Aspiring polymath since 1982

A New Visual Grammar

One topic that I’ve followed quite regularly since I became aware of it is information visualization. My first brush with this field was through Edward Tufte’s website and specifically the page where he analyzes the visualization created by noted French statistician Charles Joseph Minard to represent Napoleon’s failed invasion of Russia. The visualization is shown below. To say that it left an indelible imprint on my mind would be an understatement.


(click through to go to Wikipedia page with more information on the graphic)

From Edward Tufte’s book “Envisioning Information” to the work of Casey Reas, Ben Fry and others, a little knowledge of Processing NodeBox GraphViz and a lot of respect for late 19th century statisticians such as Francis Galton, William Playfair, William Farr and Charles Snow who set the first standards for the visualization of information.

For me, language is a graphical idea expressed through voice. When I have a conversation, my brain is working rapidly to convert the auditory information its receiving into visual representations. Gossip about someone’s sexual peccadilloes is transformed into a luridly lit soft-core set, the word Apple conjures about dual images of the fruit in question as well as the company.

Therefore its been kind of surprising as well as mystifying that the visual acuity of my brain slows to a crawl when represented with a visual representation of some information. Seconds are spent in resolving squiggles, whorls and spirals into a whole in my mind.

Then the brain zooms into the finer details. Sampling pieces of information from different sectors, analyzing it to arrive at an assumption regarding what is being represented visually. More seconds spent in validating the assumption in other sectors of the diagram before the brain signs off with a pithy response regarding the purpose of the visualization and the data encoded in.

Slightly difficult, time-consuming and rarely satisfying. I usually do a circuit of the main information visualization blogs once a month or so. After the initial euphoria of coming across interesting topics, I find my interest slowly dwindling.

Seeing a visualization, understanding its purpose, admiring the cogent coding of data that has gone into it and the warm feeling of clarity that I get at the end of it, has unfortunately, become few and far between.

It could be the general fatigue that sets in after hearing and seeing a little too much about Social Media and Web 2.0, as most information visualization blogs seem to focus more and more on these topics now.

It could also be (and this is where the topic of my post really starts) that there isn’t a visual grammar for information visualization that we as laymen can access. (See Leland Wilkinson’s “A Grammar for Graphics” for grammar created to meet a practitioner’s needs)

A grammar that clearly sets the syntax, morphology and the semantics of visual representation out into the open for clearer public access, understanding and debate.

The reason why the verbal communication of ideas between people is easy is because of the presence of a grammar for the language used for such communication. There are little, if any, ambiguities about the meanings of words used in the conversation, and the meaning of the conversation when the words are combined together.

Maybe, information visualization is an emerging field. Maybe it still has to resolve its purpose and efficacy. Maybe, like most other grammars, there is a latent one that is being evolved at through Darwinian natural selection. Let’s hope that there is, because accessible information visualization has the power to make abstract topics lucidly clear, to reduce ambiguities in interpretation and to introduce a new manner of cognition in our daily lives.

It would be unfair to leave without the proverbial wash-basin of links related to information visualization at you lovely people out there. So here goes:

Collection of links
175+ Data and Information Visualization Examples and Resources
Data Visualisation Blogs You Might Not Know About

Examples of Information Visualization
Visual Complexity
Simple Complexity
Flowing Data
Information Aesthetics

Good blog posts
Reading with Edward Tufte
Kottke’s collection of Infoviz-tagged posts
The Data Artist

I’ll keep updating this post with good posts and links on information visualization I come across. Will also help me in collating all of them into a central repository of a kind.

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