Information Graphics: An Eclectic Celebration

Every decade, professionals interested in effective visual communication publish guidebooks for business people, computer and information-technology professionals, and others who have not been exposed to information design and information visualization.

Alas, usability professionals have had too little awareness of the usable, useful, and appealing books and publications in decades past.

Although many are familiar with Edward Tufte’s and Richard Saul Wurman’s publications about information graphics, many others provide valuable contributions. This romp through the decades seeks to bring to light treasures of the past.

What follows is an eclectic celebration of works published over the past eighty years on the topic of information graphics, or information visualization. I hope this review will awaken interest in the work of those who have gone before and inspire those who come next.

Compendia

Several authors have published massive encyclopedia of most forms of charts:

  • Perhaps the best known is the Semiology of Graphics by Bertin, which covers most possible means for showing information.
  • A similar compendium is the equally extensive Information Graphics by Harris, whose cramped pages are filled to the brim with small illustrations and detailed, but very brief, descriptions and explanations of most chart and diagram types.
  • At the other end of the spectrum is the massive Encyclopedia of Business Charts by Carlsen and Vest. This book presents one chart per page with only a brief one or two pages of text occasionally offering any description or design guidance.

While all of these documents are weighty and, therefore (perhaps) authoritative, they are not elegant. Nevertheless, the Bertin and Harris books especially deserve to be on a usability professional’s information design/visualization reference book shelf.

Some Oldies but Goodies

The best known efforts to inform the business world about the value of good information graphics are those of Otto Neurath and his associates in Vienna in the late 1920s, who promoted the use of pictographic charts. They were part of the Isotope movement, which attempted to design universally understandable pictographic signs, charts, and diagrams, and to educate the public about important national and world statistics. Examples of their distinctive pictograms appear in Figure 1.

pictoral signs

Figure 1. Examples of Isotype’s 4000 pictographic signs developed by the Isotype Group under the leadership of Otto Neurath in Vienna in the late 1920s and 1930s. These examples come from the Gerd Arntz website archive http://gertzantz.org. Arntz was the graphic designer whom Neurath comissioned to draw the icons. These images are used with the permission of the site for educational purposes.

Some other publications of note are Brinton’s Graphic Methods for Presenting Facts from 1920, which is primarily a textual exhortation to use charts, maps, and diagrams more effectively. The look of the text and images reveal its basis in the engineering world. Similar in nature from six decades later is Schmid and Schmid’s Handbook of Graphic Presentation. Like Brinton, the book has much text and also includes many basic, engineering-like illustrations. The audience for both books is engineering departments and business groups.

Goslin and Goslin’s Don’t Kill the Goose from 1939 is a lovely document. The book cover’s end-flap advises us that the Goslins have “specialized in devising new methods of presenting serious subjects in the belief that vividness, interest, and accurate analysis can go hand in hand.” The text of this book seeks to present information about the U.S. economy, production, consumption, markets, trends, and other key indicators for the interest of both producers and consumers. Throughout the book, thirty-nine Isotype-influenced charts, some of them full-paged, illustrate the key ideas of the text. This attempt to educate business professionals and the general public has its precedents in the publications of the U.S. Census Bureau in earlier decades, and even centuries.

Informing Ourselves, Informing Others

Helping others, or ourselves, to make better decisions has been a challenge since people came together socially for commerce, protection, and action. Naturally, governments have sought to inform their leaders and, in some circumstances, the community at large.

An unusually interesting example of such publications for the benefit of the public was the monthly chart book of social and economic trends, STATUS (U.S. Department of Commerce), which was published in the mid-1970s. After the rise of computer graphics display, it was possible to transform data with significantly less effort into charts, maps, and diagrams. At that time, many documents were prepared for then U.S. Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, who was dyslexic. Because of this condition, computer-based charts and diagrams were especially useful for reporting information to him. To my understanding, the producers decided to re-use the documents in a public document; hence STATUS was born. The monthly publication contained rather well-designed, large (sometimes one per 8.5 x 11 page), multi-color line charts, bar charts, area choropleth maps, etc. for most major indicators of the economy (see Figure 2). Alas, with the change of government in 1976, the publication came to an untimely demise.

chartbook cover and graphs

Figure 2. Cover and sample page from September 1976 issue of STATUS, a monthly chart book of social and economic trends. The U.S. Federal Statistical System compiled this publication, which was an early adopter of new computer graphic technique to generate data displays. These were, in turn, used as a basis for print-quality graphics. Data source: U.S. Census Bureau.

This publication was an example of the ferment and innovation taking place with the spread of computer graphics display technology. For example, Chernoff faces, which presented data in the form of varying human faces, were invented around this time.

Another example of the era is the U.S. Department of Labor’s chart book U.S. Working Women. Significantly, the charts contain lengthy titles at the top of the page that make clear the data elements and a secondary text at the bottom of the page that explains the significance of the chart. For example, one chart consisting of four very large, segmented, 100 percent bar charts is titled “Women in the labor force by age and years of school completed, March 1974,” with an explanation, “Young women workers have had more formal education than their older counterparts.” These publications signaled major innovation and progress in providing information visually to the general public.

Guidelines and Recommendations

People in different areas of business and professional practice have often needed “how to” guidelines and recommendations. Many such documents have appeared throughout the past four decades, although not all are well known.

