Thursday, September 12, 2013

Ben Shneiderman's Mondrianesque data art

Many infographics designers have a remarkable artistic side. Michigan State's Karl Gude is well known for his numerous drawing tutorials on Youtube; folks like Fernando Baptista, Juan Velasco, and Brian Christie are accomplished painters and sculptors; John Grimwade doesn't just craft pictograms and explanation graphics; NYT's Xaquín GV is a true chef (cooking is an art.) I could even mention myself, at least in the past —well, nowadays I still yield sometimes to the requests of my kid, and agree to draw a cartoon character, a superhero, or Halo's Master Chief (this one's a copy. I don't draw as a hobby, so my skills have turned very rusty.)

Data visualization designers and academics seem to share a passion for art, as well. Visit websites such as This is Colossal and Creative Applications and you'll meet plenty of of people who visually represent data not just to reveal, explore, and gain insights, but to express themselves. The latest example is Ben Shneiderman's series of artistic treemaps.

Shneiderman, a professor of Computer Science at the University of Maryland, is better known in the visualization community as the author of many relevant academic papers and books on graphicshuman-computer interaction, and digital technology in general. He was also the co-editor of the classic Readings in Information Visualization. Now, he has decided to explore the aesthetics of treemaps —a graphic form that he invented— in a series of algorithmically generated displays (24 x 36 inches) which are currently hanged "on the walls in the University of Maryland Computer Science Instructional Center."

 Here's how Shneiderman explains the project:

"Although I conceived treemaps for purely functional purposes (understanding the allocation of space on a hard drive), I was always aware that there were appealing aesthetic aspects to treemaps. Maybe my experiences with OP-ART movements of the 60s & 70s gave me the idea that a treemap might become a work of art. (…) Colored rectangular regions have been a popular theme in 20th century art, most notably in the work of Piet Mondrian, whose work was often suggested to have close affinity with treemaps. Not all his designs are treemaps, but many are. His choice of colors, aspect ratios, and layout are distinctive, so simulating them with a treemap is not as trivial as you might think."

To learn more: Project description • Drafts • Project flyer • Full views