Periodic Table of Storytelling by *ComputerSherpa
Skeuomorphism continues to be a topic in IxD and web design circles. I think this merits revisiting the phenomenon, if only briefly, to discuss how it applies to visualization. In my previous article I defined the phenomenon thusly:
Skeuomorphism in its essence is a design cue or pattern that is nonessential for the functionality of a design. However, it is reminiscent of a former design, where it originally was essential.
Now, instead of furniture or web apps, I’d like to consider how such patterns translate into a visualization context. The example of the periodic table seems a great fit for a quick demonstration.
The structure and alignment of the elements in this periodic table about story tropes tells us nothing about their relation to each other. Both the position of the groups from and the position of the elements within each group are arbitrary. Hence the paradigm in which the information is arranged is nonfunctional when we compare it to the periodic table of elements. There we can infer the atomic number of elements from their position within the paradigm. The original table shows us the properties of chemical elements and the relations between those properties.
In our example about story tropes the structure is merely a decorative element. It is a lot of fun, though. The table has appeal that it would not have, were it not for the skeuomorphic reference to the iconic original.
Is it possible to make a functional appropriation of the periodic table? Alessio Corti says yes. There at least should be a periodic table of mathematical shapes. But that’s besides the point.
The lesson for visualization in its broad sense, encompassing data crunching as well as explanatory diagrams, is that even nonfunctional elements can be meaningful. They enrich the data with a frame of reference. You can communicate the atomic properties of narratives through the metaphor that the periodic table invokes. Create molecular narrative structures out of the elements. Thus, the decoration becomes a narrative of its own to guide your exploration of data.