Timely Resources for Studying and Producing Infographics

Image by Nicho Design

Image by Nicho Design

[This post was originally uploaded on October 21, 2014. It has been updated below with new information on January 30, 2015.]

Infographics seem to be appearing in a steadily increasing frequency in many online and print publications. Collectively they are an expressive informational phenomenon where art and data science intersect to produce often strikingly original and informative results. In two previous Subway Fold posts concerning new visual perspectives and covering user data about LinkedIn, I highlighted two examples that struck me as being particularly effective in transforming complex data sets into clear and convincing visual displays.

Recently, I have come across the following resources about inforgraphics I believe are worth exploring:

  • A new book entitled Infographics Designers’ Sketchbooks by authors Steven Heller and Rick Landers is being published today, October 14, 2014, by Princeton Architectural Press. An advanced review, including quotes from the authors, was posted on October 7, 2014 entitled A Behind-the-Scenes Look at How Infographics Are Made on Wired.com by Liz Stinson. To quickly recap this article, the book compiles a multitude of resources, sketches, how-to’s, best practices guidelines, and insights from more than 200 designers of infographics. Based upon the writer’s description, there is much value and motivation to be had within these pages to learn and put to good use the aesthetic and explanatory powers of infographics.
  • DailyInfographic.com provides thousands of exceptional examples of infographics, true to its name updated daily, that are valuable for both the information they present and, moreover, the inspiration they provide to consider trying to design and prepare your own for your online and print efforts. This page on Wikipedia provides an excellent exploration of the evolution and effectiveness of infographics.
  • Edward Tufte is considered to be one of the foremost experts in the visual presentation of data and information and I highly recommend checking out his link rich biography and bibliography page on Wikipedia and more of his work and other offerings on his own site edwardtufte.com.
  • October 15, 2014 UPDATE:  Yesterday, soon after I added this post, I read about the publication of another compilation of the year’s best in this field in US entitled The Best American Infographics 2014 by Gareth Cook (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). This appeared in an article about the publication of this new book on Scientific American.com in a post there entitled SA Recognized for Great Infographics  by Jen Christiansen. This collection includes two outstanding infographics that have recently appeared in  Scientific American about the locations of wild bees and the increasing levels of caffeine in various drinks, both of which are reproduced on this page. (One location where I would not like to, well, bee, is where these two topics intersect to produce over-caffeinated wild bees. Run!)

Please post any comments here to share examples of infographics that have impressed you or impacted your understanding of particular concepts and information.

January 30, 2015 Update:

Consisely Getting to the heart of succeeding with this web-ubiquitous form of visual display of information is a very practical new column by Sarah Quinn entitled What Makes a Great Infographic? , posted on January 28, 2015, on SocialMediaToday.com.  I highly recommend clicking through and reading it in full for all of its valuable details. I believe it is a timely addition to anyone’s infographic toolkit.

I will briefly sum up, annotate and add some comments to Ms. Quinn’s five elements to get an infographic to potential greatness. (The anagram I have come up to help commit these points to memory by using their first letters is: Try make your effort a GooD ACT):

1.  A Targeted Audience:  Research your audience well so that your infographic becomes a must share for them. As a part of this, focus upon what problem they may have that you can solve for them and use the infographic to provide solutions to it. Further, establish a persona define the ideal audience you intend to reach and then address them. (Personas are often the cornerstones of marketing and content strategy campaigns.)

2.  A Compelling Theme: Your infographic depicts “your story’ and must strongly relate with your brand’s identity.  The representative sample used in this article is entitled “Food Safety at the Grill” which does an effective job of guiding and educating the reader while simultaneously representing the infographic author’s brand.

3.  Actionable DataThis should be thoroughly researched and the numbers threaded throughout the graphical display. In effect, the data should support the solution and/or brand you are presenting.

4.  Awesome GraphicsQuite simply, it must be aesthetically pleasing while presenting the message. Indeed, the graphics’ quality will form an effective narrative. If you are outsourcing this, Ms. Quinn provides seven helpful guidelines to help instruct the graphics contractor.

