Is Animation an Effective Tool for Data Visualization?

March 14th, 2013 by Robert Simmon

I (@rsimmon) had a brief exchange this morning about the use of motion graphics in data visualization with Alberto Cairo (@albertocairo) and Andy Kirk (@visualisingdata) which quickly outgrew Twitter’s 140-character limit:


The increasing use of animation (and 3D) in data and information visualization is definitely a trend, but I don’t think it’s a good one. My (possibly naïve) understanding is that motion in data visualization is great for engagement (nothing can capture the attention of the human visual system like motion), but can be a detriment to comprehension. Cognitive science researchers like Barbara Tversky and Richard Lowe discovered that animations—even “well designed” ones—were often less effective than static diagrams at communicating concepts like the inner workings of a British toilet (I’m not kidding) or the movements of a piano action. Motion may get more people to view a graphic, but they may learn less from it.

Don’t get me wrong: recent work by Graham Roberts (thanks Andy!) and many other designers is stunning, and I love working in compositing and 3D software. One of the best visualizations I’ve ever done—a satellite view of the terminator over the course of a year—is animated:

But animation is typically more difficult and time consuming to produce than static visualization. Even if it’s no worse than a static graphic, is an animation worth the extra expense?

Alberto also touched on the issue of audience: does the general public understand data visualization? On the web that may not be something we have to worry about. Anybody that clicks a link on the Interent is the member of an attentive public—they’re actively seeking information. An attentive person is already interested in a topic, and is usually willing to do the mental work to understand what they’re looking at. (Jon Miller pioneered the concept of attentive publics in his 1983 book, The American People and Science policy: The Role of Public Attitudes in the Policy Process.)

Data visualization is a young field, however, and perhaps we’ll learn how to make beautiful, effective animations quickly & inexpensively. Right now, however, perhaps we should focus on improving more pedestrian information displays.

3 Responses to “Is Animation an Effective Tool for Data Visualization?”

  1. Donald S. Stone says:

    Go to the web site searchanddiscovery (an AAPG site) and look for my animated 3D seismic images program showing movies of subsurface geologic structures in motion (made from animated 3D seismic surveys of subsurface geologic structures) and I think you will agree that this is a wonderful way to visualize the formation of these structures in 3D in the subsurface.

  2. Grep says:

    I think some of the reason behind hesitating to use animation is the media. It has traditionally been hardcopy. But imagine simply information displays that use animation. I personally think they would be a world of help. In terms of the sciences, I think many have either misused or misunderstood the value of animation.

  3. Karin Lisa Atkinson says:

    As someone who has worked with visual effects and animation since 1970′s, my opinion is a definite YES to using animation as an effective tool for data visualization. Historically – back before computers, when all of our animation was optical film based, only a few people were using animation ~ the medical, military, aerospace and entertainment industry. The costs of developing new generations of animation and the eventual move to design computers, which could accept images then do image manipulation (animation) was primarily funded by the entertainment industry. Part of the evolutionary steps of animation was to design the ability to input and export the raw images into computers. We were encouraged to do this, as we knew that people respond to sound and colour carried in images of light. By our human design, we import and export sensual experience via various extra sensory abilities – which are triggered by sound then colour then light. What better way to communicate to people, so they may absorb the true nature of our universe within multiverses of information based in sound, colour and light. After all common unity, community, communication is a force of nature which calibrates to a degree our human evolutionary and spirit progress through shared imagery in sound, colour and light.