Graphical Representation

April 11, 2014 § Leave a comment

Visual communication predates writing…

Caves of Chauvet, Paleolithic Era Circa 35,000 b.C.

But together with writing it implies a degree of abstraction that both helps communicate and also think the world around us. On the Mayan Codex of Dresden we can see for example, side by side, columns of phonetic scripture and numeric representations in base five, which helps understand and signify the number « O » common in Mesoamerican carvings in the first century b.C, 1300 years before Arab mathematicians introduced it to Europe, in the 12c.

Mayan writings circa 8c, reproduced in the Codex Dresden circa 11c a.D.

Graphic representations and texts complement each other and serve a double purpose of thinking and communicating. Pythagoras theorem by Leonardo or Euclides’ Elements circa 300 b.C. offer a good example of the later, while the graphical representation of Orbis Terrarum in Medieval manuscripts illustrates the later.

Leonardo’s illustration of Pythagoras theorem

Oliver Byrne’s edition of Euclides’ Elements, London 1847

Orbis Tertius & Mare Oceanum

The idea that graphic representation needs to accurately depict the relative magnitudes of what it is representing is necessary for deriving conclusions and using them as a thinking devices, but not for telling a story as is the case of the schematic representation of Orbis Tertius.

William Playfair’s 1821 engraved charts of historically declining purchasing power in the UK, Florence Nightingale’s rose graphs showing poor living conditions of military barracks in 1855, and especially Charles Minard’s graphic representation of Napoleon’s Russian campaign of 1812 started a turning point in visual representation of statistical data.

Edward Tufte’s The visual display of quantitative information (1983), Envisioning information (1990) and Beautiful evidence (2006) are considered the start of its associated scholarly inquiry. The chapter entitled « Chartjunk » in Beautiful evidence is often used as a basis for workshops on «Power Point communication best practices » for example the one that Ray Lyons addressed to medical research professionals in Baltimore, MD on 2010: “Best Practices in Graphical Data Presentation.” Stephen Few wrote an interesting review of the state of the “Chartjunk debate” in 2011 for business professionals.

Often quoted sources are Howard Wainer Visual Revelations (1997)Graphic Discovery (2005) and Picturing the Uncertain World (2009); Dona Wong the WSJ Guide to Information Graphics (2010) and Stephen Few Now You See It (2009), Show me the Numbers (2012) and Information Dashboard Design (2013). In terms of a textbook with a systematic step by step overview of the discipline, my favorite is Ricardo Mazza’s Introduction to Information Visualization (2009). The discipline has grown significantly in recent times with research focusing on data mining and visual thinking of big data.


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