One of the first was William Bowman’s excellent, but long out-of-print Graphic Communication. This document, the pages of which were half text, half illustration, covered a wide range of visual communication techniques, including technical illustration, charts, maps, and diagrams. The text was erudite, articulate, and informative. The illustrations, many of them simple manual drawings, were elegant and effective.

A little known book is the attractively designed and reasonably well-illustrated Handbook of Basic Graphs: A Modern Approach, by Cecil H. Myers of the University of Minnesota, Duluth, published in 1970. The subject was strictly charts, including, for example, forty pages on line charts. The book’s layout uses a wide column, flush left, ragged right Times Roman text, which is very simple, elegant, and readable. The illustrations are engineering chart images, but they are quiet and effectively displayed.

In 1979, A. Jean MacGregor published a very brief, but simple and effective guide for use within the University of Toronto, which found interested readers elsewhere. Her illustrations are minimal, elegant, and powerful. As she says in the introduction, “Five simple one-idea illustrations in a series are more easily understood than one which is over-crowded and hard to read…[The book] is intended to provide the information needed about when to use and how to design charges and graphs, how to achieve legibility, how to prepare graphics for specific media, and how to use various types of graphic aids to make the job easier. While it is directed to the teacher or scientist who must prepare [one’s] own teaching material, [the author hopes] that professional artists or photographers will also find it useful.”

Anders Vinberg and Alan Paller of Integrated Software Systems Corporation (ISSCO) were familiar proponents of good chart design in the business graphics world of the early 1980s and into the early ’90s. They published two lengthy brochures on designing good charts that educated, trained, and motivated many business people starting in the world of presentations, data mining, executive information systems, and other computer-graphics facilitated displays. Their texts went beyond simple how-to-use the software tools. They reached into subjects of right-brain thinking, graphic design, and communication effectiveness. One notable ISSCO demonstration was how one could manipulate graphics for different rhetorical purposes using the same data, for example, to minimize sales slowdowns to stockholder meetings, or to maximize sales achievements to prospective customers. While the text and illustration layout were far from “graphic designer friendly,” they nevertheless presented important considerations for anyone designing information graphics.

A later example of exuberance people felt about chart, map, and diagram design is found in the early 1984 guidebook by Nigel Holmes, then an influential graphic designer at Time magazine. Within its pages appear almost every form of illustrated bar chart, “fever” chart, pie chart, and table. Years later, Holmes repudiated his earlier approach and mentioned that too many younger graphic design professionals were being influenced by this book and his work. He lamented that they were designing charts that might look intriguing but conveyed little or no semantics.

Another of the early proponents of better business graphics was Irwin M. Jarrett, who produced several books, papers, and presentations on his own unique designs for financial charts.

More recently, Stephen Few, from Perceptual Edge, took up the role of educator, gentle gadfly, and promoter of better tables, charts, and diagrams. His two books are good introductions that survey the field. His older and more fundamental book Show Me the Numbers, is a “practical and commonsense guide” that one can use in business. Note the focus on business, as opposed to scientific/technical, academic, consumer, design, and other specialized realms. The bottom line, appropriately, is that “more skilled presentation of information will help you and your business to prosper.” The second book, Information Dashboard Design, takes us to the next level of “executive information systems.” Today, the challenge is to assemble dashboards that can give people insight into key structures and processes of business.

Falsity, Truth, and History

I cannot conclude without at least a passing reference to Huff’s classic How to Lie with Statistics. The author uses text and some cartoons to warn the reader about worthless or meaningless statistics masquerading as facts, and the tell-tale signs for recognizing them. How much more dangerous is it with visual forms of statistics such as tables, forms, charts, maps, and diagrams? It is so much easier to “pull the wool” over one’s eyes. For this reason, one must be especially cautious about misleading viewers through even well-intentioned graphics that nevertheless do a disservice to the reader.

Most commentators on information graphics do not dwell on history, but many interesting tales link these visual forms to the march of events and people in many countries and civilizations. Among those of note is Howard Wainer’s 1997 treatise Visual Revelations, subtitled “Graphical Tales of Fate and Deception from Napoleon Bonaparte to Ross Perot.” Some may remember Ross Perot, a presidential candidate in 1992, who was famous for many things, but here for using charts to illustrate his points. He did not succeed in winning the election, but his charts remained as a discussion item at the time and since then. They were not particularly well-designed or informative, but succeeded in capturing public interest. Wainer rails against the misuse of charts when tables or simple sentences suffice. He concludes with cautions about overheads and PowerPoint presentations, which have been condemned, somewhat hyperbolically and rhetorically, by Tufte in his essay “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching out Corrupts Within.”

Conclusions

Most of these publications devote themselves to practical insights and powerful presentation of content. One component of the information visualization development process that tends to be overlooked is evaluation. Almost all of the references cited could benefit by more pages devoted to the techniques of focus groups, heuristic evaluations, expert evaluations, testing, questionnaires, ethnographic studies, and other means to understand what viewers of information need and want, and how to determine their reactions to the designs that are presented to them. Members of the Usability Professionals Association have much to contribute here.

We are certainly able to find more awareness and more sources of detailed training, even education, than decades earlier. Just in time, too. The rise of the Internet and social networking means that graphics are circulated and swapped among professional designers and non-designers frequently. Now, more than ever, both producers and consumers need all the help they can get to identify and select good information graphics. Let us remember, and celebrate, the achievements of those who have walked this path before.

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