Critical Data Studies A Cross-College Collaboration

Glossary: Speculative Visualization

Speculative visualization is a branch of speculative design, which deals with the “rhetorical strategy” used in design to bring awareness to social and political agendas (Kim & DiSalvo, p. 1). This form of artistic visualization is not meant to be “scientific or analytical, but rather interpretive and expressive”, and it specifically aims to present data in a way that promotes awareness and community action  (Kim & DiSalvo, p. 3). Speculative visualization aims to represent the common visual languages in our societies and therefore allows designers and viewers to create meaning out of visual content. The audience becomes a dynamic participant, ensuring two-way communication and interaction. These interactions happen through a “common visual language” which constitutes a rich and powerful channel of communication and allows differences to be assessed and ambiguities reduced (Kim & DiSalvo, p. 4). This mode of communication combines real data and communication design to transmit information in an interdisciplinary way.


Effective data visualization is increasingly becoming an integral part of the scientific research community, especially as the amount of data that we are able to handle increases (Kim & DiSalvo, 2010). The need to communicate scientific results in a meaningful way is critical, so collaboration from artists, activists, and scientists is necessary to create impactful visualizations. 


One example of speculative design is the “What is a Black Balloon?” advertisement which was a part of a statewide campaign in Victoria, Australia. In this advertisement, black balloons represented greenhouse gas emissions, and they appeared more often as people used more appliances in their home (Kim & DiSalvo, 2010). By having the black balloons appear one-at-a-time at first, but then transition to multiple arising at the same time, this creates an emotionally paralyzing effect representing the harm of human energy consumption on the environment. The balloons are too many to count, which exemplifies how people do not really know the damage that humans are causing to the environment through their excessive energy usage. In this example rigorous and accurate data is creatively matched with an artistic representation, creating valuable results (Kim & DiSalvo, 2010).


By utilizing participatory design methods and allowing users to play an active role in the collection and usage of data that are relevant to them, the resulting visualization will be much more memorable, and therefore, more likely to inspire social and political action (Kim & DiSalvo, 2010). To conclude, when data visualization and graphic design intersect, data is made more “meaningful, insightful, and influential”, which is at the heart of speculative visualization (Kim & DiSalvo, p. 8-9, 2010).



Kim, Tanyoung, & DiSalvo, Carl (2010). “Speculative Visualization: A New Rhetoric for Communicating Public Concerns” In Design Research Society International Conference of Design & Complexity.


Student Editors: Nikita Gerard, Antonio Domínguez Palomar, Jack Harber and Anirudh Sivarajan. We would like to thank additional student editors who would like to remain anonymous for their contributions.