One side effect of having a computer which takes 20 minutes to boot up is the free time I get to flick through Information is beautiful each morning. True to its word, its a beautiful book and before long I decide it’s time to try my own hand.
I’m an Information Architect. Without information I’m only an annoyance to RIBA. Can’t be that hard to construct a visually tantalising self-explanatory diagram, can it? Turns out it can.
First, I needed some data. Figures and/or relative relationships seemed to be the way forward, only I didn’t really have a strong set of either. What I did have was a long-standing amusement over the way characters in Stephen Fry novels interlock. Not just in a Bret Easton Ellis manner where we see the same people across different publications, but where different elements of semi-autobiography are split and twisted for different purposes forming a tapestry of half-truth, fact, madness and breakfast.
It’s not something that’s easily explained in words so it seemed the perfect subject for my info graphic.
But, as any idiot except me could see, that was the easy bit. So we’ve got our complexity, big deal. How to make it simple? Here’s some questions I tried to answer:
What are the important parameters and relationships?
Should some characters be given more weight than others?
How many dimensions (time, truth, relevance, head-hurtingness)?
Am I trying to make the complex clear, or show just how confusingly complex it is?
To begin with I went with something very rigid. I kept it monocrome as I wanted to get the structure and relationships records before I added that extra layer of distraction. Easy enough to read, I think, but it didn’t show the overlaps and confusion clearly enough. Also, using a fact->breakfast scale of confusion is (1) a very geeky Fry thing to do, and consequently (2) only makes sense to me. I happen to like it, even named a site after it, but it’s not exactly accessible.
So I switched to a more complex structure which had lots of detail, but turned out to be a nightmare to design. This was partly because I was over-complicating the different between ‘protagonist’ and ‘love interest’, placing too much emphasis on the source texts and trying to maintain a time/truth dimension to it when really that’s too subjective to record. Bad moves.
The last attempt takes a more subtle tone. It’s character-focused, which the previous iterations weren’t. This is important because the whole point of this infographic is the morphic overlapping characterisation. Good.
But they’re characters, so what? Lots of people are called Steve. So why is this interesting? Because it’s about love, friendship and learning. It’s human. I only care about the way these people link together because I am emotionally engaged with their emotional lives. Let’s show it.
Lastly, I needed a way to show where each character was featured, otherwise there’d be no indication that this was conflation of plots, not just one. This was tricky as I’d already overcomplicated things once and didn’t want to go down that road again. Colour-coding sure, but how? Each element needs to be readable at a glance, but it mustn’t over-power because it’s a secondary feature. A little dot either side of the emotional link. It just about does its job, I think.
From my list of considerations, one, Am I trying to make the complex clear, or show just how confusingly complex it is? still remains unanswered. The concept I’m trying to express doesn’t lend itself to divisions or clarity and I don’t think it’s stands up on its own. Unless you know Fry’s work it’ll be meaningless; prior knowledge is needed.
In retrospect, it probably wasn’t the best choice of data. It could show just how confusingly complex it is, but actually I think that’s ideas above its station. It’s just confusing!
One thing’s for sure. When Fry publishes the next volume of his biography this September, I’m going to need to redraw. Things will be more complicated than ever.