Building on the success of his incredibly lucid and educational animation, “The Crisis of Credit Visualized,” designer/animator Jonathan Jarvis announced an interesting new venture, The New Mediators, which launched in earnest a few months ago.
To quote the introductory video above, The New Mediators builds diagrams using a “design language that can be assembled quickly, almost in real-time, and universal enough to be adapted.”
What Jarvis is proposing goes beyond motion graphics into the fields of journalism, education and activism (though he doesn’t seem to actively acknowledge that last one). Unlike visual essays, which use metaphor to suggest multiple layers of meaning at once, Jarvis is interested instead in simplifying and demystifying our complex world.
This is the general aim of information graphics and in itself is nothing new, but Jarvis’ real-time twist points to an exciting array of possibilities that are only now being tapped. Before I go on, take a moment to watch Jarvis deconstructing Obama’s stimulus package before a live audience:
Finally, all those touchscreen doohickeys that cable news networks have been stockpiling can be put to good use! Imagine real-time diagrams to explain things like tax bills, health care reform or even the socio-political histories of warring nations.
There are two prerequisites for such a communicative model to work in practice, though:
1. The designer must have an exceptionally clear understanding of the subject matter. In natural speech, we can can afford to be sloppy. Our languages have a built-in allowance for mistakes and vagueness which is typically compensated for by simply increasing the amount of talking we do about a given subject. Eventually, with enough clarification and circumscription, everyone will understand what we’re saying, more or less.
Design languages are much less forgiving. Put a symbol in the wrong place or draw an arrow in the wrong direction, and you could fundamentally alter the truth of a diagram. An unclear hierarchy of visual elements could even be life-threatening. Just ask Edward Tufte.
2. The designer must be aware of the passage of time. This might sound so obvious that it verges on idiotic, but this is the real magic behind Jarvis’ approach. A static diagram can be extremely useful, but a diagram being constructed or manipulated before our eyes has the potential of creating deep insight.
Don’t believe me? Watch Hans Rosling’s TED talk for an excellent explanation:
The fourth dimension allows us to see information in ways that simply aren’t possible otherwise. In the case of Jarvis’ performative take on information graphics, the act of building a graph is itself the time-based device that gives us insight.
It’s not an easy thing to master, and Jarvis is unique in his innate understanding of human perception as it relates to comprehension.
The New Mediators is as exciting as it is vital to our future understanding of a world that is only increasing in complexity. Whatever happens next, I hope Jarvis and others like him are there to explain it to me.