You can’t design if you don’t understand

David McCandless - London

We all have an intuitive sense of the difference between data, information and knowledge. At David McCandless – of Knowledge is Beautiful fame – talked about this difference. He also highlighted the necessary steps for creating knowledge and its importance: “Knowledge is about understanding – it’s about ‘why?’”

From data to knowledge

Using climate change as an example, he explains that going from data to interconnected knowledge takes six steps:

  1. Data
  2. Structured data
  3. Information
  4. Linked information
  5. Knowledge
  6. Interconnected knowledge

Nowadays scientists know a lot about climate change. This knowledge starts with a weather measuring device collecting data. That data goes on to fill tables: structured data. These tables result in a weather forecast, information. The next steps takes some time as this information is being linked to other information to form a global forecast. While information is still focused, knowledge takes a wide shot: going from step 4 to 5 is taking the global forecasts and turning them into climate science. By connecting this knowledge scientists are able to create a climate forecast. That’s interconnected knowledge.

About now

One of the qualities of knowledge, according to McCandless, is the great angle it has. “In recent years data has become more about ‘now’ than information. Information needs to be processed and interpreted, and that takes time.” But still, it’s more about ‘now’ than knowledge will ever be. A tweet is data, while a trending topic seems to be information, and knowledge requires an even bigger scope.

Causes & consequences

As David goes on to explain, knowledge focuses on why. Why, for instance, is marihuana legalized in so many states in the US? The answer (It might has something to do something with the extra tax revenues…) is knowledge, not data or information. But finding out why something happened is harder than researching who, what, where, when or how much. “On an average these visualizations took me 1.7 week to make. Of that time I spent 80% researching and data wrangling, and only 20% designing.”


When you’re working on a visualization, you’ll always reach a kind of snapping point. It’s the moment when you think: “This is going to work – I can do this.” Looking for meaning in this moment, David McCandless found understanding. The ‘Eureka’-moment is when you first understand the data you’re working with. “I don’t design information and I don’t visualize data”, McCandless explains. “I design my understanding of the data. I visualize my understanding.”


“When you understand something, you can perceive the connections and significance of it to other things”, he continues. “It becomes part of your knowledge – you embed it among all things you already know.”

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