Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Musings on the modes of visualization design

When I finished writing How Charts Lie months ago I immediately began working on a new book; I'm co-writing with a friend and colleague. I always carry a notebook to scribble ideas, write reminders to myself, or just sketch things out, and the other day it occurred to me that it might be possible to envision the main modes of visualization design as a ternary chart:

I'm not sure about these terms or whether the diagram makes sense at all. These purposes a designer may have in mind aren't mutually exclusive, so they can't be defined as the opposite ends of a spectrum. Maybe a visualization can be conceptualized not by locating it as dot moving over those three axes, but by envisioning it as a triangle of varying size and shape. For instance, a visualization in which the designer emphasizes explanatory and emotional aspects—that's what I mean by “experiential”—would be described like this (this doesn't solve the challenge of the false opposites, though):

The corners of the diagram might also correspond to goals we seek: exploratory visualization favors efficiency to enable discovery; explanatory visualization needs to be understandable; experiential visualization elicits curiosity joy, worry, or outrage, which may lead to action:

None of this is very original. For instance, these days I'm re-reading Donald A. Norman's classic The Design of Everyday Things, and in its first pages there's this quote: “The major areas of design relevant to this book are industrial design, interaction design, and experience design. None of the fields is well defined, but the focus of the efforts does vary, with industrial designers emphasizing form and material, interactive designers emphasizing understandability and usability, and experience designers emphasizing the emotional impact.”

Also, Andy Kirk's Data Visualisation: A Handbook for Data Driven DesignI recently received its excellent second edition—lists three modes of experience when engaging with a visualization: explanatory, exhibitory, exploratory. Don't miss it: