6 Data Storytelling Secrets Revealed by an Arty Team of Floral Designers

It might not be evident at first, but there are many ways to tell stories. Have you ever considered that floral designs are also storytellers? They use flowers the way data storytellers use data to tell their stories. Let’s dip into their world and pull inspiration into ours.

The NC Museum of Art has a yearly festival called Art in Bloom Festival.  The idea is that local floral designers use a museum masterpiece to draw inspiration for their own floral design.

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Local designers, Jody McLeod and Stephanie Garrett, discussed creating beautiful floral designs for the spring. As the lecture started, McLeod was talking about how nice it is when the spring sun emerges and flowers start to bloom. He pointed to his floral design (pictured above) and explained how the design was meant to tell a story about spring. As he spoke, I did see the sun rising and the brightness of spring emerging. Yes, floral designers are storytellers.

But where have I heard this same theme before I thought to myself … probably in every data storytelling book I’ve ever read. Here are the other tips the pair shared about floral design that you can apply your data visualizations as you tell a story.

Tip 1: You are the Sculptor of the Story

Garrett showed an arrangement where she had sculpted the flowers. Tulips are the easiest to use for this process because they become pliable. She quipped “You know what’s good about a tulip? No one can tell a tulip what to do.” This is true for data as well. You have to shape the data to make it more pliable for your design but the data says what it says.  No one can tell data what the story is – it tells the story to us.

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Don’t be afraid to spend time getting the data into the shape that you need – many people don’t realize that only a small portion of the data tells the story.

This artist recreated an impressionist painting – Monet’s. The flower choice mimics how the impressionist created the art. It’s layer after layer of small brush strokes. If this designer can paint with flowers – surely you can paint with data.

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Tip 2: Show the Important Parts

The designer noted that many times you have to edit a flower or plant. He was referring to removing extra leaves so the beauty of the flower was more apparent. This is true for data storytelling as well.  When you try to explain all of your messages, then none of the points seem important.

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Imagine if the designer had left all the leaves on these flowers – you would quickly lose a lot of the beauty. Edit your message.

In the following artwork, the artist for this design did a good job bringing forward the white and pink in the painting. While it seems like a lot of action – the color tells a simple story – a family together. This arrangement made me think of beauty, innocence, commitment, and love – those are emotional words. An emotional connection is so important in data storytelling.

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Tip 3: One Color Highlights Importance

I really love arrangements that feature multiple flowers and colors. In a flower arrangement, the variation is what creates the overall beauty. Sometimes if you use one color it allows the eye to concentrate on what is really important. In many of the arrangements the designer used a single flower color and it was like using a paintbrush to bring the eye right where she wanted it. The same is true with data visualizations. Using one color helps the viewer compare the values instead of focus on colors – it makes your message appear effortlessly.

The bird’s nest tells a story of spring and yellow flowers suggest little birds. It’s really the simple color that directs your attention and the thought of baby birds that creates an emotional connection.

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With the artwork being blue, did you pay more attention to its shape? It’s like when you have a single value that is so important it must be emphasized. The single message here almost knocks you over.

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This one is simple as well but your eye understands immediately what is important.  You can use this technique with a story – just keep your focus on the main message.

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Tip 4: Keep Your Message Focused

The designer poked fun at herself by saying that her first few designs were a “hot mess” because they used so much going on. In this case, the viewer doesn’t understand where to look or even time to see the individual beauty in the flowers.

Does this artwork make you a little nervous? I’m not sure what is most important, where did the artist want me to see? The flower arrangement maybe does a better job – I understand to focus on the middle flowers.

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You really want your data stories to focus on one message not draw attention to itself. This point cannot be overstated – it’s easy to find a busy design but difficult to find something attractive that communicates well.

Tip 5: Negative Space Emphasizes Your Point

In this arrangement, the designer wanted to use the negative space. The branches reach out toward the sky but it really just gives an illusion of height. It was referred to as selling the “air” in the design. However, the designer made the point that negative space had value in the overall design.

Your data visualizations also need space to assist with highlighting what is important. With your next data visualization, allow more space for the negative and watch how your data becomes the focus.

This arrangement seems larger than it is because the artist used negative space to give the arrangement a longer feeling. I like that the shape matches the artwork behind it. The designer put a lot of thought into allowing you to see the shape as she saw it in her mind.

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It’s hard to see in the photo below but there are blue rods in the top part similar to the lines in the painting.  Adding the rods causes the arrangement to use more space. It expands the story adding rich details. Many data storytellers don’t understand the value of adding details to their main message – the details must enhance the message. The blue rods don’t take away from the main arrangement, it emphasizes the primary colors as a scheme.

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Tip 6: Color Theory is Important for Data Visualization

When you are painting with flowers, it is important to understand how color works. McLeod started adding some greenery to his arrangement to show how the pink flowers became more prominent from this paleness of the green. He spent hours learning how colors mixed as well as what didn’t mix. He noted it was a continual learning process that takes years to master. (Also true for data visualization.)

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Color theory is important for all designers to understand. We’ve all seen a data visualization that featured odd colors choices. It’s strange because it makes you feel uncomfortable and you don’t understand why at first. As in the painting of three ladies above that is busy, I think the color choices don’t really go together. In the painting, the artist may have done it on purpose to make the viewer uncomfortable.

It’s another issue where the focus goes away from the data and turns to the design. It’s not the result you want. If you check out the color wheel you’ll probably find a data visualization that contains colors that are not analogous or complementary.  Consider the colors in all of the following pictures:

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Data Storytelling is about the Data Visualizations

Your data stories are really about showing the data in the end. Just as these floral designers used flowers to tell a story by helping you see what was important about the flowers – you can use data to help your viewers understand what is important.

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