5.  Powerful Copy:  This is just as important as the display and should include “powerful headlines” is presenting your message. As with the targeted audience in 1. above, so to should the text be compelling enough so that readers will be motivated to share the infographic with others.

Differing Perspectives on the Prospects of Today’s Legal Tech Startups

light-bulb-376924_1280[This post was originally uploaded on August 18, 2014. It has been updated below with new information on January 12, 2015.]

The title of a report on TechCrunch.com on August 5, 2014, The Jury Is Out On Legal Startups , appears to say it all. As it describes the current state of this specialized market for technology aimed at supporting law offices as well as benefiting consumers, investments by venture capital investment firms in this sector has fallen rather dramatically thus far in 2014. With just a few exceptions that have received substantial rounds of funding, many other have not fared well in raising money for their operations. I recommend a click-through and full read of this for the full details of this slump including some informative charts and accompanying quotes by experts in this field explaining the difficult dynamics currently affecting this market.

This turn of events and dollars seems to run contra to all of the five far more optimistic and enthusiast posts I have grouped here under the category of Law Practice and Legal Education. These cover different aspects of ongoing innovations in the marketplace for legal services as well as legal education.

Notwithstanding this situation, I continue to remain optimistic about the ongoing prospects for legal startups. There is a vast under-served market for people who need legal services but do not have the funds to engage them. I think it is nearly inevitable that some of these developing systems, services and apps will find a place in this market segment out of pure necessity and the economics of getting things done faster and cheaper. Continuing to monitor this situation will thus likely prove interesting during the next several years. Perhaps there is a legal app yet to be developed that will prove to be so helpful to lawyers and their clients, as has happened in so many other consumer markets, which will act as a genuine tipping point.

January 12, 2015 Update:

Less than four months after TechCrunch.com posted the article described above, the site followed up with a much more upbeat assessment of the legal startup environment in a most interesting post on December 6, 2014 entitled Legal Tech Startups Have A Short History And A Bright Future by Basha Rubin. I will sum this up and add a few additional links in order to present the author’s contrasting point of view. (I previously saw Ms. Rubin give a very informative presentation at a legal industry program called Reinvent Law NYC in February 2014.)

The author is much more sanguine about the prospects of startups in the legal services market, even while acknowledging the combined effects of the lag in venture funding, regulatory environment and the “rick-averse, disaggregated stakeholders”. Nonetheless, she identifies three significant trends to track during 2015 in a market she believes is right on the cusp of being disrupted.*

First, do-it-yourself (DIY) legal services will continue to gain momentum. An important element in this trend will be an increased focus upon which transactions and processes do or do not require the services of an attorney. Rubin cites the successes in this space such as LegalZoom and RocketLawyer.  Even DIY mobile legal apps such as Shake that “create, sign and send” contracts have begun to appear and provide new value to consumers who might otherwise either not have sought to engage a lawyer for certain types of  private agreement. However, she further emphasizes that the role of a lawyer still remains quite important when strategic decisions are involved.

Second, the marketplace for alternative arrangements of legal services provided by startups will see continued growth. This includes startups providing new online conduits for locating and engaging lawyers.   Cited as examples are Priori Legal (where Rubin is a co-founder and CEO), and UpCounsel, among others.

Third, is the appearance of more versatile and affordable new websites and applications that meaningfully improve attorneys’ efficiency and, in turn, clients’ convenience and satisfaction. These include offerings for legal research, document review, project management, document generation and billing.

I completely agree with Rubin’s assessment these market forces and look forward with great anticipation to additional legal startups launching and shaking up the profession.

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*  For a very insightful and enlightening analysis of whether the legal profession is actually being “disrupted”, I highly recommend reading Ron Friedmann’s July 31, 2014 post on his Prism Legal Blog entitled Big Law Changing or Being Disrupted?

