Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Visual poetry and information graphics

Wind Map, by Fernanda Viegas and Martin Wattenberg (link)

Despite the title of my book, aesthetic sophistication is crucial in information graphics and visualization. In fact, some projects that I've seen in the past six months, which combine a clear sense of how to present stories and data with a deep care for elegance, have led me to believe that certain graphics —not necessarily algorithmic and generative art pieces— should be defined as visual poetry.

Watch the map above, by Fernanda Viegas and Marin Wattenberg. I don't even know why I should care about where or how strong the wind blows. But the sinuous lines, that reminded me of Vincent van Gogh, are soothing. Their appeal is emotional. They prime us to find out what data lie behind them. Their austere beauty prompts us to search for truth. See also Wattenberg's The Shape of Song:

As some recent and popular books have pointed out (1234...), brains cannot be rational without being emotional. This is not a new idea. Antonio Damasio made clear years ago (12), that reasoning is unlikely without feeling. Farewell, Mr. SpockDonald Norman brought this very simple fact to the practice of design in a famous book in which he explained why "attractive things (usually) work better":

"My studies of emotion (...) suggests that human attributes result from three different levels of brain mechanism: the automatic, prewired layer, the  visceral level; the part that  contains the brain processes that control everyday behavior, the behavioral level;  and the contemplative part of the brain, the reflective level. Each level plays a different role in the total functioning of people (and) requires a different style of design."

There's some Norman in The Functional Art. Even if I wrote that designers should think about accuracy, 
structure, narrative, depth, and functionality first, I also acknowledged that what you may call useless decoration, special effects, or visual styles that humanize abstract data may not be that useless sometimes. This is something I would like to study further in the future. Here are some semi-random, loosely related resources that I've been reviewing recently, in case you are interested:

Lev Manovich's definition of Info-Aesthetics
Andrew van DeMoere's papers
Understanding emotional design: origins, concepts, and implications
Aesthetics and Apparent Usability
Toward the study of aesthetics in information technology
What is beautiful is usable
Is Beautiful Usable, or Is It the Other Way Around?
Information technology and aesthetics: Passive and active dimensions
Engineering aesthetics and aesthetic ergonomics
The role of aesthetics in engineering
The need for aesthetics in civil engineering education
Aesthetic values in technology and engineering design 
The Engineer's Aesthetics–Interrelations Between Structural Engineering, Architecture and Art
Understanding the Link between Aesthetics and Engineering in Product Design

On visual poetry
Visual Poetry in the Avant Writing Collection
Austin Kleon's books

Infosthetics (quite obvious choice)
Creative Applications
This is Colossal
Visual Complexity