that aid impartiality more than ever before.

It is easier for our brain to store visual elements in the short-term memory and then later transfer them to long-term memory. Therefore, we remember images longer and it is easier for our brain to process forms with color differentiators faster.

Data visualizations must be abstractions that depict data accurately. It must provoke more conversation around it as much as it informs.

The more the conversations around it, the better we can eliminate subjectivity and bias around it. The better we eliminate subjectivity the better it informs.

Yet another fact about Picasso that struck me was that he was not satisfied with expression only through his medium of painting. He used to experiment with sculptures made of discarded items, ceramics, and even made jewelry.

Do we need to restrict ourselves to data visualizations through computer software alone? We can use physical entities to represent data points.

Watch this video by Nathalie Miebach where she shows how she created sculptures using the weather data. The context of her creation changes as the location of its placement changes. If she keeps it in a museum, it is an artwork. But if she keeps it in the laboratory, it’s a data visualization.

The more I thought my charts and reports as an artwork that told stories in the most effective way my audience could relate to, the better they became.

As we go forward with the information age, the interfaces will improve and other mediums will come into existence.

Down the lane, the visualizations will not be static charts but multi-dimensional bursts of data points that will help us further reduce bias and make better decisions.

Who knows, maybe in the future we can augment the understanding of data and interact with data using all our sense organs.

This is bound to create stronger relationships among the information in our brain thus creating stronger retention rate.

This will also change the way we evolve as a species. The way we consume information in the era of digital realism will, of course, change the way our body and brain functions with the rest of the world.