 

Animator Getting Closer to Creating a Convincing Virtual Human Face

"DSC_19335", Image by Philippe Put

“DSC_19335”, Image by Philippe Put

[This post was originally uploaded on October 21, 2014. It has been updated below with new information on January 11, 2015.]

The one achievement that still eludes movie and gaming special effects artists and programmers is the creation of a human face so convincing that it could fool viewers into believing it is a real person. Vast and untold amounts of time, money and other resources have been expended in this quest and these artists and programmers have gotten close over the years. However, the human eye is so precise and discriminating that audiences can always accurately detect a virtual visage. In, well, effect, the imagery looks almost, but not quite “real”.

That is, maybe until now. According to a fascinating article on studio360.org posted on October 14, 2014 entitled Have We Finally Conquered the Uncanny Valley? by Eric Molinsky, an animator named Chris Jones may have just achieved this or else come extremely close to it. He has been uploading his recent animation efforts to his blog, and two of them are also embedded in this article of a human face and a human hand. These are videos, not static images. I found the result to be extraordinary. I highly recommend clicking through to have a look at Jones’s efforts.

Let’s assume for a moment that Jones fully succeeds in his work and such virtual humans  start to populate movies, tv shows, videos and games. Lets further assume that the tools for doing this become widely accessible to computer generated imagery (CGI) artists. Then what? Here are my questions:

  • Whether and how will the careers of today’s real life working actors be impacted?
  • Will commercial audiences accept such virtual actors or will this be perceived as just being too creepy?
  • Will living actors or the estates of deceased actors be able to license their likenesses to be used in new video and film creative works?
  • Assuming that such licensing becomes a reality (even though the graphics remain unreal), what terms will be noticeable in terms of making an actor younger or older? What if the actor/licensor objects to final manner in which his or her image is used in the story?
  • Will new forms of agents and agencies be needed to handle the negotiations and contracts? Will future talent agents both literally and figuratively, become software agents?
  • Will new virtual and branded “stars” emerge in terms of the quality, usefulness and public acceptance of the imagery? That is, stars in terms of the virtual creations themselves and stars in terms of the CGI artists who emerge as the best in this specialty?
  • Will this development permit news forms of storytelling and gaming that are not possible with the current state of CGI?

I suppose then that this story also gives a whole new meaning to user inter-face development.

January 11, 2015 Update:

Breaching of the “uncanny valley” described in the original post above, the term used for the significant difficulty in creating a fully convincing computer animation of a human face, still remains quite elusive. According to a most interesting column in yesterday’s (January 10, 2015) edition of The Wall Street Journal entitled Why Digital-Movie Effects Still Can’t Do a Human Face by Alison Gopnik, this holy grail of CGI still presents some considerable roadblocks. I highly recommend clicking through and reading this piece in full. I will try to sum up, annotate and comment on it as a counterpoint to the post above.

Using a very clever analogy, the author compares the still unrealized feat of creation of a convincing CGI human to the Turing Test which, originally posited by the brilliant computer scientist Alan Turing (also the subject of the very well-received and possibly Oscar contending current bio-pic called The Imitation Game). This is a test for the achievement of actual machine “intelligence” whereby such a system cannot be detected in its interactions with an actual human being. That is, the human believes that he or she is communicating with another human when, in fact, the other party is a computer. Computer science is in deep pursuit of passing the Turing Test but it has thus far not been accomplished.

As between the passing the Turing Test and crossing the Uncanny Valley, Gopnik writes that the latter is “much, much hard for a computer to pass”.

While CGI is woven into so much of today’s visual media, they human face remains stalled in the Uncanny Valley for the time being. This is largely because of the incredible sensitivity of human vision and the wide range of subtleties in our human facial expressions to communicate our emotions to each other.

