This post is thinking about those situations where you produce a visualisation that looks remarkably like another visualisation, whether that was the intention or not. It’s a hot topic, and with so many people entering the field it’s an issue that comes up more and more often. I think there are three separate situations that come up here:
(1) You have produced work inspired by work from somebody else
(2) You have directly copied and adapted someone else’s work, or the similarity, though intentional, is pretty obvious.
(3) You have directly copied someone else’s work and published it with no changes
(4) You have produced your own work and find out subsequently that it’s remarkably similar to someone else’s work.
I’d love to know your feedback on each of these situations – and on re-reading this post it’s clear that I’m going to use those numbers (1)-(4) a lot so pay attention at this point! Recently Andy Kriebel spoke at length about this on the Tableau Wannabe Podcast and you can listen to that here Andy’s standing within the Tableau community, instructional experience and resultant social media reach is such that he is one of those most vulnerable to his work being replicated.
Full disclosure: I haven’t listened to this yet, but I will do in the next 24 hours. If I do, then the chances are I will agree and it will be more difficult to differentiate my own thoughts into this post, so before I do so, I will write this post from my own perspective. And if you think (1), (2) and (3) are common sense, you might be right, but please bear with me down to point (4) which it’s important for me to write.
(1) You have produced work inspired by somebody else. This one is simple: let the person know – if my own experience is anything to go by, they will be delighted! In my own case, every so often I will get a twitter mention I’m not expecting, to find that someone has been influenced by some of my work to create something different, taking my idea and going in a different direction. I take these such mentions as a compliment: somebody (a) saw my work, (b) took some time to enjoy it, (c) liked it and (d) used the idea for their own purposes. Here’s the latest example, from Lindsay Betzendahl:
Due to my love of @theneilrichards #albumcoversasdataviz projects, I kept seeing data in my clothes so I had to attempt my shirt from yesterday. Each eye is a bunch of circular plotted points. #clothingasdataviz #projecthealthviz #tableau @tableaupublic https://t.co/JrsxkEMPkK pic.twitter.com/V87DhiEvp9
— Lindsay Betzendahl (@ZenDollData) August 1, 2018
(I should add that in a moment of vanity I’ve corrected a typo in Lindsay’s hashtag in the original tweet, but nothing else!). And here’s the visualisation she created (interactive link is in her tweet above):
(2) This isn’t dissimilar to (1) but I wonder if in more obvious cases it’s better to make the point a little more clearly within the image or visualisation itself. Now I’ve seen cases where people have clearly submitted something very similar to my work before, without so much as a mention. It might be just about OK but I don’t feel too comfortable about it, and proper attribution should really be used. Here’s an example of mine this weekend that covered both (1) and (2). I wanted to use Ed Hawkins’ well-known climate visualisation to show the Big Mac index with the idea of showing the countries in small multiple formation. I mentioned Ed not just in the publishing message and promoting tweet, but felt it was right to include the attribution within the image itself.
Ed Hawkins’ visualisation I’m referring to is this one: with years going from left to right and average annual global temperatures going from lower to higher temperatures from deep blue to deep red (and white as a midpoint), it’s very clear that temperatures are rising, and the choice of palette and scale makes the point incredibly well. Simple, striking and iconic.
My visualisation (below) was so obviously derived from the above that it was important to include the attribution within the image – a small, low-key attribution doesn’t have to take away from the visualisation in any way.
However it occurred to me that the idea of choosing the specific measure I chose from within the available data, selecting the 35 countries and Eurozone with this valid measure and arranging them in a 6×6 small multiple was done immediately after seeing and liking this visualisation by Luisa Bez. With that in mind it was only right to let her know this too, so I acknowledged her influence in a separate message. I think Luisa was pleased to know that I was influenced in some way by her thinking. Here’s Laura’s visualisation.
