David McCandless is a London-based author, data-journalist and designer. He investigates complex topics, delves into data and designs elegant and engaging info graphics. He blends facts, makes connections and puts information into context without a lot of words getting in the way.
I caught up with McCandless after the launch of his new book Knowledge is Beautiful. Before finding out about his work in more detail, I asked him about his first encounter with a computer.
“I must have been about six years old. We had a computer in our house, a home computer, one of the first ones, a Sharp MZ-80A, which was a bit like a Commodore PET. This was a feature of our house from quite an early age…I was very young and only interested in it so I could play games. It had a green screen, no colour or anything. Gradually over the years I just got interested in playing with it and programming it. My dad was very keen on programming, he wrote programmes and experimented with platforms.” His father was an engineer in the airforce and interested in electronics.
Computer games such as Asteroids, Space Invaders and Pac-Man initially held David’s attention. However, he soon began to hack into games to create alternative outcomes, giving himself the ability to walk through walls or to have infinite lives.
“I became so good at doing this, that I managed to secure myself a column in a computer magazine, my favourite magazine, every month…called Hacking Away, when I was aged 14. That’s really what started my journalistic career.”
“The first Sinclair ZX Spectrum,” he commented, “now regarded as a trendy retro computer, had a 48k memory…tiny!” He produced POKEs sharing tips with readers.
“I see a parallel now between what I was doing then, hacking into games and what I am doing now. I found it an incredible intellectual buzz, way more than actually playing the games which I found really dreary and repetitive, because I was confronted with a wall of code, which was for the most part un-intelligible. There was a lot of experimentation, but I had to find the single thing I had to change.” He gets the same buzz today from exploring data and finding the story, an interesting angle, the insight, or as he described, “the gold in the lead of data”.
No topic seems beyond McCandless’s interest, he has tackled: big numbers, climate, power and the web; people and thought, science, nature, food and health; film, music and pop. He has even considered Stellar Constellations and created icons for a Stellar Nursery.
Investigating a subject may lead to asking and answering many other questions, The Never Ending Graphic. He works with a small team to make sense of data with relative comparisons, graphics are paired with an online dataset, a little ‘font of knowledge’.
In his TED talk in 2010, he explained, “There’s something almost quite magical about visual information. It’s effortless, it literally pours in. And if you’re navigating a dense information jungle, coming across a beautiful graphic or a lovely data visualisation, it’s a relief, it’s like coming across a clearing in the jungle.”
Examples of his work include: How Many Gigatonnes of CO2? Who Really Spends The Most On Their Military? and Mountains Out Of Molehills; Good Relationtips, and How Much Do Music Artists Earn Online?
McCandless has continued to follow his passions. In 2012, he established the Information is Beautiful Awards with the data and research agency Kantar. Categories have included: data visualisation, info graphic, interactive visualisation, motion info graphic and tool or website. He has enjoyed collaborating with museums, with shared interests in accuracy, truth, scientific method and a focus on the user experience. Currently fascinated by developmental psychology he intends to explore this in more detail in 2015.
He now has a following on a scale that surprises him. At his Masterclass talk for the Global Design Forum, during London Design Festival 2014 knowing laughs and nudges were exchanged between fellow computer and data enthusiasts. At Brighton Dome this year, 200 tickets sold out and 1,200 people queued to see if they could get in to hear him speak about his work.
Research takes up 80% of David McCandless’s time. On publishing Knowledge is Beautiful he wrote… “after 15,832 person hours of effort over two years (yes, I tracked them), I would like to announce the completion of my new info graphic ultra tome.” Although not a trained designer, he has a keen sense of curiosity, for seeing, visualising, organising and clearly communicating ideas, issues and knowledge. At a time of information and data overload, his pictures may well be worth a thousand words.