Gopnik further describes the effort on the fascinating ongoing project called Baby X by Mark Sager, a designer who worked the faces in Avatar and who is now a professor at the University of Auckland,  as being “one of the most convincingly complete computer-generated faces”. I highly recommend checking out and comparing this simulation to that of Chris Jones described and linked to above. Which do you think is more realistic and life-like in its appearance and movements? Does it make a considerable improvement in the realness of Sagar’s simulation that his project make additional use of the latest relevant neurological research when compared to the efforts of a highly skilled CGI artist alone?

Book Review of “How We Got to Now”

"Hubble's New Eyes: Butterfly Emerges from Stellar Demise in Planetary Nebula NGC 6302", Image by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

“Hubble’s New Eyes: Butterfly Emerges from Stellar Demise in Planetary Nebula NGC 6302”, Image by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Remember back in high school when some teacher insisted that “science is fun” followed up by the inevitable directive to “pay attention and learn something”, all of which was about as well received by most of the class as a tooth ache?

Well, at least for some of us, the fun never left. Moreover, it has recently been revitalized by virtue of PBS’s recent TV series and the simultaneous publication of an accompanying book entitled How We Got to Now (Riverhead Books, 2014) , both hosted and written by the renowned and bestselling science author Steven Johnson. In each of the episodes and corresponding chapters, Johnson masterfully examines how innovations in glass, cold, sound, clean, time and light have evolved over the centuries to bring us into modern times. His onscreen and in-print enthusiasm, insight and eloquence make for an enlightening experience from start to finish.

Focusing particularly on merits of the book, the entire package of the author’s accessible and evocative  prose plus the generous helpings of photos and graphics have produced a work of science literature to behold. It is one of those uncommon instances where vivid narrations of science history combined with original analyses and supporting visuals take immediate hold of the reader’s imagination during every one of the six spheres of discovery. Clearly, he worked very hard to get all of this just right.

The most impressive accomplishment is how Johnson positions and threads several consistent themes throughout his text. First, is a phenomenon that lies at the very heart of this book: Innovations made to solve problem X often have completely unforeseen results upon issue Y. Just one of many extraordinary examples cited in every chapter involves the creation of a “flash light” by the famous muckraking writer and photographer Jacob Riis that enabled his to dramatically document the interiors of the squalid slums in New York with photographs in the late 19th century that later led to social reforms.

Second, inventors and their innovations benefit from networks of ideas and among like-minded entrepreneurs and scientists. This allows for new ideas to more readily be pollinated among innovators. Along similar lines, new breakthroughs often result in improvements and/or combinations built upon earlier and, at times, unappreciated advances. The author points to, among others, Thomas Edison and Steve Jobs in this regard.

Third, innovators can be through of as “time travelers” who are so ahead of their time that the world is just not ready to appreciate and implement their work until years later when new and wholly unanticipated needs arise. Johnson concludes his book with the compelling story of how Lady Ada Lovelace developed the world’s first computer code while working with Charles Babbage on what historians consider to be the world’s first mechanical computing device, during the 1840’s and 1850’s. Who knew that their work would not be fully comprehended let alone implemented until more than a century later? No need to look any further than at the nearest desktop/tablet/smartphone to see what they ultimately have wrought across the entire world.

While this book is so thoroughly grand in its scope across six sectors of innovation including items ranging from the finely carved oil lamps in King Tut’s tomb to posting selfies on Instagram and many other world-changing leaps in between,  it nonetheless steadily maintains a personally boundless and infectious sense of wonder about the world. In so doing this, Johnson’s text effortlessly moves back and forth between a close-up examinations of specific new developments and then focusing on the cumulative perspective of how all of these advances continue to coalesce and evolve on a global scale. Indeed, for regular fans of quality science literature as well as for those readers who would otherwise prefer reading a grocery list to anything scientific, this book fully and expertly asks and answers just exactly how we got to now.

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I also recommend another review of this book in the December 28, 2014 Book Review section of The New York Times, written by Jon Gertner. In turn, for any interested in reading further about the nurturing  of modern innovation, I further and highly recommend his own recent book entitled The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation (Penguin Press, 2012).