DATA VISUALIZATION – the representation of information through images – is a powerful technique for conveying information to audiences. In my Visual Rhetorics course we’re currently exploring ways to creatively visualize data, while rendering information more useful, engaging, and accessible to audiences. We are also working on our visual literacy and invention skills. This means that we aren’t using data visualization software, such as Tableau, Many Eyes, or Gapminder. While these services are great, right now I am trying to get students in touch with a more humanistic approach to storytelling through data.

In the edited collection, Designing Texts: Teaching Visualization (2013), Charles Kostelnick warns that technology can sometimes impede “the student’s inclination to think creatively and flexibly about design solutions” (p. 266). I couldn’t agree more, which is why we are developing our visual literacy skills by producing some low-tech projects in class, including hand-drawn fonts, maps and homemade infographics.

Rahul Bhargava, a researcher at MIT Civic Media Lab explains on his blog, “Certainly the journalists and new explainers need to understand how to best use the tools at hand, but in addition we can help the “audience” build visual literacy by helping them create their own visual presentations of their information.”Bhargava leads Data Therapy workshops, in which he employs creative activities for building visual literacy, such as 3D data sculptures.

One classic technique to exploring a new domain is to re-use more familiar materials in novel ways. For instance, in my Data Therapy workshops I show up with a bin of craft materials and give people 5 minutes to create a physical “data sculpture” that depicts a tiny set of data I share.

With his generous assistance (and a lot of pipe-cleaners) I was able to lead my own 3D data sculpture activity at St. Joe’s. (Thank you Rahul!) Below are student’s creative data presentations of the Sommerville Happiness Survey.

Charles Kostelnick. “Teaching Students to Design Rhetorically: A Low-Tech Process Approach.” Designing Texts: Teaching Visual Communication. Eds. Eva R. Brumberger and Kathryn M. Northcut. Amityville, NY: Baywood Publishing, 2013. 265-8.