Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Farce in Numbers Project #edchat #artchat #digitalart

I think it was David Warlick who I first heard say, "First we do old things in old ways, then we do old things in new ways, and finally we do new things in new ways." David was talking about new computer technologies but I believe the axiom holds true for art as well.

I am currently teaching a Senior Digital Arts class at the Perpich Center Arts High School.  In that class I started by having students build online portfolios for their work.  We spent a couple days playing around with HTML then spent a day testing out numerous free WYSIWYG editors evaluating them to choose a platform that would fit the students' individual visions. The second week I had the students using digital painting and photo editing tools to create digital paintings and merged digital photos. These three assignments were examples of doing old things in new ways but I am interested in leading these students to explore how they might expand the definition of digital art. I want them to begin doing new things in new ways.

After gaining skill and competence in digital imaging tools I asked the students to apply those skills in a larger inquiry project. I began this unit while they were still working on their previous assignments. Without telling them it was part of the course I played Marshal McLuhan's The Medium is the Massage. I wanted McLuhan's recording to work them over and seep in through their skin. To my surprise they really enjoyed the hour-long broken spoken word hodgepodge. This provided a nice way of building background for a conversation on the role of media and society which included more than just the observations of McLuhan but also Neil Postman and others and especially their relationship to where we find truth. Basically, I brought them through a philosophical dialog that I later summarized on my blog last week in my post We Live in a Make-Believe World.

The week-long inquiry project that came from this became material for the session, Design of the Times, Scott Schwister and I did at the TIES Conference this week. I asked students to locate resources that showed how graphs and charts can mislead then generate a list of these strategies.  I also asked them to look at color theory, word-image association, juxtaposition, and other aesthetic methods of influencing meaning and interpretation.  Their culminating assignment came from a graph makeover contest that was published in Forbes that week. The contest provided two different data sets and asked readers to submit graphs and infographics illustrating the data in an easier-to-consume format. My assignment for my students was slightly different. I asked them to take the data in the Forbes contest and lie with it, to use visual rhetoric to change the perception of the data without changing any of the numbers. Here are a few of their finished products along with the original data set from Forbes:

Raw Data:

Student Projects:

This visualization lies first by omitting the other data then by drawing our attention to the red we are made to feel the increase in entertainment spending associated with television yet the raw data makes no association. It would be interpreted very differently had she used ballet slippers or theater masks as the associational image. It also lies by hiding the most startling statistic in the table. The cost of health insurance which by contrast gives both homeowners and renters less money to spend on nearly every other spending category. Had this data been included it would beg the question why did entertainment spending increase while most other categories decreased.
This infographic  uses a simple trick to lie with data. By replacing bars with houses in this bar graph and manipulating their width the yellow house is made to seem much larger and therefore much more significant than it really is. This graph greatly exaggerates the difference between these figures without altering them.

These two images simply use size and proportion to represent the figures but it tells a few lies with the images it associates with the categories. For instance, "Food Away From Home" is represented with a bag of fast food implying that this statistic actually represents only fast food. Likewise, "Entertainment" is represented with a game controller thus influencing our interpretation of what entertainment means.  In fact, the exclusion of the words in these pieces misinform us leading us to rely only on the icons to derive meaning.

Now, this is not necessarily doing new things in new ways except that what my students did not know was that while they were doing this assignment they were also contributing to a crowdsourced art project of mine. Their next assignment will be to explore the emerging art form of crowdsourced art and organize their own crowdsourced art project using their Web Portfolios as a place to launch their project.

Tomorrow I will reveal this to them but today I had them watch the documentary Catfish, ending class with tomorrow's discussion question, "Was what Angela did with Facebook art?" We will spend about twenty minutes with this question tomorrow.  I suspect they will not reach consensus, my colleagues in the visual art department couldn't reach consensus when I posed the question to them. However, the point is not to reach consensus but to begin getting the students thinking about how we can do new things in new ways using digital media. I will also share a project I did at ISTE in Philadelphia and pose the same question to them. In that project I linked video recordings of keynotes and presentation sessions I wished had been at the conference to QR Codes, printed them on post-it notes, then put the post-its on the session banners around the conference. Arguably, I held my own education conference and had 18,000 attendees. Is this digital art?

After this "What is Art?/What is Digital Art?" discussion I will introduce the crowdsourced art project. Students will explore the work of Aaron Koblin and other artists working with this new emerging medium. Their assignment will be to devise and execute a crowdsourced art project. Now, our class officially ends next Friday but there will be a semester student exhibit in February in our gallery where some of these projects may appear as living contributable works of crowdsourced art. But, as a good art teacher I know I need to model what I want my students to do so I am announcing my own crowdsourced art project and I invite you to contribute. I invite students to contribute. I invite anyone and everyone to contribute.

The Farce in Numbers Project:

Using the data in the table from the Forbes Graph Makeover Contest posted above on homeowner and renter spending, create a data visualization, graph, or infographic that utilizes visual rhetoric to tell a lie. You may omit data but you may not change the numbers. Rely on color, image association, juxtaposition, and other visualization tools to misrepresent this data. Send your submissions to me either by posting a link in the comment section below or by emailing All contributions will appear on this page of the Design of the Times Wiki. All contributions will also be stitched together to create a large tapestry of lies told with data to be printed on a large canvas. The goal is to reach more than 1,000 contributions making the final piece at least 25 images high by 40 images wide. Multiple contributions are welcome.


Naomi B. Robbins said...

The table itself misleads or at least confuses by blindly shading every other row when some rows are subcategories of others. See

Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

Interesting Project and educational approach. I participated on my blog with 2 intentional chart junks:

All Best!

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