Where (1) and (2) are concerned it’s very much an element of politeness that will earn you respect. We often throw the comment around “Steal Like an Artist” as a result of Austin Kleon’s must-read book and while I echo the sentiment entirely (many others advise that once you have mastered the basics, to look around and learn from those whose style you most admire; imitate their work, replicate it and use their techniques), it’s important to attribute those whose work you adapt from and take influence from. In other words: “Steal Like and Artist but be polite and tell them you’re stealing”. Not quite so catchy I grant you.
(3) This is the big one. It’s plagiarism. It’s really very difficult to see it any other way. If you see someone’s work, paste it on your own website (or in the case of Tableau, on your own Tableau Public profile) then to all intents and purposes it looks like your own work. I’m lucky that as far as I know this has never happened to me, but I have been witness to such examples. recently and it leaves an unpleasant taste in the mouth.
It’s technically very easy to do. Work published on Tableau Public is legally available to anyone to access: by default, workbooks are available to download and this is encouraged so that others may be encouraged to learn and adapt. My own workbooks (over two-hundred of them) are all 100% shareable. But are there any circumstances where you can just post a copy of another’s work?
Tableau have clarified their position here in an effort to clarify the situation. I applaud them for doing so and introducing a level of protection to those who publish their own work. I would still recommend exercising caution because it’s true that some cultures have different attitudes to plagiarism in art and culture as indicated in this article. Copies can be held in the same regard as fakes in certain situations. Regardless of intention, it’s possible that an innocent mistake has been made, and I thank Sophie Sparkes for opening my eyes to this alternative viewpoint. My own western culture would consider posting someone else’s visualisations as your own as plagiarism though, Plagiarism in the academic sense is a serious accusation and it’s safe to say that in most cases would result in at the very least a blow to professional reputation. So my own advice would be the fairly obvious “please don’t do it!”
(4) You’ve produced a visualisation and received feedback and acclaim, only to find out that it’s noticeably similar to an existing work you weren’t aware of. Here’s a visualisation I created this weekend:
And here’s a work called Minimalist Muppets by Eric Slager
This was pointed out to me this morning and I had no idea of this other work with the same title!
My design process that led me to Minimalist Muppets was a tortuous one, but the short version is this: for the last Iron Viz feeder competition (literature themed) I considered two ideas: one, the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (which I chose, you can see my final viz here); and the second idea was the Mr Men books by Roger Hargreaves. I couldn’t think of an analytical hook other that which characters were which colours, and how many of them had different colour noses. In the end, I turned into a much more “fun” visualisation showing body and nose colour, and called it Minimalist Mr. Men:
I was aware of the genre of Minimalist movie posters so “Minimalist Mr Men” made sense. A few weeks later I decided to add to the series: when I think of characters with different colour noses I think of Sesame Street, but I couldn’t find 49 suitable characters. Expanding to the full Henson repertoire of Muppets and Fraggles I had my full set, and the best alliterative title became Minimalist Muppets.
It’s a situation where had I known about this work before hand I would have had two options: either treat it as (1) or (2) above, or decide that it would be best not to pursue. But I wasn’t aware of it before I worked on it and published, so that option is not available. I have to say that any similarities are entirely coincidental, since although we clearly had a very similar idea, we had them independently.
So it’s important for me to reiterate that Eric Slager’s Minimalist Muppets work is out there too (and, what’s more, I love it!). An additional complication for me is that several people have expressed they’d like a poster of my above visualisation. I’m happy to do that, but if I pay for the process/make a token small amount of money out of the artwork which resembles a previous published work, then that does’t feel quite right to me. So it’s important to point you to ericslager.com and let you know that his work is available for sale here via Imagekind.
In short – I think it’s inevitable that work will be produced that bears a resemblance in hindsight. To ignore this will give the impression that any similarities are an intentional act of copying, which would be a shame in situations where that was an innocent mistake and never the intention. My advice is to give credit to the original in much the same way that you might have done so had the process been more intentional. The consequences of doing the right thing in (1) and (2) are an increased knowledge of skills, awareness and visualisation professionals in the industry, and there’s no reason why (4) can lead to exactly the same thing. After all, I now know another graphic artist whose work I admire.