In Praise of Callouts
Callouts and text are an often under-appreciated and under-used element in data presentation, particularly on the web. Charts and complex visualisations tend to trump the humble sentence and interactives create an environment to explore a dataset, achieving something that a few lines of text cannot.
But copy and data can work well together, particularly when presenting the audience with a complex narrative, and it’s something that print has been doing a lot better than online publications (National Geographic’s print-based graphics spring to mind). Faces of Fracking: California’s Getting Fracked is a compelling example of how visuals and narrative elements can seamlessly coexist and aid the reader’s comprehension of a subject matter.
As the user scrolls down the page, different parts of the text become highlighted. This triggers changes on the map, which updates and reveals new data depending on which part of the story is reached.
With this simple action of scrolling, the copy and visuals both aid and compliment one another, helping the user understand the bigger picture. The maps help visualise the impact of the words, and the words summarise the significance of the visualisations, building a rich, linear narrative.
Some of the more complex visualisations and datasets can potentially overwhelm the reader, and without some supplementary copy, it may not be clear what the significance of the visualisation is or why indeed the data has been visualised in such a way. Short, simple text callouts can help direct the reader to some of the more significant insights and aid them in understanding both the visual and the bigger picture.
The format utilised by Faces of Fracking will not work for every instance of data visualisation, and nor should it. A clearly defined linear narrative may not be necessary for all datasets, but when discussing a complex issue such as fracking, an issue with many sides and angles, a pre-determined order and pairing of copy and visualisation is much more effective than an open-ended interactive experience in helping the reader understand what’s at stake.