Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Some notes on what "visualization" means

Robert Kosara has published a very generous review of The Functional Art. He mentions a conversation we had at the Malofiej Infographics Summit, in March. I told him my book was not specifically about "visualization". Robert replies: "I have no idea what he was talking about, the book I read was a visualization book from start to finish."

Robert's commentary made me think for a while this morning. I believe that what he wrote is accurate, but that it also depends on what you think (data) visualization really is. Take these two very famous definitions:

Stephen Few, in his excellent Data Visualization for Human Perception: "Data visualization is the graphical display of abstract information for two purposes: sense-making (also called data analysis) and communication."

The one in Shneiderman's (et al.) classic Readings in Information Visualization: "The use of computer-supported, interactive, visual representations of data to amplify cognition."

The Functional Art is about visualization only if we move away a bit from those. First of all, because I have not written only about visual displays of abstract information. There are plenty of examples of pictorial, descriptive, and explanatory infographics in the book.

Second, because I don't think visualization depends on computers, or that it needs to be interactive (in the sense of digital interaction; we interact with graphics even when they are printed on a page). I prefer Stephen Few's definition, but I usually drop the word "abstract" to refer to our field. For me, any graphical display of information designed for sense-making, exploration, analysis, and communication is a visualization. Moreover, I don't even see a clear boundary between data visualization and infographics; as I explain in the intro to the book, which you can download here, I believe that they are both part of a continuum. So when I told Robert that The Functional Art is not just about visualization I had Ben Shneiderman in mind, obviously.